In the early modern period the Church (consistory) courts were sometimes used to prosecute individuals for defamation. Tim Meldrum (who taught me when I was an undergraduate) discussed how the London consistory courts were used by women who wanted to defend themselves against accusations of sexual misconduct – the oft heard cries of ‘whore!’ By the eighteenth century libels such as this were being dealt with by the magistracy within a wider application of the laws surrounding assault. Assault, which we normally associate with violence, could also involve threats and words deemed to cause an offence.
There is a kind of logic here: insults and attacks on the character of individuals undermined good social relations and it was the key role of the magistrate in the long eighteenth century to preserve the peace within society. Libel is often deemed to be more serious because it usually involves written statements of defamation. In the late 1800s it carried the possibility of a hefty fine or imprisonment by default and so we are more likely to find these cases at the Old Bailey or pursued privately through the civil courts if the plaintiffs had the money to do so.
In 1878 Robert John Pitt placed an advertisement in the papers for a nurse. Pitt was an agent (we don’t know in what business) operating out of premises in Bread Street in the City of London. John Minton, a schoolmaster, saw the advert and called at the address listed to say that he knew of a suitable candidate for the post.
The young woman in question lived in Wales but was keen to come to the capital. The reason she was so eager to come it seems, was because she and Minton were in a relationship. Whether this was made clear to Mr Pitt at the time is unknown.
The woman was taken on but very soon dismissed on the grounds, Pitt said, that she ‘was not at all what he expected’. Pitt complained to Minton that:
‘she was dirty in her habits, and he asked her to remonstrate with her’.
She emerged in a hearing at the Mansion House Police court in April 1883, where it was reported in The Standard. The case was presented by Mr Nicholls, a lawyer engaged on behalf of Mr Pitt. The Lord Mayor was in the chair and he made it clear that it wasn’t his role to judge the case, simply to determine whether a libel had occurred and so the charge should be passed to be heard by a jury.
Following the dismissal of the unnamed Welsh girl from the Pitt household nothing had been heard from Minton or the woman Mr Nicholls told the court. Then, in late 1882 a number of letters began to arrive in Bread Street. These affected ‘the character of himself and his wife’ and at first he simply burned them.
When they started to become more frequent he took it more seriously and kept them. The letters contained statements that could not be repeated in court, the lawyer declared, so we might assume the language used was defamatory or the accusations made scandalous. The reading public probably did want to know but, like us, they were kept in the dark to preserve public decency and the good name of Mr Pitt and his spouse.
Mr Pitt appeared and proved the receipt of the letters by producing some of them in court. The case was serious enough for the police to pursue it and detective-sergeant Brett testified that he had been despatched to Wales to arrest Minton and bring him to London. He’d served a warrant on him at West Street, Pembroke Dock on the previous Wednesday and he had accompanied him back to the capital, he now produced him before the Lord Mayor.
Minton had come quietly and happily stating:
‘Yes, I have been expected this; I have the whole of my defence ready. I will fight it out, as they have treated my young lady shamefully’, adding, ‘I do not wish to evade the matter, two of the letters are signed in my own name’.
The nurse, it was revealed, was now Mrs Minton. The case was adjourned until the following week while the Lord Mayor considered what he’d heard. A week later Minton was back up before the Lord Mayor and a handwriting expert confirmed that the letters and postcards sent were written by the schoolmaster. After a lengthy cross-examination of the witnesses involved the Lord Mayor decided there was enough evidence to send this for a formal trial and committed Minton but bailed him on his own recognizances of £40.
He appeared at the Old Bailey on the 30 April that year where he pleaded guilty to libelling MRs Elizabeth Pitt. He was sent to prison for a month, fined £30 and ordered to enter into recognizances (of a further £30) not to repeat the offence again. Imprisonment must had meant that he too would lose his job, and his reputation – important for even a lowly schoolmaster – so the future for this married couple must have been an uncertain one. One does wonder what exactly he wrote about Mrs Pitt and what his future wife’s experience was of working there. What exactly were the ‘dirty habits’ that the Pitts complained of? Sadly, since he pleaded guilty and no details were therefore given in court, we can only imagine.
[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1883; The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1883]