Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of visiting the Charles Dickens museum in Doughty Street and then going on a walking tour of the area led by Lee Jackson, an expert in all things Victorian. The tour was inspired by Dickens love of walking – he walked several miles every day and his observations gave him inspiration for his writing. Lee stopped frequently and referred extensively to Sketches by Boz, the collected writings that Dickens produced between 1833 and 1836 and which helped secure his contract to write The Pickwick Papersand then Nicholas Nickleby(and thus his breakthrough as an author). His pen portraits of people and places have helped fix the idea of early Victorian London in our heads with a host of characters from everyday life.
Many of these appear in the various Police Courts of the metropolis throughout the 1800s and the way in which certain characters or situations are described probably owes something to Dickens and his journalistic style. The reporters that attended the police courts were quick to choose cases that had drama, humor or a level of pathos – as well as those of course that offered a moral message or warning to the readership.
Dickens must have been familiar with the courts (he was after all, a legal clerk in his early years) and may have been inspired by some of the stories he heard there. I think the following case is a good example of the sort of tale that might lend itself to a short story or a scene in a Dickensian novel.
On the 31 May 1836 an ‘elderly, respectable looking’ man attended the Union Hall Police court to ask for the magistrate’s help. He explained to Mr Wedgewood (who was the sitting justice that day) that he had an eighteen year-old daughter who had eloped with her lover three weeks previously.
She left without saying a word, taking her possessions in two packed suitcases. He’d sent out messages to find her and bring her home but without success. And then, as if this could not get any worse for the man, he went on to describe how the ‘seducer’ of his child had then abandoned her and left her disgraced and ruined at the mercy of a landlady of a house of ‘ill-fame’ in Anne Street, off the Waterloo Road.
The poor father had made enquiries at the house and was told that his ‘unfortunate and misguided’ had turned up there with a story that she had recently arrived from the Continent, and took rooms at £1 14sa week. Presumably unable to pay her rent the girl had fled leaving her luggage in lieu of her debt. He asked the magistrate if he could compel the landlady to hand over his daughter’s possessions.
Mr Wedgewood said he had no such powers under law; the woman was within her rights to keep the clothes and other goods since his daughter owed her money. However, if the gentleman could track down his missing girl she may well be able to testify to being abducted which could help bring a prosecution against the house (which clearly seems to have been some sort of brothel) and those that ran it. In response to this the old man said he’d asked the landlady where she was likely to have gone and was told:
‘I suppose if you look after her you will find her of an evening in the Strand or Fleet-street’ and ‘evinced the utmost unconcern in the course of the questions put to her respecting the unfortunate girl’.
She didn’t care what had happened her to. She’d lost a potential money earner but had her clothes; she must have hoped or excepted that the girl would return to her when she’d had enough of walking the streets. If the man didn’t find her soon however her ruin would be complete and a (short) life of exploitation, violence poverty, disease and death probably awaited her.
Mr Wedgewood could only sympathize with the unnamed father, she could do nothing for him except advise him to keep looking and hope to eventually bring her abusers to justice. The man left court ‘evidently much depressed in spirits’.
A desperate and elderly father, a callous brothel madam, a young girl seduced by the charms of a duplicitous young man and the ultimate descent from respectability to poverty and public disgrace: this story has it all, it just needs a Dickensian quill to bring it to life.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 01, 1836]