A second chance for the lad that strayed

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Augustus Harris (1852-1896)

It seems as if young John Davenport was trying to escape his environment and make a better life for himself. For a 14 year-old working-class lad like John there were few opportunities to scale the social ladder or win any kind of wealth or fame. An entrepreneurial boy might strike lucky and make a fortune in business; by contrast serious crime was a pathway out of poverty (albeit a rocky and precarious one).

I once had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with the Strictly Coming Dancing judge Len Goodman. Len told that growing up in East London he knew that his passport out of the area was dancing. It was that, he said, or football or becoming a gangster. While he loved football, dancing was his passion and what he was best at.

Entertainment was also John Davenport’s thing and he got a break, being selected as part of the touring company performing Augustus Harris’ Human Nature (written in 1885). Augustus Harris was a big name in late Victorian theatre. Dubbed the ‘father on modern pantomime’ Harris was manager of the Drury Lane Theatre and co-wrote a number of plays and pantomimes. Several of these will be familiar to modern readers including Babes in the Wood (1888), Beauty and the Beast (1890) and Cinderella (1895).

So it was a ‘big thing’ to be chosen by Harris and should have meant to start of a long career in show business. Unfortunately John found himself on the wrong sort of stage in June 1888, after being caught in the wrong sort of act.

At the beginning of June he was brought into the Bow Street Police court and charged with stealing a pocket-handkerchief. He was first remanded so enquiries could be made and these revealed his links to Harris and the theatre company. It also revealed that his father – a costermonger –  wasn’t keen to see his boy fly the nest, at least not if it meant he would be excluded from his son’s earning potential.

As a 14 year-old thief with a previous unblemished record the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, was minded to be lenient. A member of the St Giles’ mission appeared and said he would be happy to find the boy a temporary home so long as the father would ‘give an undertaking not to interfere with him in future’. Mr Wheatley (from the mission) was clearly keen to remove the old bad influences from John and set him on a better road. Mr Davenport however refused to play along and said he would rather see John imprisoned for month instead.

Mr Vaughan told the father that he was extremely selfish and saw through his attempt to conceal his avaricious desires on his son’s earning under a cloak of parental indignity. Now it transpired that Augustus Harris had heard about John’s arrest and far from abandoning the lad as yet another wastrel that had failed to take the opportunity offered to him, ‘interested himself on the boy’s behalf’. The court was informed that Harris had found him a job in domestic service, would pay for a new suit of clothes and the fare to get him there.

It was a kind and generous offer and presented a viable solution to the magistrate. John was released to begin his new life. Let’s hope he took full advantage of this second chance the impresario had given him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 3, 1888]

P.s Augustus Harris was a lover of food and drink as well as the theatre and there is a bust of him on the corner of Catherine Street in Covent Garden, where he might have enjoyed a glass or tow. There’s even a smart Italian restaurant named after him.

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

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]