On 7 March 1887 the readers of the ‘occasional notes’ section of the Pall Mall Gazette were introduced to the ‘wickedest woman in London’, an epithet bestowed on a colourful character who went by several names. In the article she is referred to as Lily Cohen but also ‘Tottie Fay, Lilian Rothschild, Violet St. John, Mabel Gray, Maud Legrand, [and] Lily Levant’.
The writer goes on to add:
‘She is just thirty years of age. It would be interesting to have an accurate biographical and scientific diagnosis of this superlative specimen of human depravity’.
Well I’m not sure I can satisfy all of that request but I thought it might be possible to trace ‘Tottie Fay’ through the courts in the pages of the newspaper archive. And, I’m glad to say, she appears quite frequently.
In March Tottie (or Lily) had been sent to prison for a month, officially for being ‘disorderly’ but in reality for being one of the capital’s many prostitutes. Indeed ‘Tottie’ was described as the ‘wickedest woman in London’ by the magistrate. Millbank Prision, where he sent her, was an awful place to be incarcerated; damp, frequently flooded by the nearby Thames, and considered only fit to house short-term prisoners by this time. It was closed just three years later (in 1890) demolished thereafter to make way for the new National Gallery of British Art (now the Tate).
In her appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in March 1887 the sitting justice, Mr Mansfield, noted that she ‘had more than once perjured herself by making false accusations against men, and had for a ling time persisted in a life of vice and crime’. He regretted that he was only allowed to send her away for a month or fine her 40s. Since she didn’t have the money, off to gaol she went.
If that was supposed to teach her a lesson it failed. Not that we should be surprised by this. It seems Tottie had been in and out of prison on several occasions before 1887 and had probably been up ‘before the beak’ too many times to count. Offenders like her knew that the best strategy was not to be caught too many times in the same place and set before the same magistrate. If you became ‘known’ to the police and the magistracy your chances of avoiding heavy fine and/or prison were slim indeed.
In January 1889 Tottie was back at Marlborough Street but this time Mr Hannay was in the chair. He’d not encountered her before which gave her the opportunity to try and convince him that she was victim of a malicious prosecution and police brutality.
By this time the paper noted that she had acquired several new aliases, taking he rally past 20, and adding Blanche Herbert, Florence Larade, and Amy St Clair to those listed earlier. She was charged with being ‘drunk and riotous in Piccadilly’ on the New Year’s Eve. She was dressed smartly, if in a rather ‘gaudy dress’, suggesting that she looked like a ‘woman of the town’, a West End prostitute not one of her poorer East End sisters.
She’d been arrested at the Bath Hotel on Piccadilly after the proprietor had thrown her out for her disreputable behaviour. He testified that Tottie had been ‘running undressed all over the hotel’. When approached she locked herself in a room and refused to come out. The door was forced and she was dragged out and led away by the police. It seems she’d been using a room there to meet clients, on this occasion a West End gentleman (who didn’t appear in court).
She protested her innocence and complained about her treatment:
‘Even the chambermaids shed tears when they saw a lady like me being taken away by a rough policeman’, she told the magistrate. ‘I am truly innocent, although I have been here lots of times. Do give me a chance and I shall give up this unhappy life’,
‘I will go into a servants’ home, a monastery, or even to America – anywhere in the world if you will let me go’.
She pleaded with the justice, imploring him that she was a ‘poor motherless orphan, a real young lady, whose mother lies in her grave’.
‘Do let me go, and you shall never see me again. Oh, do! do! do!’
She might have saved her breath because Mr Hannay fined her 40s or another month inside.
It did no good.
In April that year the ‘irrepressible Tottie’ was back up before Mr Hannay. The court reporter noted that she’d been at Marlborough Street so many times that they had a special book just to record all her appearances.
Again the charge was disorderly behaviour, this time with drunkenness. She’d been arrested in St James’ Square after a large crowd had gathered to hear her tell a sad story about the death of her mistress. A policeman arrived having been alerted by a reports of a woman ‘misbehaving herself’.
She was dressed in her finery in court: ‘a cream-coloured bodice trimmed with lace, a black shirt, and a large dress-improver’ (which was too large for the dock so became ‘much disarranged’). Over her gloves she wore five rings.
Again she claimed to be ‘a lady’ and complained about the rough way the policeman had treated her. She admitted to having a drink but only because she was so upset at the loss of a woman who had been ‘just like a mamma in every respect’. Hannay fined her 40s with the option of prison if she couldn’t pay.
In June Tottie was back again. But now she gave her age as 22 (shaving a decade off if the other reports are accurate), and was calling herself Lily de Terry with an address in Grosvenor Square. PC Evans (316F) had arrested her on the 8th June 1889 after he found her with a crowd around her protesting that someone had stolen her purse.
She was ‘very drunk’ and as he questioned her she tried to get away, saying ‘Oh, I have got it now, thank you’. When he stopped her she gave him a mouthful of verbal abuse and threw herself to the floor. He and another constable removed her and, the next day, she was brought up before Mr De Rutzen who questioned her. Tottie gave a very similar tale of being a lady, not being guilty, apologizing, and promising not to err in future. This magistrate took pity and gave her a small fine or a day in gaol by default . She tanked him with a ‘heaven bless you!’ and was removed.
By now she was so famous that the Illustrated Police News even included an artist’s impression of her arrest.
In August the ‘stylishly-dressed’ and ‘so well known’ Tottie Fay was in court at Westminster accused, under the name of Mabel Granville (22) with using obscene language. PC Orebard (220B) was called to a pastrycook’s shop on Belgrave Street after she’d refused to pay for her purchases of ‘two pots of tea, four eggs, and a considerable quantity of bread’. She was drunk and her language was ‘shocking’. Mr D’Eyncourt ignored her (now well worn sob story) and fined her 14s or 14 days imprisonment.
I suspect she paid that fine because within a few weeks she was back in court, this time at Bow Street. A Mr Armstrong testified that Tottie had tried ‘to push into his house’ and was ‘otherwise molesting him’. Once again she was well dressed, with ‘a profusion of rings’, and presented herself in what one paper described as ‘her usual simpering semi-hysterical manner’. The court ordered her to find two sureties of £20 each for her ‘good behaviour for six months’. A tall order one imagines.
That was not the end of Tottie, in April 1890 she was back at Marlborough Street (as Dolly Leblane) where she was remanded on a charge of drunk and disorderly. Sergeant Brewer, the court’s gaoler, told Mr Newton that this was Tottie’s 31stappearance in court. She’d racked up well over 31 by May that year, appearing on a simailr charge having been arrested ‘amongst a lot of disorderly women’ in Piccadilly and telling the same story about her ‘mamma’ having ‘brought her out and lost her’. Sergeant Brewer not totaled her charges at 45 and gave Mr Newton (and us) some background to her story.
‘Her father was a costermonger’, the gaoler explained. ‘and for many years he resided in the Seven Dials, and was a member of the gang known as “The Forty Thieves,” ‘.
At this Tottie spoke up from the dock.
‘Oh, how can you say so? If I am a gay woman [i.e a prostitute] , you have no right to say that I am not a lady’.
She was remanded, as charges of theft were also alleged. He asked for a plain clothes officer to ‘see what he can find out’. On the 18 May she was up again charged with stealing clothes from a Mrs Green valued at £2. Her criminal career was catching up with her and Mr Newton was determined that ‘I must be stopped’. He committed her for a jury trial; things were getting ominous for Tottie.
On the 27 May 1890 Tottie (as Dolly Le Blanc) was tried at Clerkenwell Green in the London County Sessions on a charge of stealing with intent to defraud. She claimed to be an actress at the Alhambra Theatre but the manager appeared to deny this was the case. Her fantasies continued, and she wove an elaborate story of taking a train from Paris, having breakfast with her daughter, forgetting her luggage at Victoria and denying both charges of stealing clothes and food. Despite a ‘tearful appeal to the Court’ the jury convicted her and she was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.
That ought to have been the end of it but she appears again, several times in 1891 (in April at Marlborough Street for example, charged with fraud and theft). This time a pen portrait of Tootie by the artists ‘P.I.P’ was reproduced in the Illustrated Police News alongside a lengthy account of her life and crimes. In May she was on trial for obtaining goods by false pretenses and sentenced to 12 months. She gave her name as Dorothy Le Blanc and the court recorded her age as 42. The papers referred to its as her ‘temporary retirement’.
In September, while the real Tottie Fay languished in prison a stage comedy focused on a police court included her as a ‘notorious’ character, ‘creating hearty laughter and applause’. I’m not sure Tottie would have liked that. She might have enjoyed the attention but I think she really did see herself as a victim of a hard life and a society which didn’t support her. She had a great sense of self-respect despite her drinking, evidenced by her desire always to look as glamorous as she could. As she went from being a high-class prostitute to a drunk reduced to stealing small amounts of food and drink, she also fell foul of the criminal justice system.
1891 wasn’t the last time Tottie Fay appeared in court but, for now, it is where I am going to leave her. Not perhaps the ‘wickedest women’ in London but perhaps one of the most colourful.
It is hard not to like her.
[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Monday 7 March, 1887; Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 12 March, 1887; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday 2 January 1889; Portsmouth Evening News, April 9 1889; Illustrated Police News, 22 June 1889; Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 20 August 1889; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 25 August 1889; Morning Post, 3 September 1889; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 September 1889; Portsmouth Evening News, April 26 1890; Cornishman, 1 May 1890; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 11 May 1890; Sheffield Evening Telegraph19 May 1890; Morning Post, 28 May 1890; The Standard, 11 April 1891; Illustrated Police News, 25 April 1891; Daily News, 7 May 1891; The Vaudeville, 12 September 1891.