Libel and crim.con as the ‘better sort’ are dragged through the Police Courts

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Sir Albert de Rutzen

Most of those appearing before the police magistrates of London were members of the working class. The vast majority were being prosecuted for all manner of petty and not so petty forms of crime and violence. When the more ‘respectable’ middle classes appeared it was usually as witnesses or victims (although there were plenty of these from the lower order as well – especially women) and the very wealthy rarely feature in the newspapers reports. T

here were exceptions however.

Crime was big news in the Victorian press and the daily ‘doings’ of the police courts are testament to the popularity of this amongst the reading public, of all classes it should be said. Alongside the police court news and the more sensational ‘murder news’ were the reports of adultery served up as scandal for public consumption. ‘Criminal conservation (or ‘crim. con’) cases offered readers a peep into the bedrooms of the rich and famous. This was where the ‘better sorts’ made the pages of the newspapers for reasons they would rather have kept to themselves.

Often linked eventually to divorce, crim.con proceedings were a legal procedure  whereby one man sued another for having an affair with his wife (on the basis that he could claim financial damages, as his wife was his property).

In February 1886 two wealthy individuals appeared at Marylebone Police court represented by their lawyers. Mr St. John Wontner was there to defend his client, Robert Bailey, against a charge of libelling the elaborately entitled Charles V. J. Frieden de Friedland and for assaulting him at the theatre.

The reporter is fairly careful to skirt around the issue at the centre of this case; namely that both men appear to have been having a relationship with the same woman, a woman that neither of them was married to. Her name was Mrs Astay and it isn’t clear whether she was married or a widow.

The magistrate, Sir Albert De Rutzen, was at pains to try and keep any of the details behind the libel accusation  out of his courtroom but, since some evidence had to be offered (so a formal committal could be made),  this was fairly difficult and ultimately impossible.

Prosecuting, Mr Lickfold explained that his client was a member of the Supper Club which had a premises in Paris and at Langham Place in London. Mr de Friedland was staying in London and had been receiving ‘communications’ from Mr Bailey.

These were quite unpleasant and contained ‘threats , and were written in a language quite unfit for publication’. Bailey and de Friedland had then met at the Alhambra in Leicester Square where they had argued.

Bailey had, he alleged:

‘knocked the Complainant’s hat of and abused him. In fact the conduct of the Defendant had been so bad that, unless restrained, the Complainant’s life would be insufferable’.

Wontner now cross-examined and this is where some of the detail that the magistrate presumably wished to keep hidden began to seep out. The readers would be able (as you will be) to fill in the gaps and make a judgement on what de Friedland had been up to and what sort of a man he really was.

De Friesland said he was a director of the Supper Club which was a respectable establishment and not a gaming club (as the lawyer must have suggested). He admitted that ‘baccarat was played there’ but refuted allegations of gambling. He admitted as well to being married, and that his wife lived in Paris but he wasn’t (as was suggested) in the middle of divorce proceedings with her. He also admitted knowing and visiting a ‘Mrs Astay’, but ‘refused to say whether he had been intimate with her’. He added that Bailey had been intimate with the woman, a libel itself if not true.

Mr Lickfold objected to his opposite number’s line of questioning but Wontner contended that his client’s defence in court would be that he was provoked and that he would counter sue de Friedland for libelling him. As such it was necessary to set his stall out at this stage.

The magistrate was not happy with this and told the defence lawyer to keep his defence for the senior court trial. He heard from several witnesses who confirmed seeing the trail of letters and cards sent to the complainant and fully committed Bailey for trial. He then bailed him on his own recognisances of £100 – a considerable sum – demonstrating the wealth associated with these two protagonists.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 25, 1886]

Sir Albert de Rutzen died in 1913 at the age of 84. An obituary noted ‘his patience and gentleness alike with the highest of criminals and the Suffragettes, with whom he had to deal of late, were remarkable’. 

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