On 27 October 1863 a ‘well-dressed’ man, who gave his name as Thomas Martin, appeared in the dock at Southwark Police court accused of molesting a child. Well that is how I think we would see the case today but in 1863 the law was a little different.
For a start the age of consent was 13. It was not raised to 16 until 1885 following a long campaign and a sensational intervention by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William Stead. Stead had run a weeklong exposé of the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution under the headline ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. While Stead ended up going to prison for his part in the ‘kidnapping’ of Eliza Armstrong the scandal of the case helped force Parliament to pass legislation which has existed to this day.
The complaint against Thomas Martin was brought by a spirited young girl called Martha Wells. Martha was aged between 12 and 13 and described by the newspaper writer as ‘rather precocious looking’. This was probably an attempt to undermine her testimony; the hack was perhaps suggesting that she was bringing a spurious complaint against a social superior. The girl could certainly expect to be closely examined by the magistrate, Mr Combe, no concessions being made to her age or her gender.
Martha said that she had left her father’s house in Southwark to visit her uncle in Greenwich. A man had ‘annoyed’ her on the train to Greenwich but she did her best to ignore him. In court she wasn’t sure that it was Martin but he looked familiar.
After she arrived at her uncle’s shop (he was a fruiterer) she noticed a man outside peering in through the window. He was looking directly at her and indicted she should come out to talk to him. That man was Martin and she ignored his request.
At eight in the evening she left her uncle’s and made her way back to the station for the train home. As she walked Martin accosted her. She told him to go away but he followed her. She boarded the train and he entered the same carriage and sat next to her. Martha again tried ignoring him and steadfastly looked out of the window as the train made its way to London.
Now Martin had her close to him he made his assault. He put his hand on her leg and then slipped it up her skirts. The magistrate wanted to know if anyone else was in the carriage who might be able to confirm this.
‘Yes, sir’, Martha told him. ‘I think a lady and a gentleman. I was, however, ashamed to speak to them’.
She had at least one ally in court who was able to testify to Martin’s behavior. PC Alfred White (427P) was on duty on Southwark High Street that evening. When Martha left the train Martin again pursued her and the policeman saw him tap the girl on the back and then lift her skirts.
That was enough evidence for Mr Combe. He committed Martin for trial but agreed to bail, taking two sureties of £100 and one from Martin (for £200). The battle would now be to actually bring the man before a jury when the girl’s father might have preferred to take a cash settlement and avoid his daughter’s reputation being dragged through the courts.
Martin was brought to the Surrey sessions of the peace in mid November, surrendering to his bail. The case against him was outlined and his brief did his best to undermine Martha and the policeman’s evidence. The jury was told that Martin could not have been the man that hassled and insulted Martha on the train to Greenwich or outside her uncle’s shop as he was at work in the City until 5 o’clock. Moreover if he had assaulted her on the rain as she’d suggested why hadn’t she alerted the other passengers or the guard?
PC White reiterated the evidence he’d given at the Police Court hearing adding that when he had arrested Martin the man had attempted to bribe him. ‘For God’s sake let us compromise this affair’, he said; ‘if £50 will do it?’. The officer had been in plain clothes having been on duty at the Crystal palace during the day. Whether this hurt his credibility or not is unclear but the jury close not to believe him.
In the end the jurors acquitted Thomas Martin of the charge of indecent assault and he walked free from court with the applause of his friends being hurriedly suppressed by the court’s officers. It was a victory for middle-class respectability over a ‘precocious’ working-class girl who travelled third class on the railway. The jurors saw themselves in Martin’s situation rather than seeing their daughter in Martha’s.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 28, 1863; The Standard, Tuesday, November 17, 1863]