The jilted rifleman, the gipsy and the ungrateful lodger’: ‘a shockingly immoral case’ at Thames

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A murderer and a villain,
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket—
                             Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4

When Samuel Ford stood in the dock at the Thames Police Court he was flanked on one side by the prosecutor, Peter Stephens, and on the other by a woman whose name was given as Mrs Bullock. Ford was charged with theft; specifically the theft of ‘a shirt and other articles belonging to Stephens. In court Ford was defended by Mr Pelham while the prosecution was conducted by Stephens himself.

Stephens explained that until recently he had lived with Mrs Bullock (who was not his wife) at his home in Eltham Place, Stepney. Ford was a friend of his, he told the magistrate (Mr Yardley) and when he heard that he had been turned out of his lodgings he invited him to come and live in his rooms until he got another place.

It was an act of kindness but it rebounded on him. It very soon became clear that Ford and Mrs Bullock were getting closer and within a short space of time, he had ‘undermined him’ in her ‘affections’.

However, this had not been noticed at by Stephens and so when he left home early on a Saturday morning and did not return until midnight on the Sunday he had no real suspicions about the couple. Imagine his shock then when he got back to find that ‘his friend and his mistress had taken French leave’*. Not only had they fled but they had taken some of his property with them.

As Pelham cross-examined the prosecutor an alternative view of the relationship between Mrs Bullock and Stephens emerged. It seems that her mother had given them quite a lot of help in the form of (quite possibly money) and domestic goods and other ‘gifts’. Ford’s lawyer suggested that Mrs Bullock’s mother had recently given them a clock  and other things, which the eloping couple had taken with them.

Mrs Bullock was, it seems, something of a character. In court she was described as a ‘handsome, well-dressed’ but rather bold-looking woman, whose beauty was of the gipsy kind’. She intervened in the course of the cross-examination and at several points reportedly shook her parasol in Stephens’ direction. Mr Yardley was forced eventually to tell her to be restrain herself.

Mr Yardley didn’t appear to have much more time for the prosecutor though. He discovered that Stephens had met up with Mrs Bullock (a widow with three children) whilst he was on his travels with a rifle show. Perhaps the magistrate felt that he had reaped what he’d sown by picking up a gipsy woman at a travelling fair; maybe he simply regards the whole sordid thing as a ménage à trois which he would have preferred never to have demeaned his courtroom.

In the end there was little the justice could do anyway. It was clear that Mrs Bullock did not want to live any longer with Stephens and had instead chosen Ford as her new ‘paramour’. Stephens had benefited from the relationship materially and in other ways for nine months, but had never made the woman his wife. Ford had stepped up and asked her to marry him so she and her children would have the respectability and stability she desired.

As for the stolen property well, ‘the shirt alleged in the charge-sheet was made and sent up by Mrs Bullock, and as that lady has made her selection [in choosing Ford over Stephens]’ the magistrate declared, ‘she has a right to dispose of it as she pleases’.

‘It is a shockingly immoral case altogether’, he concluded. ‘Let them go away. Give the prosecutor the shirt, the woman the clock, and the prisoner his liberty’.

The reporter finished his article by stating:

‘The woman went away in triumph, hanging on the arm of her new paramour, who, in outward appearance, was not a “twentieth part of the tithe of her precedent lord”.’

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 21, 1853]

*French leave: ‘to go away without permission’ (OED)

Of unrequited love and the pledging of china, not troths.

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We are about to enter the week of valentines, and so all the shops are fun of heart themed gifts, chocolates and cards. If you try to buy a bunch of red roses this week you can guarantee that they will be double what you’d pay at any other time of the year, and if you choose to eat out on Tuesday night the menus will be ‘special’ and the tables set up for couples.

Valentine’s Day is now a commercial opportunity, just like Mother’s Day, Christmas and Easter but has it always been thus?

It is likely that Valentine’s Day celebrates the martyrdom of one or more individuals in ancient Christianity who were associated in some way with romance. The positioning of the holiday in February however has much more to do with the early Church’s campaign to eradicate paganism.

In Roman pagan tradition mid February was a time to celebrate fertility and the god Faunus. During the festival of Lupercalia the unmarried young women of Rome would place their names in a  large urn  to be drawn out by the city’s bachelors. The couples were paired for a year but often (it is said) married their ‘chosen’ partners. There were other more bawdy elements to the festival, supposedly including nudity and the spanking of bottoms!

The romantic element (as opposed to the more overtly sexual one) of Valentine’s can be traced back to the 14th century when courtly love was very much in vogue amongst European nobility. By the early modern period the practice of sending love tokens on the 14 February seems to have been well established; Shakespeare references it in Hamlet for example. The late eighteenth century saw pamphlets published to help individuals write their own messages and the introduction of the penny post in 1840 opened up the possibly for the masses to exchange anonymous love letters.

The Victorians soon became hooked on the practice and card manufactures began to mass produce valentine cards in the 1840s. In 1847 the first commercial cards appeared in the United States and we can probably date the modern obsession with Valentine’s Day from then.

Of course the 14 February is just another day for many, and can quite a lonely place if you are on your own. There are hundreds of hits for a Google search of ‘Valentine’s Blues’ and the overhyping of this one day as a ‘time for lovers’ can be very challenging for those without a partner. There is also considerable pressure on those who are in relationships to make the day ‘special’, to spend lots of money, or simply to be ‘romantic’. Ir would probably be better to encourage a loving supportive relationship for 365 days of the year rather than just one.

Meanwhile back in 1847 in London one young woman was certainly not about to enjoy her Valentine’s Day, and her reaction to this ended up in a court case at one of London’s Police Magistrate Courts.

Thomas Frisk was a young saddler living in Fore Street in the City of London. For several months he had been courting a young lady named Mary. Mary (whose full name was Mary Martha Mills) lived in Somers Place West, St Pancras and for the past nine months Thomas had sent her his ‘addresses’ and had showered her with gifts and money.

He did so in the hope that they would be married and Mary had given him some encouragement. So confident (or hopeful) was he that they would be wed that Thomas sent her money to buy a fine china dinner service. The magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court was told that Thomas did this in anticipation of the ‘happy day’ …when they would ‘be made one’.

Sadly for Mary Thomas was not a very patient young man and soon became keen on ‘another charmer’ and broke off the relationship with Mary. He then rather ungallantly  heaped scorn on her unhappiness by demanding the return of the china she had bought to grace their marital home.

Mary reacted as many might and refused to return his gifts. Instead she pawned the dinner service and send him back the ‘duplicate’ (the  pawn ticket). I’m sure Bridget Jones would empathise with Mary Martha Mills.

We all act differently when we are unlucky in love, or rejected by the object of our affections. Few of us will be so lucky to go through life without this happening.

Thomas was upset but his reaction was extreme. Instead of taking the hit to his pocket he chose instead to take his former amour to court. Not surprisingly the magistrate was less than sympathetic; the reporter in the paper noted that ‘Mr Wakeling [the magistrate] questioned the compliant, who cut a very sorry figure in court’, and dismissed the case without costs.

Love and marriage was one of several themes the court reporters of the Victorian press liked to cover for the ‘human interest’ nature of the stories. I’ve found a handful of stories in the past year that detail cases of eloping lovers, angered fathers, and broken relationships – all of which that end badly in the summary courts of the capital. They go to show us that our Victorian ancestors are much more closely linked to our modern lives than the passage of 150 or more years might suggest.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, February 12, 1847]