A warning: if you have a sense of fair play and justice this may annoy you.

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Lewis Wills was a respectable small businessman who ran a trimming workshop in Mile End. At premises in Raven Row he employed a large number of women  who undertook piece work there and from home. One of these women was Mrs Emma Davis and on the 22 December 1847 she had an unfortunate meeting with her employer.

Emma and her husband, like many in the East End, were poor and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on what ever the pair of them could bring in by working every possible hour and hope it was enough to meet the rent, feed their children, and heat their rooms. Winter was always harder and in the run up to Christmas Richard Davis was unemployed.

Richard was no slouch however and (as Norman Tebbit would have no doubt approved) he got on his metaphorical ‘bike’ and traveled to Southampton to look for work. Meanwhile Emma continued to take in trimming work to keep the family solvent. One of the advantages she had enjoyed was that Mr Wills was generous enough to advance money to his workers, to help them meet their obligations to landlords and local shopkeepers.

As a result Emma, and others in the workshop, were literally indebted to him. Sadly, surrounded by young women this proved quite a temptation to Wills, and one he could not resist. On the 22nd Emma came to him to ask for the advance of a shilling against her wages.

Knowing her husband was away Wills decided to turn this encounter to his advantage and he suggested to Emma that if she was willing to allow him to take what she described as ‘improper liberties’ with her he would lend her a half sovereign. Emma was deeply shocked and offended, especially when Wills pressed his case and grabbed hold of her. She had been propositioned and sexually assaulted by her employer and she ran home as fast as she could.

When her husband came back she told him and he was furious, wanting to press charges against Wills but Emma was cautious. She still owed him money and had work to complete; she was worried she’d lose her job and then how would they cope. Richard went to see Wills and remonstrated with him but the man denied doing anything and sent him away. Emma decided to go and see Mrs Wills, to plead with her woman to woman but at first she was prevented from doing so by the trimmings manufacturer and then, when she did finally see her, she was dismissed out of hand. Wills had got to his wife first and warned her that a hysterical woman was about to make false accusations against him.

Unless the couple formally went to law they were unlikely to get any justice from the situation. So in January, when all the work was completed and no debts were owing, Richard applied for a warrant to bring Lewis Wills before the magistrate at Thames Police court. To get such a warrnat the case was recounted to Mr Yardley (the magistrate on duty) and Wills was defended by his lawyer, Mr Pelham.

Pelham went on the attack demanding to know why it had taken so long to bring his client to court. Emma and Richard explained (as detailed above) but it fell on deaf ears. The lawyer rejected the suggestion that Wills effectively exploited his female workforce for sexual favours by inveigling them into his debt and dismissed Emma’s testimony as nonsense.

Then Emma produced another worker, this time a much younger girl, who was being led to the witness box to support a claim that Wills’ predatory sexual behavior was widespread when Mr Yardley stopped her. He said ‘the girl would not assist the case, and he refused to examine her. It was quite impossible’, he added, ‘to trust to the evidence’. As far as he was concerned Richard Davis was at fault here: he should have brought the case immediately and implied that he’d only done so when Wills had refused his wife any more work.

Thus in his view this was a malicious prosecution and he dismissed it.

Emma and Richard left court without ever being able to bring her abuser to a public hearing to defend himself. That was exactly what his lawyer intended and in this he had the full cooperation of the magistrate, a man drawn from a similar social class. The court was in effect deciding, without a ‘trial’, that such a person could not be deemed to have done such a thing and that, therefore, Emma was a liar.

This was a crushing defeat for the Davis family and probably meant that Emma would have to seek work elsewhere, but with all local businessmen knowing she was marked out as a ‘troublemaker’. In the meantime a ‘sex pest’ was free to exploit and abuse his small army of female   workers, who were made even more vulnerable by the failure of the law to protect one of their own. This kind of behaviour has recently been called out by the ‘MeToo’ movement but it is nothing new of course, and men like Wills continue to take advantage of the power they have over vulnerable women.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 19, 1848]

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