The painted lady and a ‘most impudent fellow’.

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Miss Elizabeth Cox was disturbed by sounds outside her front door in late August 1831. She opened the door which was next to Mr Ryder’s Yard, Queen Street on Cheapside and was confronted by a young man dressed as a painter and decorator.

Miss Cox looked him up and down and said (rather unnecessarily) ‘You are painting my door’. The painter agreed and added that he would happily paint her as well if she wanted him to. ‘Ay, do’, she supposedly replied.

Incredibly the painter did just that. He dipped his brush into his pot and painted her face.

Was that enough Madame, he asked, or did she want more?

‘Go on, sir’ the lady told him.

So he did, applying paint to her bonnet and dress and, when he’d finished, demanded 3payment for the ‘work’ he’d completed!

But Miss Cox refused to pay and said she’d take him before the aldermen magistrates at the Guildhall instead. In response the man told her to do her worst, and he’d paint them as well.

The next day he was up before Sir Claudius Hunter at the Guildhall Police court and Miss Cox appeared (holding her bonnet and dress, both of which were covered in paint, as evidence). Naturally, she had washed the paint from her face.

The defendant gave his name as John George Barrett Gill (a ‘high-sounding name’ as the reporter remarked) and came across as an ‘extraordinary’ individual. He brazened out the encounter with the bench, seemingly unaware that he’d acted badly in any way whatsoever.

‘You are a very impudent fellow’, Sir Claudius told him, ‘and I’ll paint you in another way before I have done with you’.

The court now heard from several people that knew of Gill and doubted his sanity. One testified that just the other evening he’d invited a fellow workman to supper but that when he’d arrived he’d discovered the table and chairs, set for a meal, but outside the opposite house in the street!

Clearly Gill was eccentric but was he properly ‘mad’? Sir Claudius decided to bail him on the charge of damage (or possibly assault) but insisted that the surgeon at Wood Street compter (a small City gaol) examine him for signs of mental illness.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 20, 1831]

The Mansion House has no sympathy with those bent on ‘destroying themselves’.

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When an unnamed woman was charged with disorderly conduct at Mansion Police Police court in December 1841 the sitting justice took it upon himself to make a statement to the press. Sir Peter Laurie, the incumbent Lord Mayor, didn’t inflict further punishment on the woman because she had already been locked up overnight in the City’s compter (a old term for a prison). However, all leniency stopped there.

The Lord Mayor had previously punished her for attempting to ‘destroy herself’ (in other words for attempting suicide) by jumping off one of the capital’s bridges. Sir Peter said that there had been considerable numbers of suicide attempts in the past few months. No less than 26 people had been charged with the offence at Guildhall  and a further five at Mansion House from September to October.

As a result he had determined to deal with all future cases more severely. In November he had sent a man to Bridewell in an attempt to check ‘so revolting an offence’ by ‘a little wholesome severity’. That individual had tried to cut his own throat because he was suffering from ‘poverty and idleness’. A day later he sent a woman to the Old Bailey to face a jury trial. His fellow justice, Sir Chapman Marshall, followed his lead and committed a man for ‘attempting to drown himself’. In both cases the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 days imprisonment.

Since then there had been a notable falling off in persons attempting to take their own lives so Sir Peter commended the actions of the bench.

The clerk of the court ‘observed that several desperate imposters had made money by the experiment of tumbling into the Thames. The infliction of imprisonment and hard labour for the offence would certainly check the practice as far as pretenders were concerned, whatever effect it might have on those that seriously wished to get rid of life.’ He added that the ‘great majority’ were imposters in his opinion.

Sir Peter concluded by warning ‘every man and woman brought before me jumping or trying to jump into the river shall most positively walk off to Newgate [gaol] , and I am very much mistaken if the Judges do not henceforward inflict upon offenders very heavy punishments’.

It hardly needs to be said that such draconian attitudes to what may well have been genuine mental health issues would not be applied today. Attempting suicide is no longer an offence under law although persons displaying suicidal tendencies may well be sectioned, and forcibly confined. So the Victorian bench looks particularly uncaring in this regard. But before we congratulate ourselves on living in more enlightened times we might note the report of the parliamentary commission created by the late Jo Cox that has revealed the worrying extent of loneliness in modern Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1841]