‘MeToo’ in the 1870s as some brave young women fight back

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The MeToo movement in the US and over here has helped expose the widespread exploitation of power by men for their own sexual gratification. Several prominent female actors have testified to being sexually assaulted or otherwise manipulated into performing sex acts by men who had the power and influence to further, or finish, their careers.

It took considerable courage for the survivors of these attacks to speak out and help bring their abusers to court. Victims are not always listened to, even today, and we did see instances where victims were effectively abused again, notably by the incumbent president of the United States, simply for daring to speak truth to power.

Given how difficult it remains for women to bring accusations against men for sexual abuse in the twenty-first century one wonders just how easy it was 150 or more years ago?

Victorian Britain was a much less female friendly society after all. It was a male dominated society where women did not only lack the right to vote, they lacked pretty much any rights at all. There were no female judges or magistrates, no policewomen, women were expected to look after children and the home, obey their husbands and fathers. They earned a lot less than men, were not allowed to study at university, and not encouraged to study at all. Queen Victoria was an exception in being a woman who held power (or sorts) and even she deferred to her husband in domestic matters.

So the young women that worked for Messrs. Fourdrinier and Hunt at their paperhanging works on Southwark Bridge Road deserve a mention this morning. In August 1875 James Fellows, a 34 year-old employee of the firm, was brought before Mr Benson at the Southwark Police court. He was accused of ‘disgraceful conduct towards several young girls’ working at the paperhangers.

Just what that ‘disgraceful conduct’ was soon became clear as a number of the women testified in court. Alice Page was just 16 and still lived at home with he parents. She worked making paper collars for Fourdrinier & Hunt’s in the same building as Fellows. She was working on her own on the previous Wednesday when Fellows came into the workshop and exposed himself. He did it again on Saturday and she informed her foreman.

I think we sometimes used to consider ‘flashers’ as a ‘bit of a laugh’; they featured in 70s comedy routines and perhaps weren’t taken that seriously. But Fellows was an active ‘sex pest’ using his position, as a male employee in a firm full of female workers, to gratify his own sexual urges at the expenses of his co-workers. His abuse did not end with ‘flashing’ either.

Alice Gillings told the magistrate that on the previous Saturday Fellows had entered the room where she worked and had thrown her down and sexually assaulted her. Caroline Smith had seen what happened to Gittings and rushed over to help. She scratched the man’s face in the process. Alice then managed to get away from Fellows, slapping his face and pushing him off, and told the foreman. Sadly, he did nothing about it.

Other girls had complained of Fellows’ conduct but were too ‘ashamed to tell it’ in court. Sexual predators and abuser like Fellows often rely on the silence of victims too scared or embarrassed to speak of what had happened to them. Just as in the MeToo movement it took a handful of brave survivors to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unfortunately in this case they had left it a bit too late. Mr Benson was disgusted by Fellows’ behaviour but since it had been over a week since the alleged attack on Alice Gillings he could not proceed with that charge. He reprimanded the foreman, James Collier, telling him that he should have sacked Fellows straight away after the first offence was reported saying that ‘he should not have remained in the place an hour’.

The indecent exposure had only been seen by Alice Page and he could not simply take her word for it uncorroborated. He suggested that the firm terminate his employment and ordered Fellows to enter into recognizances against his future behaviour for 12 months. It was a limited victory for the women at the paperhangers and hopefully prevented others from being victims of Fellows in the near future. It is deeply depressing to know that similar and worse episodes of male sexual violence and exploitation are still occurring in our ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ society.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 15, 1875]

If you pay peanuts what do you expect? Exploitation in the Victorian rag trade

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Mrs Davis was a shirt maker operating in Houndsditch on the edge of the City of London. She lived in Gun Square and made shirts for a shopkeeper (Mr Cook) who had a premises on the corner of St Paul’s Churchyard close by Wren’s masterpiece. Mrs Davis took delivery of materials from Mr Cook’s warehouse and gave him back ‘fine shirts’ for which she was usually paid half a crown (26d) each.

In order to make the number of shirts Mr Cook required Mrs Davis farmed out some of the work to others, including Elizabeth Harding a girl of 19. She paid Elizabeth 6d for an evening’s work which she thought was enough time to make one shirt. So she was pocketing 2for herself for each item Elizabeth made for her, not a great deal for the younger woman.

In November 1843 Mrs Davis discovered that Elizabeth  had completed one of the eight shirts she’d given her but had pawned; the others were so incomplete that she had to pay someone else 3s  to finish them. When she took the seven shirts to the warehouse the foreman refused to take them as he was expecting the contracted eight. Not only that but he then demanded she pay him 16s  for the raw materials that Mr Cook had supplied.

Mrs Davis was out of pocket and extremely angry with Elizabeth, so took her before the magistrate at Guildhall to complain.  Elizabeth Harding was charged with the theft of a shirt (the one she had pawned) and Alderman Farebrother was told the whole sorry story.

He wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Mrs Davis. He could see why a girl who was paid just sixpence a day was ‘sometimes tempted to do wrong’. His wider point is still relevant today when we look around the world at the sweatshops that produce fashion for British highstreet for a fraction of the amount that the shops charge the customer. Mr Farebrother declared that:

‘he wished that those that who were fond of buying those very cheap articles were obliged to make them at the price’.

Mrs Davis listened to the fine gentleman’s words with a stony expression on her face. She retorted that

‘she fared no better than her assistants, for she was a widow, with children dependent on her. She had sometimes to make shirts at 3each, and even at 2d.’

It was not unknown for the price to fall even lower than that, she added.

In the end the alderman referred the case to the Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate) and remanded her so that questions could be asked at the pawnbrokers where she allegedly took the missing shirt. That was an offence and if she was found guilty she might expect a term of imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 06, 1843]

 

A furious ostler takes his rage out on the horses

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On Monday morning 3 November 1879 the foreman at a stables in Coburg Row, Westminster, found that one of the stablemen was  much ‘the worse for drink’ and sacked him on the spot. The stakes were owned by Mr W. Ackers Smith, who ran a cab and omnibus company and had dozens of horses.

The stableman, James Cooper, didn’t leave immediately however, but loitered around the premises for for a while. After he had left ‘it was discovered that no less than 12 horses had had the hair cut from their tails to the dock.’ Cooper, in his rage at being dismissed had mutilated his master’s stock. While none of the animals had been hurt by the attacks their value, had Mr Ackers Smith wished to sell them on, was significantly reduced.

The police were called and a detective, DS Church of B Division, was soon on the trail of the disgruntled former employee.

Cooper had been seen leaving the stables with a large bag and his movements led the police to a shop in Vincent Street nearby. The shopkeepers, who bought and sold material by weight (usually metals) had purchased a pound and a half of horsehair from a man matching Cooper’s description. The shopkeeper, Mr Oxford, had no more details than this as he only recorded his metal sales, nothing else. He merely offered the explanation that it was a perk of an ostler’s trade to take home horsehair for his own use, so he hadn’t asked too many questions of Cooper.

Cooper was eventually tracked down and arrested. Brought before the Police Magistrate (Mr D’Eyncourt) at Westminster he was charged with the theft of the horsehair. The idea of ‘perks’ (perquisites) prevailed throughout the nineteenth century even if the practice had been under attack for at least a century. Perks harked back to a time before wages had been as fixed as they were in the 1800s; workers were used to taking home benefits of their trades as part of their wage. So carpenters took ‘chips’, coal heavers ‘sweepings’, weavers ‘thrums’ and so on. Employers did their best to stamp out what they saw as pilferage but we are pretty wedded to our perks even today.

However, Cooper’s action, while described as a theft, was really a act of revenge for losing his job. Mr D’Eyncourt was not impressed with him.

‘it was a very dirty trick to play just for the sake of 10d or a shilling, which only represented a few glasses of ale, and for that he seemed to have disfigured a dozen horses’.

However, despite his anger the justice was hamstrung by the sanctions available to him. Cooper had pleaded guilty and thus opted to be dealt with summarily. Mr D’Eyncourt handed him the maximum sentence allowed, four months in prison with hard labour. He would therefore spend Christmas and New Year in gaol and start the new century unemployed and without a good character. That was probably the real punishment for his crime.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 06, 1879]

The polluter pays in an early version of the ‘clean air’ act.

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On Friday, July 6 1855, a foreman operating one of the companies of river boats on the Thames appeared in court at Bow Street. Henry Styles was charged under an Act for the Prevention of Smoke in the Metropolis (or more properly, the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act 1853), which was the first attempt to tackle the problem of air pollution in the UK.

The company Styles worked for ran ‘halfpenny steam-boast’ between London Bridge and the Adelphi (or what would now be the Embankment) so their route is replicated today by the modern Thames Clippers. Styles explained that he was in court on behalf of the captain of the Curlew, the boat that had been accused of breaking the terms of the act. He told the Bow Street justice, Mr Jardine, that he would be pleading guilty to the charge.

Mr Bodkin, the counsel for the prosecution, was not content to let the matter rest however because, as he went to explain, this was not the first time that the Curlew’s captain, Thomas Shearman, had broken the law in this regard.

‘the boat in question had repeatedly been cautioned before any proceedings were taken…  [but still] the nuisance was permitted to continue, and thick volumes of black smoke were suffered to escape from the funnel in open defiance of the law, to the disgust and annoyance of all whose avocations took them to the vicinity of the river’.

Moreover, Bodkin, continued, none of this was necessary. A ‘very simple apparatus’ used by other steam boats that worked the river could have been deployed on the Curlew.  The company had even fitted it to some of their other vessels but not this one. So the captain could not plead ignorance, or argue that nothing could be done. The act had been in place for over a year and so their was simply no excuse for non-compliance with it.

The foreman agreed and said they had been experimenting with a device but so far it wasn’t working properly. The only way they could avoid the noxious smoke that polluted the river was to ‘use more expensive coal’, and they evidently didn’t want to do that all the time.

They were evading the act and hoping they wouldn’t get caught and having found themselves in court they tried to ‘come clean’ and hope for mitigation. In doing so they probably avoided a heavy fine as Mr Jardine imposed one of just £3, at the bottom end of the scale available to him. Styles was warned that the nuisance must stop however, or further charges and penalties would follow.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 07, 1855]