‘MeToo’ in the 1870s as some brave young women fight back

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The MeToo movement in the US and over here has helped expose the widespread exploitation of power by men for their own sexual gratification. Several prominent female actors have testified to being sexually assaulted or otherwise manipulated into performing sex acts by men who had the power and influence to further, or finish, their careers.

It took considerable courage for the survivors of these attacks to speak out and help bring their abusers to court. Victims are not always listened to, even today, and we did see instances where victims were effectively abused again, notably by the incumbent president of the United States, simply for daring to speak truth to power.

Given how difficult it remains for women to bring accusations against men for sexual abuse in the twenty-first century one wonders just how easy it was 150 or more years ago?

Victorian Britain was a much less female friendly society after all. It was a male dominated society where women did not only lack the right to vote, they lacked pretty much any rights at all. There were no female judges or magistrates, no policewomen, women were expected to look after children and the home, obey their husbands and fathers. They earned a lot less than men, were not allowed to study at university, and not encouraged to study at all. Queen Victoria was an exception in being a woman who held power (or sorts) and even she deferred to her husband in domestic matters.

So the young women that worked for Messrs. Fourdrinier and Hunt at their paperhanging works on Southwark Bridge Road deserve a mention this morning. In August 1875 James Fellows, a 34 year-old employee of the firm, was brought before Mr Benson at the Southwark Police court. He was accused of ‘disgraceful conduct towards several young girls’ working at the paperhangers.

Just what that ‘disgraceful conduct’ was soon became clear as a number of the women testified in court. Alice Page was just 16 and still lived at home with he parents. She worked making paper collars for Fourdrinier & Hunt’s in the same building as Fellows. She was working on her own on the previous Wednesday when Fellows came into the workshop and exposed himself. He did it again on Saturday and she informed her foreman.

I think we sometimes used to consider ‘flashers’ as a ‘bit of a laugh’; they featured in 70s comedy routines and perhaps weren’t taken that seriously. But Fellows was an active ‘sex pest’ using his position, as a male employee in a firm full of female workers, to gratify his own sexual urges at the expenses of his co-workers. His abuse did not end with ‘flashing’ either.

Alice Gillings told the magistrate that on the previous Saturday Fellows had entered the room where she worked and had thrown her down and sexually assaulted her. Caroline Smith had seen what happened to Gittings and rushed over to help. She scratched the man’s face in the process. Alice then managed to get away from Fellows, slapping his face and pushing him off, and told the foreman. Sadly, he did nothing about it.

Other girls had complained of Fellows’ conduct but were too ‘ashamed to tell it’ in court. Sexual predators and abuser like Fellows often rely on the silence of victims too scared or embarrassed to speak of what had happened to them. Just as in the MeToo movement it took a handful of brave survivors to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unfortunately in this case they had left it a bit too late. Mr Benson was disgusted by Fellows’ behaviour but since it had been over a week since the alleged attack on Alice Gillings he could not proceed with that charge. He reprimanded the foreman, James Collier, telling him that he should have sacked Fellows straight away after the first offence was reported saying that ‘he should not have remained in the place an hour’.

The indecent exposure had only been seen by Alice Page and he could not simply take her word for it uncorroborated. He suggested that the firm terminate his employment and ordered Fellows to enter into recognizances against his future behaviour for 12 months. It was a limited victory for the women at the paperhangers and hopefully prevented others from being victims of Fellows in the near future. It is deeply depressing to know that similar and worse episodes of male sexual violence and exploitation are still occurring in our ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ society.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 15, 1875]

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