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. .

Two urchins and a strumpet; three different fates.

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In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.

Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.

Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:

‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.

On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.

Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.

It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of  week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.

Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.

She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.

The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.

As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.

So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]

Two ‘inveterate readers of juvenile literature’ caught short at Lambeth

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The Union Jack, juvenile reading matter from 1880

Thomas and Roger Casement were avid readers, or so their father believed. The pair of adolescents (Thomas was 13, his brother 11) were arrested in January 1876 in possession of three books they had allegedly stolen from a Lambeth bookshop. Mr William Polder, the shop owner, appeared in court at Southwark to press his prosecution against them while the boys’ father was there to defend his sons.

Polder said the lads came into his shop on York Road around lunchtime and asked to look at some of his 3d editions. Having perused these for a while they thanked him but said nothing interested them, and left. Soon afterwards however, Polder realised that three copies of more expensive texts (which he described as being ‘of greater value with showy covers’) were missing and he suspected the boys.

He soon caught up with them and, with the assistance of a police constable (PC 97L) they were arrested. The books were discovered and the constable asked them why they had taken them.

‘To make money of, as they had none’, the juvenile thieves reportedly replied.

Having ascertained that their father was a respectable man, a captain in the local militia no less,  a message was sent to fetch him. In court the officer spoke up for his offspring:

He ‘could not account for the lads taking the books unless it was to pay for the loan of them some other day. They were inveterate readers of juvenile literature, and were in the habit of borrowing books and paying for the loan of them’.

The justice, Mr Benson, pointed out that they had made no claim to borrowing anything, or offering to pay – this seemed like theft but the captain insisted it must have been a mistake. The magistrate gave him (if not the lads) the benefit of the doubt and released them into their father’s care on him agreeing to enter into a recognizance against their future good behaviour. If they stayed out of trouble all would be well, if they repeated the thefts then a reformatory possibly beckoned.

I imagine the journey home was an uncomfortable one for Thomas and Roger, but perhaps not as uncomfortable as the thrashing they were very likely to have received later.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, January 26, 1876]

An absent minded book thief at Euston

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Emma Hawkins clearly loved books. In fact she sometimes became so caught up in the reading of books that she quite forgot where she was, or even that the books might not belong to her.

The housewife from Rickmansworth was visiting London one afternoon in November 1886 and, whilst waiting for her return train was browsing the second-hand section at W.H.Smith’s bookstall at Euston Station. Seeing something she liked she took it over to the counter and paid a shilling for it.

Having acquired a cheap novel for the journey home she set off to catch the 4.45 which was making ready to depart. She stepped up onto the train and was about to settle down in her seat when a man approached her.

Edward Mallett was the chief clerk at W. H. Smith’s and he had been watching Emma whilst she browsed the book stall. He had seen her select a number of titles, picking them up and placing them back again, before she took one and put it in her bag. He felt sure he’s seen her steal and so had followed her to her train.

Mallett demanded that she open her bag and let him the contents. Inside were three books, the one she’d paid for and two others that she hadn’t. He’d only seen her pinch one but all three were his stock.

She pleaded with him not to take it further, offering to pay ‘double the amount’ for the books. He declined and handed her over to a policeman and she was brought before the Police magistrate at Marylebone to answer for the theft.

Detective-sergeant Hunt, who was employed by the London and North-Western Railway, told Mr De Rutzen that she had admitted the theft when arrested. He told the court that she had:

‘a box and a bag with her, in which [the] Witness found eight books, some of them from two libraries in London. There were also some new silk handkerchiefs and a long list of articles’.

So had Emma been on a shopping or  stealing spree in the capital? Her husband insisted it was not the latter. His wife, he explained, was easily distracted and ‘he was sure absentmindedness would explain her conduct’.

‘She had taken a book from a shop, and was about to go away with it without having paid for it’, he said, ‘so engrossed was she in the contents of the volume, and he had to remind her that she had not paid for it’.

It was a fairly weak defence and Mr De Rutzen was not inclined to accept it at face value. However, nor did he wish to remand an otherwise respectable woman in prison. If she and her husband could provide two sureties to the value of £20 then he was prepared to bail her to appear at a later date once further evidence had been collected.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 18, 1886]

‘I found her insensible’: when domestic violence ends up in tragedy

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A little after 1 in the morning on the 27 May 1889 Dr Edward Cooney was called to a house in Bayonne Road, Fulham. His patient was a woman in her early forties, who was unconscious and who appeared, to Cooney, to be suffering ‘from compression of the brain’. On examining her he found a bruise on the side of her face, by the left ear, and one under her eye.

Turning to the woman’s husband (Charles Mills) he asked how she had come by the injuries, and he admitted inflicting them himself. He treated Mary Jane Mills and left her in the care of her husband and son. Within two days however, she was dead, never recovering from her condition.

In due course Charles Mills was arrested and charged at Hammersmith Police Court with causing her death.

In court Mills again admitted hitting his wife but said it was in response to her attacking him in the middle of the night. According to his account he had been woken by her striking him hard across his head. Half-asleep he had retaliated and presumably thought he had done enough to send her back to sleep. He only realised that he had done her more harm when he awoke in the middle of the night.

Mary Jane had a history of drinking and was seemingly unable to cope with life. The couple’s son lived with them and later testified to his mother’s erratic behaviour and inability to keep the house clean and tidy. Charles Mills was a bookseller, and his son worked as a fishmonger; they had respectable occupation even if they do not seem to have been particularly well-off. Mary Jane was not fulfilling her allotted role in life, as help-mate and mother. This probably counted against her in the view of society.

On May 30th 1889 Charles Mills was remanded in custody by Mr Hannay, the Hammersmith magistrature, and on 24 June of that year he was formally tried before  jury at the Old Bailey. The charge was manslaughter and the court heard that Mills was a well respected man with a good character. His wife’s drinking was detailed in court and so was evidence that this was not the first time Charles had hit her.

A neighbour told the Old Bailey court that she had witnessed or heard several alterations between them in recent weeks, including threats to her life:

‘I remember one occasion’, Hannah Noble recounted, ‘ about four weeks previous to this occurrence—about twelve o’clock, after he came home from his work, he gave her a thrashing—I saw it through their window, which had no blind, and I saw her next day with a pair of black eyes and scratches on the side of her face—on one occasion, towards twelve o’clock, I heard him say he would do for her.’

Whether Charles Mill meant to kill his wife or not is impossible to say, but men routinely used violence in the 1800s towards their spouses and children. Domestic murder was not at all uncommon and the most likely context in which homicide occurred. While the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper dominated the news hole in the 1880s incidents like this were far more typical of the daily tragedies that befell women in late Victorian London.

The jury found Charles guilty of manslaughter; how could they not given his confession to the police, his son, and Mary Jane’s mother in the immediate aftermath of her death? But they recommended him to mercy on ‘account of his character and the great provocation he received’.

The judge sentenced him to 12 months impriosnment at hard labour.

[from The Standard , Thursday, May 31, 1889]

A fake surgeon tries (and fails) to con Ellen Terry’s father

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Today is of course the first of April, the day when japes and merry pranks fill the pages of the newspapers and the content of TV and radio news shows. This year there seems to be something of a paucity of ‘April fools’ perhaps because the world is quite mad enough without making stuff up.

The Victorians were just as gullible as ourselves it seems and the nineteenth-century press were quite happy to try and trick their readerships with ‘fake news’ stories. I doubt however, whether this extended to the reporters at the Police Courts, who were tasked with entertaining readers with the day-to-day ‘doings’ of this lower level of the criminal justice system.

Alongside the drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters there were those who tried, in a  variety of ways, to trick the more susceptible members of society. These included fraudsters who sold things that didn’t work, or bought goods on ‘tick’ with no intention of paying, and others who persuaded people to part with money under false pretences.

One such person was Frederick Walter Ventris, a bookseller, who was charged at Wandsworth Police Court with ‘obtaining money by false representations’.

Ventris had knocked at the door of a Mr Terry (an actor) and his wife. He told the lady of the house ‘a pitiable tale of having been a surgeon, but could not follow his profession as he was paralysed, and had just been discharged from the Fulham infirmary’. Mrs Terry said she would speak to her husband, gave him some money to allow him to pay for his lodgings and invited him to call again soon.

Ventris returned a day or so later and this time managed to speak to Mr Terry. This was probably Benjamin Terry, a well-known actor and the head of what was to be a renowned acting family. Terry was married to Sarah Ballard, who also trod the boards, and then had several children. One of these was Ellen who went on to achieve international fame as a Shakespearean actress, appearing often alongside Henry Irving. Her great nephew was John Gielgud, demonstrating perhaps that great genes do run in the family.

Benjamin Terry was sympathetic to Frederick Ventris’ plight who wrote to the Charity Organisation Society on his behalf. Ventris explained that he had been given permission to deliver a series of lectures on chemistry by the vicar of Chiswick and in this way managed to persuade several other persons to give him money so he could buy the ‘chemical equipment’ he needed for the talks.

However, when the case came to court Ventris’ ruse began to unravel. The vicar, the Reverend Dale said he given no such permission to the supposed surgeon. He said the story he had been told was that the man was one of his parishioners and was applying for the job of caretaker at the local board school.

Ventris protested to the magistrate that all this was hearsay and false rumour but Mr Paget was having nothing of it. He saw through the attempt to hoodwink and actor and a man of the cloth, both potentially more open to believing a ‘hard luck’ story, and found Ventris guilty as charged. He told him he ‘had taken advantage of a superior education to commit a systematic course of fraud on charitably disposed persons’. He then sent him to prison at hard labour for three months.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 01, 1879]