A close encounter on Holborn Hill: two young women have a narrow escape

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Holborn in the mid Victorian period 

This blog has noted before that violence towards women was endemic in the Victorian age. The court reports are full of husbands and partners hitting, stabbing, burning, and otherwise beating their wives and lovers, and casual violence towards women in the streets is also a reality of daily life in the nineteenth-century city.

None of this should come as a surprise of course; violence towards women remains a serious social problem alongside the sexual abuse that has precipitated the Me Too movement in recent years. Some men it seems believe they have a ‘God given’ right to abuse women or, at the very least, to treat them as inferiors. I place ‘God given’ in inverted commas but note that it is the great religious texts that created the idea that women are in some way second-class citizens under a system of male domination. I don’t necessarily believe that religion is ‘bad’ but this element of religion continues to provide an excuse for discrimination and violence.

In 1855 two sisters were walking through Holborn and got lost. It was late and as they wandered the streets they saw a man standing on Red Lion Street and asked him the way to Haverstock Hill. He agreed to show them and they set off together.

The man was well dressed, gave his name as Thomas Reddington, a jeweler, and so they had no fears about walking with him. At some point one of the sisters, Mary McKay, said felt tired and needed to rest. Reddington said he had rooms nearby in Holborn Chambers and she was welcome to sit down their for a while before continuing her journey. The women agreed and followed the jeweler to a building in Union Court on Holborn Hill.

These rooms were not lawyers chambers however, they were quite ‘low and dirty’ and the women immediately felt uncomfortable there. The elder sister (Susan Hale, who was married) complained and said they should leave and was about to go when the man seized her and punched her in the face. Shocked she grabbed her sister and they ran out. They soon found a policeman on Holborn Hill and told him what had happened. PC Swinscoe (Sity 216) said he found Reddington at ‘an ice shop’ near Union Court and arrested him based on the women’s description.

The case came up before Mr Corrie at Clerkenwell Police court and one the face of it was a fairly straightforward incident of assault, perhaps with a darker sexual motive. Reddington’s key defense was that he was drunk at the time. ‘I’d been drinking all day long’ he told the magistrate, as if that was justification of his actions.

Incredibly, Mr Corrie seems to have taken this as mitigation and turned his ire on the young women, especially on Susan Hale as she was married. He told she had ‘acted most indiscreetly in accompanying a complete stranger into a house, even if what he represented to them was true, that he had chambers there’.

He ascertained that Reddington earned 30s a week and because the offence was serious he fined him £3. Reddington didn’t have the money (presumably because he’d drunk it all away) so he was sent to gaol for three months. The ‘young ladies quickly left the court’ chastened no doubt both by their narrow escape from a possible worse crime and the rebuke they had received from the magistrate. This was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a rape victim being told that her choice of clothing was to blame for the assault she suffered. Corrie may have been punishing the drunken jeweler but he was asserting the dominance of the patriarchy as he did so.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 04, 1855]

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 on Amazon here

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