The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .

‘He bolted across the road like an arrow’: the young man that never listened in school

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As schoolboys we were always being told to avoid pushing and shoving at bus stops. We were to queue quietly, just as we did whilst waiting to enter class or the dining hall. To do otherwise risked both the health and well-being of other travellers (especially elderly ones) and the good reputation of the school. It largely was irrelevant to me since I walked to and from school anyway, but like many things I was taught there, it has remained with me.

George Barratt had not learned any such lesson or, if he had, he chose a different path. He almost certainly lacked the benefit of grammar school education (or much education at all) and in his late teens or early twenties he was living a chaotic life, and stealing to survive.

Mr J H Loongrin was an infirm and elderly man and on Friday 12 July 1889 he was waiting to board an omnibus in the City of London. Suddenly he felted himself being jostled and then pushed forward. He steadied himself but then looked down and saw that the bow of his watch was broken, the section that held it secure in his pocket via a chain. Luckily Mr Loongrin was a cautious soul and always secured his watch using two chains. His watch was still in his pocket.

As he looked up he saw a young man (Barratt) ‘bolt across the road like an arrow’. Loongrin reacted quickly, calling over a nearby police constable and pointing out Barratt’s disappearing form. PC Daly (City) set off after him down Ropemaker Street, eventually finding him hiding in a lavatory at number 9 White Street.

When he was dragged out the constable found he had another watch on his person (presumably stolen earlier) and when he got him to the station investigations revealed a string of previous convictions for theft. Barratt was represented by a lawyer (Mr Purcell) who told alderman Fuadel Phillips that his client would prefer to be dealt with summarily and avoid a jury trial. This was a de facto admission of guilt and the alderman magistrate sent Barratt to prison for three months with hard labour.

The lesson is clear, listen to your teachers and respect the elderly.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 15, 1889]

Dodgy meat on sale at Smithfield and is a cat’s meat man in the frame for the Whitechapel murders?

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On Thursday 27 June 1889 Frederick Miller was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. His alleged offence was selling meat unfit for human consumption and the prosecution was brought by the Commissioners of Sewers who policed food safety at the Central Meat Market, Smithfield.

Alderman Evans, the presiding magistrate, was told that Miller had brought a cow carcass to market from his home in Norfolk and attempted to sell four pieces from it. That animal had been slaughtered and then prepared for sale on Whit Sunday, the day after Pentecost (which is usually 50 days after Easter Sunday). Since Easter fell on the 21 April in 1889 the likely date the meat was prepped was probably around the 2 June, or three weeks before it reached market in London.

While Miller pleaded not guilty the inspectors (and the Medical Officer of Health, Dr saunders) were able to convince the alderman that the meat was bad and that the public would have been at risk had they not spotted and confiscated it. Alderman Evans fined Miller 50plus £3 3costs, warning him that if he did not pay up he’d go prison for two months.

Miller was described as horse slaughterer and butcher, living at North Walsham and was well-to-do enough to employ a solicitor. London’s horse slaughtering business at this time was dominated by the firm of Harrison, Barber who had premises across the capital. They fed the market in horse meat that supplied the cat’s meat men that catered to Londoner’s love of pets. The history of this little known industry is something I address in some depth in my recent investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. In June 1889 body parts were found floating in the Thames near Horselydown steps; they were the forth of the so-called ‘Thames Torso mysteries’ that baffled police between 1887 and 1889. In my book I suggest that one man – a cat’s meat seller no less – might have been responsible for these and the Whitechapel murders.

For more details visit:

[from The Standard, Friday, June 28, 1889]

“Buy British!” is the cry from Smithfield (but check it is fit to eat)

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Smithfield Market (c.1890)

George Waller junior was a butcher like his father and traded from the Central Meat Market at Smithfield. In April 1889 he was, as was normal, selling meat from his stall in front of the wholesale shop operated by his father. Once the wholesale business of the market was concluded the public were able to come and buy directly from the trade.

George was offering cheap offal that morning, in this case lamb kidneys. And he was selling at a knockdown price. Where normally these would be advertised at 26d  to 3s   6a dozen Waller was selling them at just 6a dozen. It was a real bargain and it drew the attention of punters but also one of the meat inspectors.

Inspector Terrett came over to the stall and examined the goods on sale. He found that the kidneys were ‘putrid’ and not fit for human consumption, so he seized them. In June George Waller was summoned before the magistrate at the Guildhall (Smithfield falling under the City of London’s jurisdiction) to answer a charge of selling diseased meat to the public. In court Waller offered a limited defense, claiming that while he was charged with selling 121 putrid kidneys there were only 46 for which he was liable. He added that they came from imported German sheep and so he shouldn’t really be blamed.

The alderman magistrate brushed this aside but did comment that it was unfair if imported meat was not expected to be of the same standard as domestic produce:

I take a very strong view of the case’ he said. ‘Foreigners can send filthy stuff to England, and have no liability, whereas our own subjects would be liable’.

Goodness knows what he would make of chlorinated chicken…

In the end he decided that Waller would be fined but excused him the whole penalty, having some limited sympathy for him. Instead of paying 20each for 121 items of ‘bad meat’ he would pay just £36 and he hoped it would be a lesson to him to be more careful in future where he got his produce from.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 07, 1889]

On 16 October 1888 George Lusk, the chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance committee (set up as a communal reaction to the police’s inability to catch the Whitechapel murderer) received a very unpleasant parcel in the post. When he opened it Lusk found a small part of a human kidney wrapped in a little box with a letter attached. It read:

Sir, I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman preserved it for you. tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a while longer signed Catch me when you can

Mishter Lusk.

The letter was addressed ‘From Hell’ and has become one of the most contested pieces of evidence in the Jack the Riper mystery. On June 15 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 to order on Amazon here:

‘He’s a good man, when he’s sober your worship’: Little support for an abused wife at Guildhall

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As many posts on this blog and research elsewhere, including recently published work on the victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ have detailed, violence against women was a depressingly familiar aspect of daily life in late Victorian London. Everyday, women were abused, beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed by men and a great deal of this violence went unprosecuted and unpunished.

Very many women were in a perilous position with regards to confronting their husbands or partners when it came to domestic violence. If they chose to fight back, they could expect not only more and worse violence, but were likely to lose the tacit support of their communities. If they went to law they risked not only a beating, but the economic hardship of losing the family’s main breadwinner or his being fined, another charge of the domestic budget.

As a consequence few women prosecuted their spouses unless they were desperate or recognized the relationship was unrecoverable; they went to law as a last resort, and often, once in front of magistrate, retracted their charges or spoke up in mitigation of their abuser’s actions: ‘he’s a good man, when sober your worship’, was familiar refrain.

Honora Rush decided to go to law when her husband, John, beat her up for the umpteenth time. Honora knew what her laboring spouse was like when he was in his cups and on Sunday night, the 11 March 1888, when she heard his staggered boots ascending he stairs to their room she barred the door with the bed. ‘She knew that he was drunk, and would most likely knock her out’ she told the alderman at Guildhall Police court, and she was right.

John barged his way inside, breaking through the wooden door, and confronted her. He ‘knocked her about’ with his fists and she ran past him but he grabbed her and threw her down the stairs. As she struggled to her feet and began to dust herself down he came out of the room holding a paraffin lamp. Alarmed she asked him to put it down. Instead he came down to her, kicked her in stomach and threw the lamp at her. The flames set her petticoats on fire and ignited the stairs. The other residents of the building rushed out to fetch water and a police constable and John was arrested.

It took some time to put out the fire, PC Cooper explained, but then he questioned the man and the woman and their 11 year-old son. The boy supported his mother’s account but the magistrate was keen to enquire whether she’d given him any provocation for the assault.  Had she been drinking, he wanted to know? Honora said she hadn’t (and the boy confirmed this) but  John said otherwise and Alderman Knill was inclined to believe him.

Both the court’s gaoler and the police confirmed that John Rush had been prosecuted previously for abusing his wife, although on several occasions Honora had not pressed charges, perhaps hoping that the shock of being arrested would do the trick. Sadly she was mistaken. The magistrate seemed not to be inclined to throw the book at this brutal specimen of a husband but he had to do something. Turning to the prisoner in the dock the alderman told him that:

‘it was a most outrageous thing that he, a great burly fellow as he was, should assault his wife in the way I which he had done’. However, the court recognized that since in his opinion, she was ‘not a temperate woman’ there ‘might have been some slight provocation’. He bound Rush over to keep the peace towards her for six months on pain of having to find £5 if he did not. The only person satisfied with that outcome was the labourer himself who tipped his cap to the bench and said, ‘thank sir, I am very much obliged’

Poor Honora must a have been left fearing the worst and any woman reading this would surely have thought that the law offered her no protection whatsoever. This was 1888 and within eight months at least six women in the capital would have been brutally murdered by an unknown killer.  In dingy rooms all over the capital brutish husbands threatened to ‘do for their wives’ like the ‘Ripper’ had. The Whitechapel murderer killed at a time when working-class were cheap, and those of the poorest and most vulnerable, mostly women, were considered cheapest of all.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 13, 1888]

‘These cabmen always drive furiously’: Lord Rothschild has a lucky escape

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An 1891 caricature of Nathan (‘Natty’) Rothschild by Lockhart Bogle in The Graphic

It seems as if traffic accidents were just as likely to occur in late nineteenth-century London as they are in the modern capital, and that the roads were just as crowded. Moreover the image of the policeman directing the flow of vehicles – one we probably now associate with the 1950s and 60s – may be just as appropriate for the 1890s.

In early March 1890 Nathan, the first Baron de Rothschild, was being driven in brougham coach along Queen Victoria Street in the City. A policeman was holding the traffic and had his arm extended up, palm out to signal this. Lord Rothschild’s driver eased his horses to a halt to wait for the officer’s signal to continue.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the coach was hit from behind by a hansom cab. One of the shafts of the cab broke through the brougham, narrowly missing its occupants. Rothschild was shaken, but unhurt. The baron stepped down from the damaged coach and approached the policeman. He handed him his card and said, possibly angrily:

‘These cabmen always drive furiously. Take my card and give it to the Inspector. It will be all right’.

The incident ended up with the cabbie, James Povey, being summoned before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court where he was charged with ‘driving a hansom cab wantonly’. Povey pleaded ‘not guilty’ and one of his passenger that day, a gentleman named Palmer, was in court to support him.

Mr Palmer testified that the baron and his driver could not possibly have seen what happened as they were facing the wrong way. He said that Povey had tried to stop and it was entirely an accident, not ‘wanton’ or dangerous driving. The alderman agreed and dismissed the summons, adding that a claim for the damage to the brougham could be made in the civil courts. There was no need, Povey’s representative (a Mr Edmonds, solicitor for the Cab Union) explained, as that had already been settled.

Rothschild was an important figure in late nineteenth-century Britain, a banker and the financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, he was a noted philanthropist as well, helping fund housing (in the form of model dwellings) for poor Jews in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Rothschild sat in parliament for the Liberals, although he had been a close friend of the Conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli. By 1896 he was a peer, sitting in the Lords (as he had since 1885) an honour bestowed by that other great Victorian premier, William Gladstone. He then left the Liberals in 1886, joining forces with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists as the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland. He died in 1915 and the current baron, Jacob, is the 4th to hold the title.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 11, 1896]

‘You talk so fast, you flower girls’: more Eliza Doolittles in the Police courts

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We’ve met London’s small ‘army’ of flower girls before in this blog. The young women that sold flowers at Covent Garden or St Paul’s were not considered ‘respectable’ and that may well have been the reason Professor Higgins chose one of their number for his experiment in elocution. For his ‘Eliza Doolittle’ we have – in January 1886 – three girls all of whom were prosecuted at the Guildhall Police court for obstructing the streets of the City of London.

Kate Moore, Julia Moore (presumably her sister) and Anne Smith were summoned to the City magistrate court for ‘exposing flowers for sale on the footway’ and thereby causing an obstruction to passers-by. The girls were selling flowers on Paternoster Row, near Cheapside, and they’d caught the attention of police constable Francis of the City force.

He seemed to have made it his mission to move them on and told the alderman magistrate that he’d received ‘a great number of complaints’ from ‘ladies of being’ that the girls had been selling their wares aggressively on the street. I suspect that PC Francis was also fairly convinced that the flowers were not only thing the women were offering for sale.

The association of flowers girls with prostitution was  well established in the 1800s as was the location of St Paul’s and Covent Garden. As Kate protested in court that they’d been doing nothing wrong and merely trying to support themselves and their families the alderman (Sir Andrew Lusk) interrupted her:

‘You talk so fast, you flower girls; I don’t know whether you are fast yourselves, but you talk very fast’.

His implication was that the young women were immoral at best; morally corrupt at worst and, either way, in the wrong.  The City chief police inspector, Tillock, added that the women had chosen a particularly poor place to trade, especially as they stood together. To them this may have represented strength in numbers, to the police it looked intimidating and for the public it created an obstruction.

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Sir Andrew (right) was clearly enjoying the opportunity to show off his comedic side to the watching public and press:

‘You think you make a nice bunch of flowers, I suppose’ he told them before fining them 2s costs and warning them that a sliding scale of penalties awaited them if they didn’t heed this warning. Next time they would pay a fine of 26d, rising to 5(with costs of 2s each time to be added). He probably thought that be letting them off a fine on this occasion he was being lenient but it mattered little to the trio of young women as they had no money anyway.

Kate told the court that they had not earned 2 shillings in the whole week. Sir Andrew was unmoved, ‘pay the money, or go to prison’ he warned them.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 11, 1886]