When it is the victim’s character that is really on trial, and that is what really matters in a male dominated courtroom

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Sometimes what might seem to be a fairly straightforward prosecution can reveal all sorts of other things, including contemporary prejudices and assumptions. Take this case as an example: in March 1895 George Brown was charged with stealing ‘a metal bracelet and brooch’ from Mollie Dashwood. The location of the theft and the behaviour of the victim both gave the accused (and the newspapers writing up the story) the opportunity to attack the woman’s character rather than treat her as someone who had been robbed.

Mollie (or Mrs Dashwood as she presented herself) told the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court that on the previous Saturday evening (23 March) she had suddenly felt faint so had dropped in to the Black Horse pub for ‘a drop of brandy’. It was there she met George Brown who was known to the landlord and described as his friend.

George was there with some chums and they invited Mollie to join them in a few drinks. George showed an interest in her bracelet and began to play with it on her arm; flirting with her is how we might see it. After a while he managed to persuade her to go into the billiard room with him, perhaps because it was quieter, and there he helped her off with her boa (her feather scarf that she would have worn as a sort of collar accessory). According to the barmaid at some point Mollie removed the bracelet and her brooch and asked her to look after them, but she refused.

Things were getting a little intimate and the landlord had noticed.  This was what was concentrated on in court as Mollie was cross-examined by the magistrate and the prisoner’s counsel. She was married and gave a (false) address in Catherine Street where she said she lived with her husband. Dashwood was her stage name: she was a former ‘serio-dancer’ who had ‘roved’ (i.e. travelled) a lot. This may have meant that Mollie performed on the stage at the music hall, dancing to popular songs like ‘Tar ra ra boon de ay!’ and showing rather more of herself than was always considered to be ‘respectable’. She had married in May 1883 at a Kensington registry office but she refused to share her husband’s name with the court (or indeed her real address) for ‘strong family reasons’. Maybe he didn’t really exist, the pair were estranged, or, more probably, he didn’t approve of her going out drinking.

It was all very mysterious and was made more salacious when William Temple, the landlord of the Black Horse, said he remembered Mollie calling at his house and borrowing sixpence. She had been a little the worse for drink and had told him ‘he was the only man in the world she loved’. This brought the courtroom out in shared laughter and might have undermined Mollie’s case had not the bracelet and brooch seemingly really been stolen. Where were they and who had them?

Whilst Mollie Dashwood’s reputation was being dragged through the mud in open court and all sorts of conclusions were being leapt to, it was also revealed that Brown had a previous conviction for theft and so the justice decided to send the case before a jury. Brown is hardly an unusual name and nor is George so perhaps it is no surprise that I have so far been unable to see if this case ever came to trial. Given the lack of any concrete evidence against Brown and the level of doubt created by Mollie Dashwood’s ‘unladylike’ behaviour (in entering a pub on her own and drinking with a group of men at the bar) I suspect a jury would have thrown it out anyway.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 28, 1895]

A ‘perfectly honest’ man is cleared at Woolwich

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Today we move south of the river and up to Woolwich, home of the Arsenal (the ordnance factory that is, it would be another three years until the football club of that name was founded). Henry Rollings, a tramcar conductor, was charged at the Woolwich Police Court ‘for neglecting to deposit an article of lost property within 24 hours’.

The charge was brought by a tramway inspector, a Mr Naudi, and he appeared in court to press the case while Rollings was supported by a number of people who spoke up for him as being an honest man.

On the 18th January 1883 Agnes Brookes was riding on Rollings’ tram as she often did. Rollings knew her well but not well enough to know where she lived. When Agnes got off to her rooms in Thomas Street, Plumstead, she was upset to discover that she had lost her brooch. It must have fallen off as she traveled on the tramcar, and thinking this she later applied to the Woolwich and Greenwich tramcar company’s office to see if anyone had found it.

She was in luck. The clerk told her that it had been handed in and sent to Scotland Yard, as was their standard procedure. The brooch had been found by another passenger, Eliza  Payne, who gave it to the conductor, Rollings. However, Rollings thought he recognised it as belonging to Agnes and so hoped to be able to return it in person, rather than simply sending it off to lost property as he was supposed to. He told Eliza this and she believed him.

So how did this case of lost property end up before Mr Balguy, the Woolwich Police magistrate?

Well it seems that when Miss Brooks first went to the office to enquire about her missing brooch Rollings hadn’t told anyone he’d got it, nor did he say that he knew her. It was only when he heard she was looking for it that he handed it over at the office. This was the story that Mr Nuadi told at least, and it placed Rollings in a difficult position. He was effectively being accused of keeping the jewellery for himself and only owning to finding it when forced to.

A police inspector explained that the tramway inspector had deposited the brooch with him on Sunday morning (three days after Agnes lost it) and Rollings turned up a few hours later to sign the record sheet. The brooch was then sent on to Scotland Yard to wait for its owner to claim it.

Luckily for the conductor the magistrate chose to believe his version of events. The man had acted foolishly, but not criminally and he doubted Mr Nuadi’s testimony. In fact he said that the tramway inspector was ‘famous for his incredulity in the honesty of people’. Rollings would have been liable to a penalty of £10 or even a term of imprisonment but he would only impose a fine of 10s on this occasion.

The traffic manager (possibly Rollings’ boss) was in court and Mr Balguy hoped that this incident and his appearance in court would not cost the conductor his job. No, said Mr Huddlestone, it would not. Rollings was, in his view, a ‘perfectly honest’ man. Which seems like the sensible outcome. Agnes got her brooch back, Rollings was fined but kept his job, and the tram company protected their reputation as a safe means of transport in public.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, January 31, 1883]

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