‘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]

The milk man, the general, and his trousers.

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General Robert Onesiphorus Bright (above) was an unlikely occupant of a Police Court dock but that is where he found himself in June 1888. General Bright had enjoyed an illustrious military career since he’d joined the 19 Regiment of Foot in 1843. He had seen service in Bulgaria in 1854 before taking command of the 2nd Brigade of the Light Division in the Crimea. According to the regimental record Bright was one of the very few officers who remain in service throughout, never succumbing to the disease that ravaged the forces fighting and Russians.

After the Crimean War Bright went on to see service on India’s northwest frontier and was cited in despatches. When he left the 19thFoot in 1871 he was given a commemorative silver cup engraved with a scene from the battle of Granicus, one of Alexander’s victories over the Persians. Bright fought in the 2nd Afghan War of 1878-80 and again was mentioned in despatches. He became colonel of the Green Howards/19th Foot in 1886 and then was raised to the knighthood by Victoria in 1894.

So how did a man with his pedigree end up in front of Mr De Rutzen at Marlborough Street? Well, perhaps not that surprisingly the general was there for losing his temper.

He was summoned to court by Charles Heffer who had been pushing ‘a milk perambulator’ in Oxford Street and he made his way towards Hyde Park. He was waiting to cross Duke Street and the general was waiting in front of him. As a carriage came close by the general stepped back to avoid it and collided with Heffer’s barrow. The wheel scraped against Bright’s leg, soiling his trousers with the mud from the road.

It was an unfortunate accident but the military man’s instincts took over and he swiveled in the street, raised his walking cane and ‘dealt [Heffer] a severe blow across the face’. Whether he had apologized at the time or not is unknown but clearly Heffer had been hurt enough to demand satisfaction from a magistrate.

In court the general was apologetic and admitted the fault was his. Mr De Rutzen said he would take into account the fact that the assault was committed in ‘the heat of the moment’ but regardless of the general’s status he had to treat this case as he would any other. He fined General Bright £4 and awarded costs to Heffer of £1. Having faced the Russians and the Afghans I doubt this was the worst moment of Robert Bright’s life, he paid and left with his head held high.

Today is Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday and, as I type this, the regimental colour of the 1st battalion Grenadier Guards is being ‘trooped’ on Horse Guards Parade in London.  The Grenadiers have a long history, being the first guards regiment to wear the bearskin following their actions at Waterloo when, under the command of Major General Peregrine Maitland, they repulsed the attack of Napoleon’s elite ‘Old Guard’. Wellington supposedly gave the command for the guard to stand and face the French, crying ‘Up Guards, and at them!’ although like so many moments in history the exact words are disputed.

Trooping the colour has been linked to monarch’s official birthday since 1748 (when George II was on the throne) but no one has done it as many times as the present queen, and I doubt anyone ever will. It wasn’t always held, partly because the British weather is so unreliable, and this caused Edward VII to move the day to June when (hopefully) the watching crowds might not get soaked.

Happy (official) birthday maam.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 08, 1888]

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

An uppity ticket inspector at Cannon Street

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As I was sitting on a Great Northern train at Finsbury Park four excited GN employees got off and went in separate directions. They looked pumped up for a day at work, which seemed a little odd given the flak that the railways has received in the past 12 months.  GN has frequently cancelled trains usually citing either a signaling problem (beyond their control) or a lack of drivers (which certainly isn’t). Here though were four happy employees about to start their daily shifts. As my wife pointed out though, they weren’t drivers, or even guards; they were the ticket inspectors about to embark on a day of flushing out fare dodgers.

I appreciate that the GN have to protect themselves against individuals that try to ride their network without paying but I think I’d prefer it if they actually ran all the trains they advertise on their timetable and trained up some of these eager inspectors for that purpose.

Nevertheless, the inspectors on Great Northern trains (and others no doubt) are always polite and friendly, unlike William Hill, who worked for the South Eastern Railway in 1876.

Hill was a ticket collector at Cannon Street in the City of London and on 13 April he was checking tickets at the station when a gentleman named James Herbert Smith approached him.  Mr Smith was a regular traveller and held a first class season ticket from Blackheath to central London. As he passed through the barrier Hill demanded to see his ticket. Smith fumbled in his pockets but couldn’t find it. He explained he must have misplaced and handed the man his calling card, so that he could be contacted. That, he felt, should be sufficient.

It wasn’t. Within moments Hill ‘seized him by the collar, and turned him around and stopped him’, again demanding to see his season ticket. Mr Smith tried a different pocket and this time found his ticket. This should have satisfied the collector but it didn’t. Instead of letting the passenger continue on to work Hill insisted that he accompany him to the ticket office. Smith obliged but told the man he felt it was entirely unnecessary (which it was of course) and when they got there the clerk immediately recognized him and he was allowed to carry on with his day.

Later Mr Smith asked for an apology from the ticket collector or his employer but since none was forthcoming he acquired a summons to bring him before a magistrate. On the 20 April Hill was set in the dock at Mansion House Police court to be questioned by the Lord Mayor about his actions. The railway denied any wrongdoing by their employee and provided him with a solicitor, Mr Mortimer. The defense was simply that Hill had a right to see the season ticket and was ‘merely doing his duty’.

The Lord Mayor evidently thought that the collector had overstepped the mark and acted unreasonably. An assault had clearly occurred and had the man apologized as Mr Smith requested, he would have let it go without further comment. Since the railway and the collector had been so determined to maintain their position on this he found Hill guilty of assault and fined him 20s.

One imagines that the relationship between the collector and this particular passenger in future will have been at best frosty, since they would have seen each other most mornings of the week. The case reminded Hill that he was merely a lowly employee of a service industry and, more importantly, several steps below the gentleman whose honesty he had the audacity to question. In future he would have to restrain himself  because a subsequent complaint might cause his employers to replace him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 21, 1876]

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

Middle-class tantrums on the tube, 1880s style

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It was a Thursday afternoon in March 1888 and two men were trying to make their way through the gate at Portland Road underground railway station, having arrived on a train from the City. They didn’t know each other but their paths were about to become inextricably  linked and this eventually led both of them to an embarrassing appearance at Marlborough Street Police Court.

Portland Road (now Great Portland Street) opened on 10 January 1863 as a station on the world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan (you can see it in the illustration above). By all accounts it was a busy station with throngs of people struggling to make their way to trains or to exit from the platforms.

Frederick Pitts was just one of these commuters; a ‘carver and gilder’ living in Bolsover Street, Fitzrovia and thus a member of London’s growing ‘respectable’ middle class. Pitts was close to home and probably keen to get back for a late lunch or some tea.

Reuben Holmes was also on the platform that day. A teacher who lived in Kensington Gardens Square, Holmes was a lot further from his place of residence so was perhaps on his way to a tutorial or another meeting. Both men were in a hurry and probably not in the best of tempers.

As Pitts reached the gates he was pushed from behind. Some level of pushing was inevitable but he felt he’d shoved in ‘an unnecessarily violent manner’ and he turned round to complain  about it. Holmes was behind him and so he deemed him to be the culprit. Mr Pitts asked him to desist. Holmes, however, denied pushing anyone and the pair carried on their journey to the exit.

When they got upstairs to the ticket hall an argument flared up between the two men. Holmes told Pitts that ‘he must be in a bad temper’ to accuse him (wrongly) of pushing him.

‘It’s a lie’ declared Frederick Pitts, ‘you certainly did push me’.

‘Do you mean to say I am liar’, retorted the teacher, clearly angry at being called out by the other man in public.

‘I said nothing of the sort’ replied Pitts, ‘but I say you did push me’.

At this repeated slur on his character Holmes lost his temper and thumped the gilder on the nose. Outraged, Pitts called for help and a policeman was summoned and both men marched off to the nearest police station.

Once there the situation was calmed down. Holmes apologised and offered to pay for any ‘expenses incurred’ by his victim. In court the next day he said he’d not been aware of pushing anybody and, by way of defence, complained that Pitt had ‘spoken to him in a very disagreeable manner’. The pushing was a result of the crowd behind him he added, there was no intent to target Mr Pitts at all.

Most of all he objected to being called a liar, and having that repeated ‘several times and in a most offensive manner’. This speaks to late Victorian middle class concerns about status and character and was more important here than any violence.

The magistrate, Mr Mansfield, did the equivalent of ‘knocking their heads together’. Both had behaved badly and let down their class by squabbling in public. Holmes should have apologised for inadvertently pushing Holmes and the latter should have accepted it. Pitts should not have called the other man a liar and Holmes should have kept his temper in check and not struck out. He hoped both would have learned a lesson from the encounter. He then dismissed them both so he could return his court to more serious business.

[from The Standard , Saturday, March 17, 1888]

A ‘trumpery’ case of dogs and a broken umbrella

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Most of those occupying the dock at the London Police courts were, broadly defined, members of the city’s working classes. When persons of a ‘higher station’ did appear it was usually (but not always) as complainants or witnesses (sometimes to the defendants’ character). However, in May 1869 two gentlemen were involved in an action against each other.

Mr Ripley, of Jermyn Street, charged Sir Frederick Johnson with ‘unlawfully allowing a ferocious dog to go at large unmuzzled’. It was a specific offence and the sitting justice, Mr Tyrwhitt, had to decide on the balance of the evidence presented whether their was case to answer.

Ripley presented his own side of things in court while Sir Frederick was represented by his counsel, Mr Edward Lewis. Mr Ripely told the court that he was walking his dog in Piccadilly when an unaccompanied dog attacked his own animal ‘in a violent manner’. The attack was unprovoked and he was obliged to beat the other dog off with the only thing he had to hand, which was his umbrella. In the process the ‘brolly was damaged.

He walked on and asked if anyone owned the stray animal, no one did but one person informed him that the dog belonged to Sir Frederick Johnson, who lived at Arlington Street. a smart address just off Piccadilly. Ripley called at the Sir Frederick’s home but was not received. Frustrated he returned hime and , like all good Englishmen, penned an angry letter of complaint.

He soon received a reply, which said that Sir Frederick was sorry that Ripley’s dog had ‘been maltreated by his dog, who, being a very quiet animal, must have been first attacked, and therefore…had got what it deserved’.

This presumably infuriated Ripley further who wrote an immediate response, telling the knight that while his dog ‘was not wanting in pluck, it had never attacked another dog except in self-defence’.

The affair was embarrassing to both parties and showed the ‘better sort’ in a bad light. Mr Lewis said his client was disappointed that Ripley had not accepted his apology but had preceded to law by way of a summons. It was unnecessary and unproven on the evidence presented. He brought several witnesses who testified that Sir Frederick’s dog was not ‘ferocious’ and not uncontrolled. The dog itself was exhibited and seems, to the court reporter at least, to be ‘a good-tempered and docile animal’.

The magistrate was equally cross that this trivial affair had reached his courtroom. He concluded that it was ‘too much to say that because Sir F. Johnson’s dog came into collision with another dog, that it was a ferocious dog within the meaning of the act’. The case was ‘a trumpery one’ he finished, Sir Frederick had apologised and that was all a gentleman could be expected to do. The ‘dog had received a good character’ and so he dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 12, 1869]