A ‘barbarous’ attack on ‘Eliza Doolittle’ at Charing Cross

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One of the classic ‘screen’ images we have of the late Victorian/Edwardian period is that of Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in Covent Garden market in My Fair Lady. Eliza, as one of London’s poorest and least educated citizens, is chosen by Professor Higgins for his experiment in linguistics.

According to the social investigator Henry Mayhew there was somewhere between 400 and 800 flower sellers in mid Victorian London, and most of them were very young girls, often the daughters of costermongers. They operated throughout the capital but were concentrated on the ‘busiest thoroughfares’ such as the Strand where they ‘cried their fares’ to attract passing ladies (mostly) to buy them.

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Perhaps with the passing of the Elementary Education Act (1870) and increased schooling for the 5-13 year olds this took some of the girls off the streets, at least on weekdays. This might mean that the character of Eliza Doolittle, as a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, was more typical of flower sellers by the late 1800s.

One Monday in June 1887 Martha Smith was selling roses at Charing Cross. She was calling out, ‘Roses, penny a bunch’ to catch the attention of pedestrians when a drunk started to hassle her. Thomas Davis (56) was also trying to sell flowers but his were withered and decayed. He ‘mocked her cry’ but when this failed to make her move along he resorted to violence.

He was carrying his own roses on a basket lid and he violently shoved this in her face, then punched her in the mouth, knocking out two teeth. He hadn’t finished though. Grabbing a ‘Chinese parasol’ he proceeded to beat her over the head with it. Somehow Martha managed to get away from him and found a policeman who arrested the man.

When he was charged at the station Davis said nothing but in court at Bow Street he told the magistrate that he competed for business with Martha and that she was trespassing on his territory, a lamppost by Charing Cross station. He alleged that she’d started the row and had scratched his face; he was only defending himself. PC 254E testified that Davis had said nothing of this version of events when he’d been arrested or charged and so Mr. Vaughan was not inclined to believe him.

The justice told Davis that just because both parties were on the same trade it was no reason for them for their assaulting one another’. The attack he’d made had been ‘barbarous’ and he ‘must go to gaol for one month’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 29, 1887]

This is not my first ‘flower girl’ story – for another follow this link.

“I ain’t done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman”: a real life flower girl in trouble with the law

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On Sunday I started a short experiment in my methodology by choosing to follow just one week in the Police Courts. I picked the year 1883 because it neatly corresponded with our calendar for 2018. If you have been following the stories from Sunday you will know that we have resolved the case of George Wyatt (who robbed a jeweller on Hounsditch), heard that Henry Rollings was given the benefit of the doubt by the Woolwich justice, and noted the limits of the law in helping a cab driver whose fare had run off without paying him.

The case that remained outstanding was that of Harry Harcourt, the deaf and dumb pauper who made a miraculous recovery in Lambeth workhouse and found himself facing a charge of imposture.

Harcourt doesn’t appear in the police court reports published by The Standard on Saturday 3 February, nor is he in The Morning Post. I thought I might see him in the Illustrated Police News because that was a weekly paper and would have had the time to develop a fuller story around him, but sadly he’s a ‘no show’ there as well. We’ll have to wait to see if he is in the Sunday papers tomorrow. 

Instead, the top story in the Illustrated Police News  is the case of Mary Lowry and two other (unnamed) women who were brought before a City of London alderman for making a nuisance of themselves outside Aldersgate Street railway station.

The case was brought by a City policeman who explained to Sir Thomas Owden (on oath) that Mary and several others were frequently to be found outside the station selling flowers for button holes. Passersby were forced to ‘walk out into the road to avoid pass these obstructions’ he said, and the girls’ behaviour bordered on the aggressive:

‘They were not content with asking people to buy their flowers’, he stated, ‘but they followed them and thrust the flowers in their faces’.

When the policeman tried to move them on or arrest them they quickly got out of his way, returning when he’d passed by on his beat. As a result he had obtained summons to bring them into court.

Mary now spoke up for herself:

‘Beg pardon, my lord, I wasn’t there a minute. I was in the road till a milk cart came along, and I just stepped onto the path to avoid being knocked down’.

Sir Thomas didn’t believe her; the policeman had given his evidence on oath and he doubted he would have lied or made it all up. The other girls said they were sorry but they were simply trying to make a living. Flower sellers were a part of London’s poorest community and sometimes trod a narrow path between legitimate commercial business and petty crime or prostitution. If one thinks of Victorian or Edwardian flower girls an image of  Eliza Doolittle singing her wares in Covent Garden immediately springs to mind.

Sir Thomas said he was ‘sorry that [the girls] could not find something better to do’ but was inclined to be lenient on this occasion. He adjourned the summonses for a month to see if they would desist from their behaviour, and ket them all go.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, February 3, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk