‘Did you accidentally throw you arms around their waists?’ Sexual assault in early Victorian London

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The law is supposed to deal with everyone equally, regardless of race, gender, or class. The law supposedly protects the poorest in the land and the richest, without favour. However, that was (and is) not always the case.

The courts (and gallows and prison cells) of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were overwhelming stocked with members of the laboring poor (however we define them).

Wealthy defendants were occasionally prosecuted and convicted but they often received more lenient sentences or escaped justice altogether. They certainly weren’t the targets of a justice system that was keen to make examples of some the deter others.

When it came to the lower courts, like the metropolitan police courts of Victorian London, a person with money and ‘respectability’ could hope to pay their way out of trouble, a situation that was generally unavailable to most working class defendants. Take the example of these two ‘gentlemen’, brought before Mr Grove at the Worship Police court in October 1839.

William Cooper and Henry Gordon were described as ‘fashionably dressed young men’. We might find other epithets for them today.

They were charged by Emmanuel De Palva (a ‘foreign gentleman’) with insulting and assaulting his wife and daughter in the street. M. De Palva was on his way he to Stoke Newington with his family after an evening out. As the women  walked along a few yards ahead of M. De Palva two men came up in the other direction and accosted them.

At first they ‘stared rudely under the ladies’ bonnets’, which was intimidating, but then they grasped the women around the waists and hugged them. It might seem like high jinx and far from serious but this was the beginning of the Victorian era and social norms were not what they are today. This was an act of unwanted intimacy, a sexual assault in all but name, and the ladies were outraged by it.

The women screamed for help and De Palva came running up. He grabbed hold of the men, and then handed them over to a policeman who had also rushed up having been alerted by the cries for help.

All of this evidence was confirmed by Madame De Palva, who said the men seemed quite sober.

In court Cooper took upon himself the role of spokesperson. He tried to say that it had been a foggy night and they hadn’t been aware of the women. Perhaps they had accidentally jostled them as they passed, for which they were sorry.

The magistrate asked him: ‘Did you accidentally throw you arms around their waists?’

Having now heard ‘two respectable ladies’ swear to what happened he was ‘perfectly staggered’ by the suggestion. M. De Palva now added that he had been visited by Cooper’s father that morning, who had offered an apology on behalf of his son. De Palva refused on the grounds that he would only accept a public apology, one that cleared his wife and daughter of any taint on their reputations.

Mr Grove said that an apology could now be made and would then be ‘conveyed into the required channel’, in other words be printed so everyone would know whom was at fault. It was a disgrace, but the disgrace was to be owned by Cooper and Gordon and not be allowed to damage the reputations of Madame De Palva or her daughter.

He was also instant that some form of financial penalty be extracted from the young men so he suggested they make an contribution to the local poor. Both defendants issued their unreserved apologies and donated 10each to the poor box.

Had the young men been working class I doubt they would have got away with an apology and such a small fine. Had the women been working class and unaccompanied I doubt the case would ever have reached the courts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 15, 1839]

Violence: its time we listened to the experts and not the politicians

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The Phoenix in East Smithfield

Yet again this week we have witnessed some terrible examples of violence in the domestic news. Yesterday a policeman was killed while investigating a burglary, last week an officer was hacked with a machete when stopping a suspected stolen vehicle. Knife crime is reportedly on the rise in several smaller provincial towns and there have been some horrific stories about two different mothers killing their children (one because her husband had left her, the other simply because they interfered with her social life). In one incident an immigrant was nearly killed in his car by a racist right wing thug who wanted to emulate the murderous actions of a terrorist in New Zealand. It is hard to listen to the news then, without wondering what on earth has happened to our society.

Sadly history tells us that the answer to that question is that this is actually pretty normal for British society; violence is part of life and vicious, uncaring and cruel individuals exist today as they have always existed. Moreover, while we have made important advances in treating mental illness we have not been able to prevent some of those so affected from causing harm to others in the community.

This case from Lambeth Police court in 1839 (fully 220 years ago) was labeled by the press as ‘Disgraceful conduct’ and by witnesses who saw what occurred as ‘the most unmanly and disgraceful they had ever beheld’. On Friday 16 August that year two young women were having a drink of porter at the Phoenix pub in East Smithfield, in Aldgate. As Mary Ann Ryan and Catherine Kitton left they noticed stall selling artificial flowers, and stopped to have a look.

A sailor was also perusing the stock and was holding a stem in his hand. Catherine stood next to him and leaned in to look at his flower, touching it as she did so. The man exploded with rage, completely overreacting to this contact and punched her in the face, knocking her over, and then kicking her while she lay on the ground. Catherine managed to crawl away, rise and stumble towards the pub but fainted clean away.  It took some time before she could be revived.

Mary now remonstrated with the seaman, telling him he was ‘most unmanly’, shaming him in public. The man didn’t like this and turned on her, threatening to ‘serve her ten times worse’. When she continued to berate him he struck her in the mouth, almost knocking her unconscious. Recovering her wits she ran away and up a nearby alley but he chased her. He hit on the temple, drawing blood and forcing her to fall to the ground. Now he kicked her in the side as she curled up to protect herself.

It was horrific and several people saw it happen and so the police were called and the sailor arrested. The man was brought before Mr Coombe at Lambeth and said he was a sailor attached to a ship docked at St Katherine’s Dock near the tower. He gave his name as James Boardman and his vessel as the President American.

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Both young women were in court to give evidence but Mary was in such a state that the magistrate ordered her to be sent to the London Hospital to have her injuries treated. She’d been waiting in the ‘outer office’ and had fainted several times from the loss of blood she’d sustained as a result of the head wound. Amazingly she’d been able to tell some of her story which was corroborated by Catherine and a number of witnesses. Mr Coombe ordered the prisoner to be taken down to the cells while the court waited for news of Mary Ann’s condition from hospital.

A little while later a policeman returned with a  note from the house surgeon at the London. It read:

‘I hereby certify that Mary Ryan, just brought to the hospital laboring under a fractured rib, a cut to her forehead, and several contusions on different parts of her body, is in great danger’.

Boardman was once more set at the bar of the court and the magistrate glowered at him. Mr Coombe told him that he would be remanded in custody for the assault but that if Mary died ‘he would be placed on his trial for her murder, and in all probability hanged’.

I can’t see a trial for Boardman and so I am hopeful that Mary survived. If that was case then I suspect Boardman would have been sent to gaol for a while and then released back to go to sea again. It is remainder though that senseless brutality is not a new thing or a product of ‘modern’ society and so all the bleating about tougher sentences and threats to make criminals ‘feel afraid’ ring pretty hollow. Education, proper levels of street policing, and zero tolerance for violence , weapons, intimidation (online and in person) and hate speech are the only ways to stamp out violence in society.

Locking violent offenders up for even longer in prisons which entirely fail to rehabilitate them is a very expensive waste of time and does absolutely no good for the poor individual who has been critically injured or killed. talking tough on crime is the easiest thing in the world, actually doing something useful about it is much harder and will cost real money. Its time we demanded that our politicians stopped paying lip service to the issues and listened to the experts in policing, law, probation, psychoanalysis, and yes, even history.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, August 17, 1839]

  1. It is possible that the President was the same ship lost at sea two years later in 1841 with all hands. The packets were equipped with paddles and entirely unsuited to the Atlantic crossing.

On the buses: Mr D’Arcy’s close encounter with John Bull

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There were two important innovations launched in 1829, both of which have become iconic London institutions. As we enter the height of the tourist season in the capitals, tens of thousands of visitors will be heading home with souvenirs and amongst them are likely to be images of London buses and policemen. The Metropolitan Police Force was created by statute in 1829 and on 4 July that year the very first omnibuses set off from the New Road (now the Marylebone Road) at the start of their journey to Bank in the City.

‘Buses weren’t an English invention – Parisians had been enjoying them for a few years already – but it was a Londoner named George Shillibeer who established the first routes in the capital. They weren’t large, carrying just 22 people at first, but as the mode of transport caught on more and more companies followed Shillibeer’s lead and soon there was fierce competition for passengers.

I imagine that omnibuses were quite a novelty at the start and just as tourists today might want to ride on a double decker Viscount D’Arcy (who sounds as if he might have stepped from the pages of Jane Austin novel) was keen to experience it for himself. He was staying at Mivart’s Hotel on Lower Brook Street (which is now quite famously renamed as Claridge’s) so could have taken a hansom anywhere but chose to ride with ‘everyman’.

He hailed a ‘bus bound for Paddington but the driver was reluctant to let him sit outside (where he wanted to) telling him instead to sit inside, where there was lots of room. The viscount wanted to ride outside (like I always want to ride upstairs, where you can see) but the man was abusive and insisted he couldn’t. D’Arcy wasn’t used to being denied what he wanted and got on anyway, making his way up to the roof.

The driver, William Davison, saw that he’d been ignored and raised his fist and waived it at the viscount, shouting more abuse. ‘Disgusted at this strange and unwarrantable conduct’, the viscount ‘determined on alighting as soon as possible’. As the omnibus stopped at St Pancras church he stepped down and was just about to place his foot on the street when Davison spurred his horse and took off at speed. Luckily D’Arcy was uninjured as he tumbled towards the ground but he was angry and made a note of the vehicle’s number (3912). He applied for a summons and, on the last day of July 1833, William Davison was summoned before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court to answer for his actions.

Viscount D’Arcy said he was ‘as much astonished as annoyed’ by Davison’s conduct, ‘from whom, from his round far face and complete “John Bull” appearance, he expected much civility’. Davison denied the charge and told Mr Rawlinson that it was D’Arcy that had started it by calling him a ‘damned fellow’. He brought along a witness but either they lost their nerve or hadn’t been paid enough and failed to back him up. The magistrate sent him off with a flea in his ear and a £5 fine.  The whole experience would have given the viscount a story to regale his friends and family when he returned home from London, something much better than a toy bus or a plastic police helmet

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 01, 1833]

A mother’s desperation drives her to steal

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St Marylebone Workhouse

The year 1834 was an infamous one in English social policy history. It was in that year that the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, ushering in a more draconian system of poor relief that split up families and created a stigma around poverty that lasted well into the twentieth century.

The historical arguments around the creation of the New Poor Law in in 1834 have their own long history and so I will limit myself here to the barest of details, readers could seek out the work of Poor Law historians such as Brundage, Digby, Englander, Higgenbotham, and Rose if they want to study this more.

In essence the 1843 act aimed to stop the practice of outdoor relief – where paupers were given top-ups (‘doles’) to supplement low or no wages in order to survive in times of economic hardship. Instead they were all expected to present themselves at a workhouse if they wanted support form the parish. The ‘house’ became a symbol of terror and oppression as anyone entering it effectively lost all control over their life. They were given workhouse clothes, men and women were separated, children taken from parents, and all were set to work in heavy manual labour in return for a very basic subsistence.

Not surprisingly those that found themselves in poverty did everything they could to avoid the workhouse, which was the intention of the act itself. Edmund Chadwick and the other committee members that framed this nasty piece of legislation wanted to ensure that pauperism was prevented by the deterrent nature of the system. The underlying principle was ‘less eligibility’. Workhouse conditions had to be worse than those outside so people were deterred from using them.

The Poor Law commissioners were driven by a desire to reduce the costs of poor relief, which fell on the pockets of the rate paying parishioners. While most people (certainly most middle class rate paying people) in Victorian England would have described themselves as Christians they clearly hadn’t read the sections of the New Testament which deal with poverty.

Mary Ann Stokes was poor. In 1845 she found herself so desperate to feed her two young children and avoid going into a ‘house’ where she’d lose them that she resorted to theft instead. Widowed, but ‘respectable’, Mary Ann had gone from her home in Blackfriars to the open fields at Battersea, south of the river Thames, where several market gardeners grew vegetables for the London markets.

She was found at 2 in the afternoon by police constable Jackson (178V) in land owned by William Carter and he stopped and searched her. Mary Ann had three lettuces, three carrots, and 39 small onions tied up in a large handkerchief and so he arrested her. She admitted the theft but begged for mercy, saying she was hungry and had to feed her children. The policeman took her to court at Wandsworth for the magistrate to decide what to do with her.

The market gardener, Mr Carter, was in court and to his credit he refused to press for a conviction. He could see that Mary Ann was desperate. She stood in the dock, wearing her ‘widow’s weeds’ and clutching her children to her. In court she claimed she’d found the vegetables and hadn’t stolen or picked them. Mr Clive, the sitting magistrate, said he would discharge her, not because he believed her story that she’d found the veg but because it couldn’t be proved that she’d taken it.

It was a pretty heartless decision because in effect he was warning her that next time she might not be so lucky, and be seen stealing. He offered her no help, no charity, no chance to find paid work, nothing but a reprimand. Mary Ann was in this situation because her husband had died, she’d lost the family’s breadwinner and had to care for her children as well as picking up whatever work she might be able to.

This was not an uncommon situation in the Victorian period where poverty blighted the lives of millions. The first real attempt at change came in 1908 when the introduction of Old Age Pensions ushered in the first stage of the Welfare State. We should not however that anyone that had sought help in a workhouse at any point in his or her life was not eligible for an OAP.

The stigma, therefore, continued long into the new century.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 10, 1845]

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

A cheeky guest and a runaway wife: all in a day’s work for the Marlborough Street beak

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Today I shall mostly be at a one-day conference at the Open University near Milton Keynes. For those that don’t know the OU is home to the Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice and some eminent historians of the police such as Clive Emsley, Chris Williams and Paul Lawrence. I’m not speaking but I am chairing a panel, which means I have to stay awake and take notes, so I can ask poignant questions and (most importantly) make sure nobody goes over time. The conference is called The Architecture of the State: Prisons, Courts & Police Stations in Historical Perspective and my panel has two excellent looking talks on courts.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in courts recently, albeit ones convened well over 100 years ago. This morning I’m at Marlborough Street in the year following the creation of the Metropolitan Police, 1830. No policemen feature in either of the cases I’m looking at today which probably reflects the fact that Londoners were still getting used to the idea of turning to them when a crime occurred.

When William Grant knocked at the door of Mr William Holmes MP in Grafton Street the footman let him in. After all he was ‘fashionably dressed’ and had asked to see Lady Stronge, the politician’s wife. William Holmes was a Conservative member of parliament for Grampound in Cornwall, a rotten borough which returned two MPs before the Great Reform Act of 1832 swept such corrupt practices away. Lady Stronge was the widow of Sir James Stronge, an Irish baronet who had died in 1804, and she was 10 years older than her second husband.

Grant was asked to wait in the dining room while the footman went up to announce him. While he waited he pocketed three silver spoons from the sideboard. He was discovered as he ascended the stairs because the footman heard them clanking his jacket. He was taken before Mr Dyer at Marlborough Street who remanded him in custody.

Earlier that session Mr Dyer had a strange request for help from ‘an elderly gentleman’ about his missing wife. The man, whose name was kept out of the newspapers, told the justice that about a month ago his wife had left home complaining of ill health. She had promised him that she would go to the country, to visit to her friends, and presumably to take the air and recover.

She’d not been gone long however when he realized that a ‘considerable quantity of valuable property’ had disappeared as well. The old man wrote a letter to her relatives to ask after her and received a reply that they hadn’t seen her for ages!

The poor man now made some enquiries and discovered that she was living in St John’s Wood with another man. Far from retiring to the county for the good of her health she’d run off to begin an adulterous relationship with a younger man. He had tried to see her but was prevented from doing so. His only contact had been when he saw her walking with her new beau on Fleet Street.

The elderly husband was clearly at his wits end but laboring under the misconception that his wife had been abducted and so he asked Mr Dyer for his help in rescuing her. The magistrate explained that there was little he could do in this situation but if he truly believed that  she was bring held against her will then he could apply for a writ of habeas corpus and serve it on his rival. Satisfied with this answer the old man left the court, no doubt in search of a lawyer.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 17, 1830]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘Never was there such a bad season for cabs’: A case of non payment requires a magisterial solution

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William Capon had sold his hansom cab and horse to William Crouch because he needed the money, being unable to earn a living from cabbing. Crouch had agreed to pay for the cab in installments but by March 1835 Capon had hardly received more than a ‘farthing’ of the £30 owed to him. In desperation he issued a notice that his goods had been stolen and offered a reward for information about it.

George Hooper saw the notice and later saw the cab parked a cab rank in the City of London. He approached the driver, asked to be taken to the Green Yard where he called for the cab and horse to be impounded. The Green yard had been the City’s pound for centuries and it was here that loose animals – often beasts from Smithfield Market – were taken , to be retrieved on payment of a penalty fee. So it worked very much like a modern car pound.

The cab driver, Crouch, was arrested and taken before Alderman Pirie at Mansion House and Capon came to court to give evidence. The alderman magistrate, having heard the circumstances of the  sale of the cab and the lack of money paid so far confronted Crouch as he stood in the dock:

‘Why don’t you pay this poor man?’

‘It’s all right, sir’, said Crouch, ‘There’s an agreement in writing about the business. I’m sure to pay him’.

‘I’m sure you will never pay him; you don’t go the right way about it’, countered the justice, clearly appalled at the man’s attitude to debt.

‘I would have paid him’ Crouch answered, ‘but there’s been no business doing lately. The right time’s a coming on now, and he shall have his money’. Adding, ‘he [Capon] promised me further time, on account of the badness of the season. Never was a such a season for cabs’, he declared.

March 1835 may well have been a ‘bad season’ for cab drivers but, in the magistrate’s opinion, that didn’t give him the right to cheat (as he put it) the other man out of his money. He ordered the cab driver to return the vehicle and horse forthwith in return for any money he’d already paid over. In court Crouch agreed, but very reluctantly, but when he got outside he reneged on this and refused, citing the written agreement he had with Capon.

Alderman Pirie  was on weak ground legally; it wasn’t really a case of theft, and no jury would ever convict Crouch. Yet he wanted to do something and so he insisted that the cab and horse be handed over from the Green Yard to Capon and not to Crouch. If the latter wished to pursue his claim to the hansom he would have to take it up with the magistrate directly via the law, and not with Capon. This decision, controversial as it was, went down extremely well with everyone in court (William Crouch excepted  one assumes).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 27, 1835]

“Oh Monsieur, if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket!’: A Frenchman amuses the reading audience at Mansion House

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I was watching the news a week or so ago and (surprise, surprise) Brexit was being discussed. The BBC had sent a roaving reporter to Stoke to ask locals what they felt about Britain leaving the EU and at the delays that seemed to be undermining the process. One elderly couple (who self-identified as Leave voters) reflected a fairly common view that it was ‘about time’ the politicians just got on it with, and executed the will of the 52% that voted out.

When asked why he thought it was taking so long the man replied that it was the fault of the Europeans, in particular the French. ‘I’ve never liked the French’ he said.

This version of Francophobia has a long history in British (or rather English) culture.   As our nearest European neighbours France has been perceived as an enemy and economic rival for much of the last 1000 years. This is despite the reality that the long wars of the medieval period were dynastic (effectively French French kings versus English French kings) and the wars with the Bourbons were as much about religion as they were about nationalism, and those that benefited from them were the wealthy, not the poor that fought them.

Similarly the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France were fought to preserve the power and wealth of the English aristocracy and mercantile class, not the ‘scum of the earth’ (as Wellington dubbed some of his infantry) who died in their thousands on foreign soil. Napoleon was a ‘monster’ and the revolutionary ideas of the French were supposedly inimical to English ‘liberty’. The reality was that had the revolution been exported to Britain we’d be quite a different nation today, arguably one without the House of Lords, the monarchy and all the trappings of class privilege.

In the early 1830s Waterloo was still a recent memory. Napoleon had died in 1821 (in exile on St Helena, possibly as a result of poison). France was no longer an enemy, even if it was still an economic rival, but Francophobic views persisted. London was home to plenty of Frenchmen and women and, in March 1835, one of the appeared at the Mansion House Police court to prosecute a pickpocket he’d caught red-handed on the street. The report of the case before the Lord Mayor reveals the casual anti-French sentiment which, I think, (as that man in Stoke demonstrates), continues to this day.

Monsieur Colliard had captured Edward Brown as he attempted to steal a handkerchief from his pocket in Lombard Street near the Bank of England. He described what happened in excellent English but with a heavy French accent. The Morning Post’s reporter wrote it up for the amusement of his readership so that both the working-class thief and his intended French victim  appeared as comic characters in a popular music hall skit.

‘My Lor’ said M. Colliard, ‘I vas going doing Lombar-street, Friday veek, and I felt tug, tug; and ven I turned to see vat it vas, I saw a vera leetle garçon run away with my handkerchief’.

I am now imagining the gentleman in his club or the worker at the bar of the pub amusing his friends by reading this aloud, with perfect comic timing.

Having lost one hankie Colliard was on his guard the following day.

‘So, I thought [this time] I would pin my handkerchief to my pocket, so de leetle garcon should not get him out. So when I go to the place were I vas tugged I felt another tug, and I turned about, and this garcon had a hold of my handkerchief. “Ah” I says, “I have caught you!”

“Oh Mounsier, “ says he, “if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket;” but I says to him, ‘I vill take care not to lose you,” and I held him fast, and I bring him here for your Lordship to try him’.

Young Edward Brown attempted to wriggle out of the charge by saying he was only trying to warn the Frenchman that he was in danger of dropping his ‘wipe’ or having it pinched by one of the many ‘bad characters’ that lurked around the Bank.

His show of altruism fooled no one, especially not the Lord Mayor, who told him that if he made ‘the communication without the slight of hand all would have been all right, but he must go to Bridewell for two months for going too far in in his endeavour to protect his neighbour’s property’.

So in the end a very ordinary story of petty theft was dressed up as an amusing tale that allowed the readers to chuckle at the funny accent of our continental neighbours and the misfortune of a ‘street arab’ whose poverty had probably driven him to steal in the first place. For me it is a reminder that some elements of our society continue to enjoy demonizing or ridiculing ‘foreigners’ even at the same time as we enjoy their wine, cheese, countryside, and culture and benefit from the trade between our countries.

The ‘little Englander’ has become a little more prominent as a result of Brexit and, regardless of whether being a member of the EU is a good or bad thing in your opinion, anything which serves to divide peoples who have much more in common than they have in difference, is a sad thing which does no one any good.

Expect, of course, for those that profit from nationalism and division. And that little club contains the real enemies of the people, the far right, religious extremists, and arms traders.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 02, 1835]