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]

Stealing from John Lewis earns a ‘respectable’ woman an unwelcome day in court.

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John Lewis’ Oxford Street store, c.1885

Given the proliferation of shops in the capital it is not surprising that shoplifting was much more of a problem here than in most other towns in England. London was the shopping capital of northern Europe in the late 1800s and the concept of large department stores had been imported from America.

Shoplifting had always been associated with female offering. That’s not to say than men and boys didn’t do it, they did of course, but this was a crime which was more evenly distributed by gender. Robbery and burglary were crimes which were overwhelmingly committed by males, picking pockets and stealing from shops were much more likely to be undertaken by women and girls.

In the second half of the 1800s the idea that some women  (generally ‘respectable’ women) might steal because of a weakness, a compulsion to thieve, gained ground. Kleptomania was coined and became a way of explaining the theft of items (often small luxuries) by women who could easily afford to pay for them.

Of course this dent make it any less annoying for the poor shopkeeper. Nor did necessarily excuse such behaviour. In July 1888, just before the Whitechapel murderer began his atrocities in the East End, a ‘respectably connected’ woman was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street caused of stealing from Messers. Lewis in Oxford Street.

Ellen Harris (or possibly Ellen Barker as the court reporter noted she had an alias – often a sign of previous criminal connections) – was charged with stealing a black silk jersey from the store (the forerunner of the John Lewis Partnership we all know today). Ellen had ben in the shop on the Monday in the mantle department and had bought and paid for some items. An assistant the saw her select the jersey and hide it under her waterproof jacket and walk away.

The assistant told the store manager (Walter Cryer) and he followed her. Ellen left the store and started to stroll down Oxford Street. In the classic mode of a store detective Cryer tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she would accompany him back to the shop. Once inside and at the foot of the first staircase Cryer challenged her with the fact that she’d taken the jersey without paying for it.

Ellen denied it and started back up the stair. She stopped halfway, putting her hand inside her jacket and asked him:

‘If I give it to you now, will that do?’

It would not, Mr Cyrer replied and said he’d already summoned a detective to investigate. When he failed to show up Cryer went and found a policeman on the street and handed the woman over. She pleaded with them not to take her in saying she was ‘respectably connected’. In court her solicitor suggested that it was a mistake, that Ellen was ‘absent minded’ and ‘vacant’ when stopped by the store manger. He was trying to paint a picture of a woman who was not entirely in her right mind, one suffering from a compulsion she could not control.

The constable that took her into custody rather supported this interpretation but the store manager disagreed. In the end Mr Hannay, the police court magistrate, denied he could not deal with the case and remanded her with a view to sending her for trial.  At the last moment another witness appeared; the manager of another large store, Gask and Gask’s. He identified a number of handkerchiefs that the police had found in Ellen’s possession as the property of his shop. Things didn’t look good for Ellen.

In the end Ellen was prosecuted at the Middlesex Sessions and convicted of theft from John Lewis and Gask’s.  She was 40 years of age and described simply as ‘married’. The judge didn’t send her prison so perhaps he thought there was grounds for accepting a plea that she was ‘distracted’ in some way. The court took sureties as to her future behaviour, and perhaps these were guaranteed by her husband or wider family. If she’d been younger, or unmarried, or working class, I doubt she’d have got off so lightly.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1888]

An elderly kleptomaniac in North London

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From about the middle of the nineteenth century mental weakness was used to explain some forms of petty offending, usually by women. The idea that female shoplifters were impelled to steal as a result of their ‘inferior’ or ‘weak’ minds helped explain, if not entirely excuse, those ‘respectable’ women caught stealing small items from London’s new department stores.

I’ve nearly always heard kleptomania associated with women but in this case the suggestion was that an elderly man could also be susceptible to this form of ‘brain fever’. This fits the underlying narrative however: women, children and the elderly were all ‘weak’ in the eyes of Victorian society. All required some level of protection, and sometimes from themselves.

Robert Lacey was working in his yard on Hertford Road in Kingsland one evening in July 1892 when an old man entered. The visitor offered  Lacey a whip socket for sale but he wasn’t interested and the man went away. As he was leaving however Lacey saw him take a waterproof knee-length apron from the ‘rail of a pleasure van’. The old man calmly folded the apron up, ticked it under his jacket, and walked away.

Lacey followed after and caught him, waiting until a policeman came into view before handing him over. When he was searched at the station the police found the apron (worth just 6s) and the whip socket plus ‘four carriage-handles, three knives, a billiard-ball case, eight pawn-tickets, and two bottles of oil’. Quite how he carried all these is a mystery!

In court before the North London Police Magistrates the man gave his name as John Clark, 60 years of age and said he was very sorry. He’d only recently been released from Banstead Lunatic Asylum ‘where he had been detained as a kleptomaniac’. The magistrate – Mr Bros – called for enquiries to be made by the surgeon at the gaol to determine ‘the state of his mind’. He remanded him in custody in the meantime.

Judging by the eclectic list of things that Clark had in his possession he certainly seems to have been someone ‘collecting’ things by impulse rather than a determined thief but one wonders if the unforgiving justice system of the time was able to appreciate that.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 9, 1892]

‘She must have fallen among bad companions’: a servant in trouble at Clerkenwell

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Under the terms of the Married Women’s Property Act (1882) the law stated that:

A married woman shall, in accordance with the provisions of this Act, be capable of acquiring, holding, and disposing by will or otherwise, of any real or personal property as her separate property.*

The act built upon a previous (and more famous) one from 1870 which is credited as one of the first moves towards the emancipation of wives from the total control of their husbands. That the legislation was new in 1884 is evident from this report of a hearing at Clerkenwell Police court in April of that year.

A Mr. A Peartree came to court to prosecute a teenage domestic servant on behalf of his wife. Mrs Dinah Peartree operated a shop at  181 Caledonian Road in north London, and the girl – Lydia Pye – was employed by her. Mr. Peartree acted as the manager but it was his wife’s enterprise, and he was at pains to say so in court.

He told the magistrate (Mr. Hosack) that over the past six weeks things had been going missing from the business and suspicion had fallen a boy that also worked there. He had been dismissed but ‘goods still continued, however, to disappear’ and eventually Mrs Peartree spoke to Lydia about it.

The young girl denied the suggestion that she’d stolen and decided to brazen it out with her employers. She produced her box – wherein all servants seemed to have kept their own possessions – and it was opened in the presence of a policeman. Lydia must have been hoping that her bluff would not be called because when the box’s lid was lifted several of the missing items were revealed. These were ‘a number of tumblers, jugs, and other tableware’ belonging to Mrs Peartree.

In court a ‘painful scene unfolded’. Lydia had come with excellent references and now her mother appeared in court to see her daughter’s shame. She (Mrs Pye) was horrified that Lydia should have stolen from her mistress.

She told the justice that ‘she never could have believed that her daughter would be guilty of dishonesty. Her parents were known to be honest people, and had trained her to the best of their power to be honest too. She must have fallen among bad companions’, she added, ‘or it never could have happened’.

Reluctantly, Mr. Hosack decided to be lenient on this occasion.  As it was a first offence he gave Lydia the option of paying a fine (of 20s) or she would go to prison for 10 days.

I’m not condoning the theft but it strikes me that what Lydia was doing was starting a collection of household goods that would serve her if she had to set up a home in the next few years. Servants and shop girls earned very little, hardly enough to save for a future marriage and perhaps she thought that the Peartree’s wouldn’t miss such relatively trivial accouterments of everyday life. I wonder also if the boy who was falsely accused and sacked was enquired after and given his job back (if he wanted it) because he seems to be the real victim in all of this.

I’m also curious that while the new legislation seemed to empower a wife to act independently it was her husband that pressed the charge in court. Maybe she had the shop to run and it was a practical decision, but maybe the business was in her name but he controlled their affairs.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 19, 1884]

* 18 August 1882 45 Vic. C. 75

The late Victorian magistracy knew how to deal with sexual assault when they saw it

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Dalston Junction station c.1905 (about 8 years after the events recounted below took place) 

Our society is quite rightly agitated about sexual assault and misconduct. There has been a well documented campaign about sexual harassment and worse which as touched the television and film industry, politics, professional sports, and even charities. I suspect we have not heard the end of this and that the empowerment of women (and men) via the sharing of stories of abuse will result in many more industries and ares of public and private life being exposed to accusations of bad behaviour, sexual misconduct and rape.

It seems to me that the abuse of women, men and vulnerable children by those having positions of power and influence is endemic in modern society and until some prominent people are very publicly made to pay the consequences of this we are unlikely to see things improve. Sadly, of course, none of this is very ‘new’ and men (and it is usually men) have been getting away with sexual harassment for centuries.

However, not everyone got away with it and in some circumstances – notably when the abuser was a member of a lower social class than his victim – the Victorian courts were prepared to act to defend the defenceless. Even when these distinctions were not obvious the Police Court magistrates could often be relied upon to make a stand.

Florence Day was a domestic servant. On Tuesday 17 March 1897 she was travelling on the North London Railway between Dalston Junction and Broad Street in a third class carriage. It was the day before St Patrick’s Day  and the carriage was also being used by three Irishmen, one of whom took it upon himself to impose himself upon the young servant girl.

As soon as the train moved off Morris Deerey, a cattleman, began to speak to her. Florence was not interested and move her seat to get away from him. He’d been drinking and he and his friends were probably quite drunk. Undeterred Morris rose and follow her, sitting down opposite the girl.

Again he tried to engage her in conversation and when she ignored him he moved his muddy boot across and lifted her skirt. This was not only an invasion of space it was a sexual assault in the context of Victorian attitudes towards the female gender. Even today it would be considered as such.

When the train pulled in to Broad Street Florence, with the help of a fellow passenger who had seen everything that occurred, had Deerey taken into custody. She went to Moorgate Station and was examined by a female ‘searcher’ (who  I imagine was employed by the railways to search women brought in accused of picking pockets).  She confirmed that there was mud on the servant’s stockings and the whole case sent before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

Deerey denied the accusation against him and produced his two fellow cattlemen to back him up. Both admitted to being drunk and claimed that Deerey’s foot had got accidentally entangled with the girl’s dress. William Holloway had acted to support Florence and had been watching the men warily since they’d boarded the train at Chalk Farm. He confirmed Florence’s story and dismissed the friends’ version of events.

Alderman Newton had heard enough. Bad behaviour from the working classes was meat and drink to him; drunken and loutish conduct by the Irish was particularly to be condemned. He told the listening press and public that:

‘the traveling public must be protected, especially unprotected females’.

He sent Deerey to prison for 14 days hard labour meaning that he missed the St Patrick’s Day celebrations that year. ‘Poor Paddy’, as the Dubliners (and the Pogues) once sung.

[from The Standard , Thursday, March 18, 1897]

An ‘exceedingly painful case’ at Bow Street

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Charing Cross station in the nineteenth century 

Mrs Ann Leonardi (or Lee as she was also known) was, by her own description,  an ‘independent lady’. This probably meant she was unmarried, or widowed, or even an heiress (the latter seems less likely in these circumstances however) but whatever the reality she found herself in the dock at Bow Street charged with theft.

Ann had visited the ‘refreshment bar’ at Charing Cross railway station because, she later claimed, she felt unwell.  Ann had asked for a little brandy, that well known pick-me-up for ladies of a certain class. The barmaid placed a glass and two flasks of the spirit on the counter and Ann (‘with some little hesitation’) handed over enough money for a glass.

However, when the barmaid returned Ann had gone and so had both flasks.

It seems the station employed its own private detective, a man named Tom Toby, who was informed of the theft and went in search of Ann armed with her description. He soon caught up with her and discovered the brandy flasks in her possession. Ann offered to pay with a cheque for £5 but this was refused, she was arrested and handed over to the police.

When she was brought before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street she was bailed to reappear in a week’s time. For whatever reason (and Ann put this down to ‘foolishness’) she failed to appear and so a warrant was issued for her arrest. In the meantime however, Ann handed herself in to the nearest police station and apologised for her behaviour.

So in early July 1873 Ann Leonardi was in court and she pleaded guilty to the theft but with the mitigation that she had no idea she had the flasks as ‘her head was completely lost through trouble and too much drink that she had taken that day’. What was the cause of this ‘trouble’ and why was Ann so upset? Unfortunately we can never know this but a novelist might speculate. Was she unlucky in love? Or distraught about the death of a child or other relative?

Ann had some friends though, and several came to Bow Street to offer her a ‘good character’. They told the magistrate (Mr Vaughan again), that sometimes she ‘was not in her right mind’. So perhaps Ann suffered from some form of mental illness or, and this maybe more likely, she was an alcoholic.

Ann’s situation was about to get worse. Mr Vaughan expressed his opinion that this was an ‘extremely painful case’ but since she had broken the law and skipped bail, he had no choice but to send her to prison for a month at hard labour. In doing so he may have been influenced by the implication that she was in some way addicted to alcohol. Perhaps he felt this shock would be the necessary cure for her problem.

Personally I can’t see how a month in a Victorian prison would have done much for her well-being and the consequences would be felt by Ann for years afterwards. She had stolen two small bottles of brandy, which she had subsequently offered to pay for; the magistrate’s actions here seem to fall far short of ‘justice’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 02, 1873]