An ‘Eliza Doolittle’ has her living taken away from her

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Poor Ellen MacCarthy. All she wanted to do was sell a few flowers to the visitors around St Paul’s but she fell foul of the City’s restrictions on street vendors. As a result she was arrested, had her violets taken off her, and she ended up in front of the alderman magistrate at Guildhall.

Giving evidence against her PC 371 (City) stated that he had seen Ellen ‘annoying and stopping’ passers-by in St Paul’s Churchyard at 7 in the evening on Saturday 26 October 1850. He said there had been ‘repeated complaints’ from local inhabitants about flower sellers and so he told Ellen to move along.

Although she  initially obeyed his instruction she was soon back again, selling violets to anyone who would buy them – just like a Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady does at Covent Garden. The copper confiscated her basket and sent her away again.

Ellen was not to be deterred however: within the hour she was back with a new stock of violets, although this time she was selling them from a saucepan as the policeman had withheld her basket. Presumably infuriated the policeman now arrested her and took her back to the station. She was later bailed out, but without her stock.

Alderman Sidney was cross with the policeman who he felt had overstepped himself. There was no need, he said, for the police to detain the poor woman’s violets – how else was she to make a living? Yes, he agreed, she was causing a nuisance and the copper was correct in moving her on, and in arresting her, but once bailed her flowers should have been returned to her.

Ellen said that her violets were now ‘quite dead’ and unfit for sale so she was out of pocket to the tune of 16d, a sum she ‘could ill afford to lose’. The alderman sympathized with her but she had been in the wrong and so decided she had been punished enough by the loss and let her go with a caution not to appear before him on a similar charge in the future.

PC 371 left court probably wondering what he’d done to earn the opprobrium of the ‘beak’ when he’d only been doing his duty. Flower girls like Ellen were not that far removed  (in the public mind) from prostitutes in mid Victorian London, and St Paul’s Courtyard was notorious as a place for that ‘trade’ as well. Perhaps the alderman saw something else in Ellen, just as Henry Higgins did with Eliza.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 29, 1850]

Here are two other stories from the police courts that feature ‘Elizas’

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

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

 

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.