‘Mother Needham in the dock’ : sex and exploitation in mid Victorian London

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If you are familiar with William Hogarth’s engravings for the Harlot’s Progress (1732) then you might remember the story of Mary ‘Moll’ Hackabout. Moll arrives in London on the coach (see Hogarth’s image above) in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker or a servant in a quality household. Instead she meets Mother Needham, a notorious procuress, who tricks young women like Moll into prostitution.

While this is very much an eighteenth-century trope there is little doubt that procuresses continued to operate in the Victorian age. Indeed, there is very little difference between the actions of Mother Needham in the 1730s and the people traffickers and grooming gangs of our century. Where there is money to be made by the exploitation of girls and young women for sex you will find people prepared to take advantage.

In 1855 Anne Alice Hudson was placed in the dock at Westminster Police court and charged with assault. In reality assault was the least of Hudson’s crimes for she was a nineteenth-century procuress. Her victim was Ann Prior, a 20 year-old woman who possessed ‘considerable personal attractions’. As we can see the Morning Post’s reporter was not above objectifying the poor girl in the witness stand that morning.

Ann explained that a few years earlier she had come to London from Nottingham with the intention of finding work as a servant. She had met Hudson back in Nottingham, by chance house said, and the older woman had promised her work if she came south. However, once she arrived in the capital it quickly became apparent that she would working in a much less respectable industry than she had planned. Hudson installed her in a brothel and sent her out to walk the streets as a prostitute. Her pay was limited and Hudson extracted her rent, food and the cost of her clothes from any small amount she did earn. As a result Ann Prior was almost constantly in debt to the other woman.

This was deliberate of course; by taking control of her earnings and providing everything for her Hudson had trapped Ann in a cycle of dependency that required her to sell herself to keep up her payments. When she decided she couldn’t cope any longer and ran away, Hudson came after her. It was this that provoked the assault charge.

In July 1855 Hudson tracked Ann down to her digs at 40 Walton Street, near Knightsbridge*. The old woman demanded the immediate repayment of the debt she claimed Ann owed and when this was refused she became violent, hitting her and scratching the younger woman’s neck. In court Hudson claimed Ann had robbed her of some silver plate but could bring no evidence to prove this.

Her own defense lawyer tried to undermine Ann’s testimony but the magistrate was clearly on the side of the young girl. ‘She was anxious to reclaim herself’, he said admiringly, and abandon the wretched life she had been leading for two years’. Hudson had no right to any money as far as he could see and certainly no right to go to Prior’s lodgings and demand it with menaces.

He fined Hudson £5 and said if she failed to pay up he would send her to prison for months instead. Regardless he ordered her to find two sureties to the value of £20 each to keep the peace towards the complainant for a year. It was hefty sentence and reflected Mr Arnold’s clear contempt for the ‘wretched-looking old hag’ in the dock before him.

Did this prosecution allow Ann Prior to ‘reclaim her life’ and find respectability after two years of prostituting herself? The odds are against it of course, but with luck and if she had escaped disease or pregnancy, then maybe she might have found a pathway out of it. Let’s hope so at least.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 11, 1855]

* in 1975 the IRA bombed Walton’s Restaurant on this street, killing two people and injuring several others. The IRA unit were nicknamed the Balcombe Street Gang.

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 on Amazon

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

A cheeky guest and a runaway wife: all in a day’s work for the Marlborough Street beak

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Today I shall mostly be at a one-day conference at the Open University near Milton Keynes. For those that don’t know the OU is home to the Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice and some eminent historians of the police such as Clive Emsley, Chris Williams and Paul Lawrence. I’m not speaking but I am chairing a panel, which means I have to stay awake and take notes, so I can ask poignant questions and (most importantly) make sure nobody goes over time. The conference is called The Architecture of the State: Prisons, Courts & Police Stations in Historical Perspective and my panel has two excellent looking talks on courts.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in courts recently, albeit ones convened well over 100 years ago. This morning I’m at Marlborough Street in the year following the creation of the Metropolitan Police, 1830. No policemen feature in either of the cases I’m looking at today which probably reflects the fact that Londoners were still getting used to the idea of turning to them when a crime occurred.

When William Grant knocked at the door of Mr William Holmes MP in Grafton Street the footman let him in. After all he was ‘fashionably dressed’ and had asked to see Lady Stronge, the politician’s wife. William Holmes was a Conservative member of parliament for Grampound in Cornwall, a rotten borough which returned two MPs before the Great Reform Act of 1832 swept such corrupt practices away. Lady Stronge was the widow of Sir James Stronge, an Irish baronet who had died in 1804, and she was 10 years older than her second husband.

Grant was asked to wait in the dining room while the footman went up to announce him. While he waited he pocketed three silver spoons from the sideboard. He was discovered as he ascended the stairs because the footman heard them clanking his jacket. He was taken before Mr Dyer at Marlborough Street who remanded him in custody.

Earlier that session Mr Dyer had a strange request for help from ‘an elderly gentleman’ about his missing wife. The man, whose name was kept out of the newspapers, told the justice that about a month ago his wife had left home complaining of ill health. She had promised him that she would go to the country, to visit to her friends, and presumably to take the air and recover.

She’d not been gone long however when he realized that a ‘considerable quantity of valuable property’ had disappeared as well. The old man wrote a letter to her relatives to ask after her and received a reply that they hadn’t seen her for ages!

The poor man now made some enquiries and discovered that she was living in St John’s Wood with another man. Far from retiring to the county for the good of her health she’d run off to begin an adulterous relationship with a younger man. He had tried to see her but was prevented from doing so. His only contact had been when he saw her walking with her new beau on Fleet Street.

The elderly husband was clearly at his wits end but laboring under the misconception that his wife had been abducted and so he asked Mr Dyer for his help in rescuing her. The magistrate explained that there was little he could do in this situation but if he truly believed that  she was bring held against her will then he could apply for a writ of habeas corpus and serve it on his rival. Satisfied with this answer the old man left the court, no doubt in search of a lawyer.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 17, 1830]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Heartache for one couple as their baby boy disappears with his nurse

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The state of mind of George Augustus Mahon can only be guessed at when he turned up at Bow Street Police court to seek the help of the magistrate. His appearance there is a reminder that not everyone that came to court was brought by the police or a summons. Mahon and his wife had suffered a terrible shock and they turned to the magistrate as the most obvious person to advise and assist them.

Mahon was a commercial clerk, an upright member of the middle class, who lived at 15 Serle Street in Lincoln’s Inn, in London’s legal quarter. Two months earlier the Mahons had employed a new servant, Kate Curly, a steady sober woman of 26 years of age and she had served them well thus far. Families like theirs would probably only have afforded one or two domestics but Kate was hired as a nurse to look after their infant son, who was just a few months old.

On Monday 9 May 1870 Kate requested permission leave to visit her mother who lived locally.  She wanted to show her the baby she said and Mr Mahon granted her request. He had no doubts about Kate as she her behaviour and work had been exemplary up to then. However, when it got to 4 o’clock and Kate had not returned home Mrs Mahon began to get concerned. 5 o’clock came and went and still there was no sign of the servant. In the evening, when George returned from his office he went in search of her.

Mahon visited Kate parents and they told him that she had left their house around 7 or 8 in the evening that they had walked with her as far as the Gray’s Inn Road where they had said their goodbyes. No one had seen Kate or the baby boy since. If they were telling the truth then the servant and the child had disappeared close to Holborn. Had something happened or had Kate abducted the baby boy?

The clerk went to the police and detective sergeant Kerly of E Division sent a description to every police station and had dispatched men to enquire at the local hospitals to see him Kate had met with an accident. The chief clerk at Bow Street asked the sergeant if he had placed a notice in the Police Gazette. He hadn’t but he would consider it. Sir Thomas Henry, the Bow Street magistrate, suggested that the following description of Kate and the child be placed in all the newspapers:

The child is described to have been dressed in long clothes, and a white cloak trimmed with blue silk. The nurse [Kate Curly], was 26 years of age, and about five feet three inches in height, with dark complexion and black hair. She wore a black and white cotton dress, black cloth jacket, and black lace bonnet with white flowers’.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported this as ‘another case of child stealing suggesting that there had been a spate of abductions in the capital, but then it was a more sensational publication that the sober Morning Post.  I wish I could say what happened to the Mahon’s baby and their nurse but I haven’t managed to find anything that follows up on this story. I hope they both turned up or were found, perhaps having been involved in some minor accident as the police suspected. If not one can only imagine the heartache of the Mahon’s, who entrusted their child to someone they’d only know a matter of months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1870; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 15, 1870]

A rapist offers ‘atonement’ to buy off his victim’s father

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A warning, this is a most unpleasant case, because it concerns the alleged rape of a 14 year-old girl.

Rachael Potts worked as a domestic servant in a household at 30 Grosvenor Park South, Camberwell, south London. In mid April her mistress went off to her country home for a few days so it was decided that Racheal would lodge with her father in Camberwell and travel the short distance to work each morning, not staying there overnight. Her father was a tradesman, a furniture broker on Southampton Street and probably saw his daughter’s employment as a respectable occupation and education for a young girl. He also expected her to be safe there, but he was wrong.

While Rachael’s mistress was away Montague Musgrave, her brother, was not. He lived with his sister at number 30 and one Wednesday evening he noticed that the young serving girl had scratched her arm. He offered to bandage it and as he was doing so he pulled her towards him onto his knee. Rachael wriggled free and ran off into the kitchen but Musgrave followed.

With no one about in the kitchen (presumably because most of the staff had gone to the country) Musgrave was able to catch Rachael, force her to the floor and rape her. He then made her a present of some ribbons and urged her to say nothing of what had happened. The teenage girl went home to her mother and kept her silence until she realized she had contracted a sexually transmitted infection or, as the press at the time put it: ‘a loathsome disease’.

The mother complained, Musgrave was arrested and the whole sordid affair came before Mr Elliott at Lambeth Police court. Musgrave was represented by his attorney but Rachael had to give her evidence herself. The prejudice of the papers was apparent as she was described as ‘precocious’ and ‘indifferent’, while Musgrave was ‘gentlemanly’. The accused lawyer argued that no jury would convict his client based on the evidence of a young girl (and by implication at least, a young girl of lower social status) and so offered some ‘atonement’.

In reality he was probably offering Rachael (or rather her father) some financial compensation in the hope that the charge would be dropped and further embarrassment could be avoided.  Unfortunately for Musgrave the magistrate did not feel that ‘atonement’ was an appropriate thing to discuss at this stage and bailed the suspected rapist to appear a week later.

At this point both Rachael and her alleged abuser vanish from the records. I doubt a trial took place; it is much more likely that an out of court settlement was made and Rachael left her position as a domestic in Camberwell and returned to her father. No doubt he received some money and the girl received some medical care but Musgrave would have walked away without any further taint on his reputation.

One expects however, that his sister may well have recognised that  her brother was not to be trusted with the young female staff and that is why she tried to keep Rachael away when she was not at home to supervise him. Let’s hope she was more careful in the future for leopards rarely change their spots.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 7, 1856]

‘You only have to order for one of the cafés, they put it down in their books, and all is settled up all right’: testing the boundaries of credit in Victorian London

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Today we operate a society largely underwritten by credit. I hardly use cash to pay for anything and for many things that I buy I use a credit card. My grandmother would no doubt be horrified if she was alive today. She was an Edwardian, born before the outbreak of war in 1914 in a very different country to the one we live in today. There credit was usually reserved for the wealthy although many small shopkeepers recognized that poor people needed some help in making ends meet and did them credit where possible.

But the real beneficiaries of credit in the way we understand it today (not paying for goods or services for sometime after you received them) were the middle class and elite. Many of wealthy in Victorian and Edwardian society simply lived on the ‘never never’, paying their bills when they really had to. Naturally this system was open to abuse as while the payments came from those at the top many of purchases were actually made by their servants.

In April 1888 Mary Hughes was prosecuted at the Marlborough Street Police court for ‘unlawfully obtaining three slices of salmon, value 10(or about £40 today). Hughes had entered Mrs Ann Crump’s fishmonger’s shop on New Bond Street and had asked for the fish. She said that the fish was for her mistress, the Countess of Dudley, and so the salmon was wrapped and the bill added to the countess’ account. Normally the fishmonger would have delivered the item later but Mary insisted that it was needed in a hurry, so she was given it straight away.

Something about her demeanor raised the cashier’s (a  Mr Woodwatd) suspicions however, and he decided to follow her. Woodward followed Mary along Bond Street to St James’ Street where she boarded a bus headed for Victoria. When they reached the Vauxhall Road Woodward collared her and told her he suspected her of committing a fraud. Mary spun him a line about having to go somewhere before she returned to her mistress but he didn’t fall for it. He called over a passing policeman and had her arrested. The officer took her in a cab to Dudley House, (below right) the home of the countess, and Woodward followed behind. dudley house

At Dudley House Mary’s unraveled: the housekeeper stated that she didn’t know her, she had never worked there and no one had sent her out to buy salmon. Mary was taken back to a police station to be charged and brought before the magistrate the next day. In court it was revealed that she’d told the officer on the way to the station that her ruse was an easy one to perpetrate:

‘You know what it is, constable, in these large firms. I have had many a piece there; you only have to order the salmon for some of the cafés, and then they put it down in their books, and all is settled up all right’.

This admission brought chuckles of laughter in the courtroom but the magistrate was unlikely to have been amused. This exploitation of the credit system undermined it and that, ultimately, affected people like him who enjoyed the freedom to choose when to pay that it brought. Mary said she had a relative who worked for the Countess of Dudley which is how she knew where the household placed its orders, let’s hope there were no repercussions for that employee. She added that on the day she’d committed the fraud she’d been drunk.

It was a lame defense at best but Mr Mansfield decided to remand her for a week while he decided what to do with her.  In the end Mary was tried and convicted at the quarter sessions and sent to Millbank prison for two months.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1888]

Three bad apples are locked away at Clerkenwell

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There had been a spate of burglaries in February 1861 in the Clerkenwell area and the police were on heightened alert. Burglary was the quintessential Victorian crime and burglars the apogee of the ‘criminal class’. Newspapers often reported burglaries and carried adverts for anti-burglar alarms and devices; towards the end of the century there was a notable growth in the insurance business to offset the losses from home thefts.  In short then, burglary and burglars were a menace and this put pressure on police chiefs to make arrests and reassure the public that their properties were safe.

Police sergeant Robinson (4E) and PC Blissett (106E) had dispensed with their uniforms and adopted ‘plain clothes’ to keep watch for any unusual activity on the street near Mecklenberg Square (where a number of incidents had been reported). They were keeping watch on Doughty Street at about 8 in the evening when they saw three men ‘loitering about in a very suspicious manner’.

As they watched the officers saw one of the men trying doors on the street, to see if any would open. The other men were ‘piping’ (cant for keeping watch) and when they clocked the policemen they made a run for it. The bobbies followed and quickly overtook them, and attempted to make an arrest.

Unfortunately for sergeant Robinson and PC Blissett the trio decided not to come quietly but instead attacked them. One of the men broke away and threw something into the gutter, another tried to get rid of set of skeleton keys but the sergeant recovered them. The policemen struggled with their prisoners and called for help that soon arrived. Finally the would-be burglars were safely locked up in the station house.

Sergeant Robinson returned to the scene and recovered a chisel that one of the gang had discarded and this was matched to marks made on doors in nearby John Street. The chisel was presumably there to enable them to force locks open if they couldn’t gain access without doing so.

The men were stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr D’Eyncourt. They gave their names as William Green, James Higgins and William Smith. They were all well known to the police who clearly suspected them of being the men responsible for the mini crime wave in the district but on this occasion they hadn’t actually broken into anywhere. There was some strong circumstantial evidence however. A local man, named Abrahams, explained that his property had been burgled and the culprits had gained using a set of skeleton keys.

Mr Abrahams said thieves had broken into his house on Bedford Row and had stolen property valued at £50 from him. ‘What made the matter worse’, he continued, was that ‘his servant’s savings, amounting to over £11, besides some of her clothing, were stolen’. This wasn’t simply stealing from those that could afford it, it was the plunder of the life savings of some poor domestic, someone everyone in the court (and reading the report) could empathize with.

The three men denied doing anything wrong, yes, they said, they had picked up the keys (but innocently, without intent to use them) and as for the chisel ‘they knew nothing of it, nor did they wish to’. This drew a laugh or two from the court which was probably quickly stifled by the magistrate.

Mr D’Eyncourt told them that had they managed to break into a house that evening he would have had no hesitation in committing them for trial at the Old Bailey where, if convicted, they might have face several years of penal servitude. As it was they were lucky that he could only punish them for the attempt and the assault on the policemen that had arrested them. They would all go to gaol for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, February 15, 1861]