A ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’: the selling of ‘ladies tormentors in late Victorian London

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The Marlborough Street Police court dock was pretty crowded on the last day of May 1887. William Waller, William Bryan, Margaret Loosley, John Dean, William Smith, John Coleman, John Reardon, Michael Donnellan, Samuel Maidwell and Thomas Gambier all started up at Mr Mansfield as he listened to the evidence against them.

They had been rounded up by the police and charged with selling ‘squirts’ and ‘thus enabling persons to commit assaults’. The prosecution was brought individually, as they had all been involved but in different places. A Mr Alsop said that he had first complained about the problem but the law was unclear on whether their activities were prescribed or not.

He clearly wanted something done about the ‘squirt nuisance’, but what was it? It seems that the men and women were selling what we would describe as water pistols but these were filled with something unpleasant, not necessarily dangerous, but a liquid that stained or had a very bad smell. The Times described it (in 1876) as ‘a peculiarly abominable scent’1and the pistols sold as ‘ladies tormentors’.

After similar complaints by residents the police had posted up notices prohibiting the sale of such ‘weapons’ but the accused had ignored them. The previous night had seen London’s parks lit up by illuminations and this had drawn crowds on to the streets. Crowds brought mischief and opportunities to sell ‘squirts’ and occasioned this mass occupation of the Marlborough Street dock.

The magistrate agreed that the use of squirts was a ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’ but he wasn’t clear that any law had been broken by selling them. It wasn’t as if they were lethal weapons – like guns – which already had restrictions on their sale.  It was, he said, akin to the school playground where things were commonly thrown around but not intended to cause real harm. An educated man, he regaled the court with the history of the carnival in Rome where ‘bon-bonsetc, were thrown at passers-by’.

He was sure the police were right in trying to suppress the problem but until the legislature acted to prohibit it there was very little he could do to stop it and punish anyone for selling squirts. If, however, those using them were brought before him he would do his utmost to punish them as the law allowed. So the crowded dock was cleared and the squirt sellers dismissed.

1 The Times 1879 from a tweet by Lee Jackson, [24/5/16]

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 01, 1880]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

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