Sex and the Alderman: Besant & Bradlaugh at the Guildhall in 1877

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On most days the reports from the Metropolitan Police courts concerned the lives of very ordinary Londoners. The criminal, the mentally ill, the aged, the poor, the abused and the frightened all appeared in the witnesses box or dock from Mansion House to Thames, Southwark to Marylebone to be dealt with swiftly by the magistrates that sat there. In many cases hearings were completed in a few minutes whilst in others prisoners were remanded or bailed so that a fuller investigation could be undertaken.

Just occasionally however, a case appears that touched history because of its national significance. One of these happened in April 1877 when Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were summoned to appear before the aldermen magistrates at Guildhall in the City of London.

On Thursday 19 April Bradlaugh and Besant (two of the most significant radical figures of late nineteenth-century society) were called to defend themselves against a charge of publishing an obscene publication. The case had been reconvened that day and Alderman Figgins presiding heard final statements of defence from both Besant and Bradlaugh; Alderman Sir Robert Carden and Sir James Lawrence MP sat with him as this was such an important case. It was prosecuted by Douglas Straight and the Mr. Collette from the Society for the Suppression of Vice observed the proceedings.

The Guildhall Police court was packed, as it had been for the previous appearance of the pair a week earlier for the start of the hearings. Everyone liked a good sex scandal.

The publication in question was ‘The Fruits of Philosophy: Or the private Companion of Young Married People ’ by a Dr Charles Knowlton, a ‘physician of high standing and position, residing in Boston, U.S.A’. It had originally been published in 1832 in America, where it was ‘circulating widely’ in 1877 the court was told, and had first been published in England in 1834 and no one had then been prosecuted for so doing Ms Besant explained (erroneously as it turned out).

Knowlton was an atheist (as was Bradlaugh who famously refused to swear on the Bible when elected MP for Northampton three years later in 1880.) and his pamphlet advocated birth control. Knowlton had initially been prosecuted and fined (and later imprisoned) in Massachusetts for obscenity but was afterwards acquitted. So Besant and Bradlaugh, strong advocates of birth control, whilst aware that the subject was highly controversial, were probably confident that opinion was turning.

From the start Alderman Figgins was determined that his court was not about to be party to a discussion of the topic of birth control, for or against, which probably disappointed some of those in the public gallery. As with crim.con(divorce) cases, the subtext of sexual relations (rarely spoken of publicly in Victorian society) had probably brought many of them to the Guildhall.

At this news Bradlaugh announced that he could now send away the very many medical experts who he’d gathered to speak in his defence. They could now wait for the full jury trial that took place later that year. The most prominent scientist of the day, Charles Darwin, did not support Bradlaugh and Besant however. Darwin pleaded ill-health on the week of the trial but in his apologetic letter to Bradlaugh he said he wasn’t himself an advocate of birth control.

Many were however, because the Victorians were worried about rapid population growth and the impact this had on society and the poor in particular. The Malthusian League was established in 1877 to promote contraception and family planning believing that poverty was caused directly but the inability of the working classes to control the size of their families. But for most people the discussion of birth control – as with the discussion of anything to do with sex – was taboo, hence the prosecution.

In the end Alderman Figgins was always going to commit the pair for a jury trial which took place later at the High Court. The jury ‘were unanimous in the opinion that the book was calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time said that they “entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it.”’* However while the foreman responded to the judge’s question as to guilt in the affirmative, a juror told Annie Besant afterwards that they had not actually agreed a guilty verdict. She thereafter interpreted this as ‘not guilty, but don’t do it again’.

Six months later the cases was overturned in the Court of Appeal and the defendants were effectively vindicated by the fact that the exposure gained from the case saw sales of Knowlton’s pamphlet rise from ‘fewer than 1,000 to more than 250,000 per year’.** The genii was out of the bottle.

Bradlaugh went on to represent Northampton from 1880-1891 although it took him years to take his seat because of his refusal to swear. Because of him the rules of Parliament were changed and members were allowed to affirm, a privilege that was also then extended to those giving evidence in court. Annie_Besant,_LoCAnnie Besant also continued to champion the rights of the underprivileged. A socialist, she  was present at ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 and played a significant role in the 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant & May.

Poor Alderman Figgins was probably quite glad to get back to the ordinary flotsam and jetsoms of the City streets however, when his court was less full and the proceedings less controversial.

 

Annie Besant in later life

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 20, 1877]

* [from http://what-when-how.com/birth-control/bradlaugh-besant-trial-birth-control/]

** [https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Knowlton#ref69378]

A distraught wife declares: ‘I intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving me’.

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A Southwark street in the 1890s

Serious violence such as attempted and actual murder was rarer in the nineteenth century than we might think from all the concentration of sensation literature and ‘murder news’ that has survived. Excellent work by Judith Flanders and Rosalind Crone has illuminated our understanding of the Victorians’ fascination with murder and gore but we shouldn’t conclude from this that homicides were an everyday occurrence.

Sadly, domestic and spousal violence was commonplace and the Police Courts were regularly witness to tales of wife beating as tensions in the home were brought into the public sphere. Magistrates tried to take a firm line with abusers but were often frustrated by the fact that survivors frequently refused to condemn their abusers in court; they were prepared to take them to law but not prosecute them fully, for fear of future retribution or losing the main breadwinner.

Nearly all of these victims were women but women did initiate violence sometimes and fight back when attacked. Men rarely prosecuted their wives however, because this would have suggested they had lost control of the household and that would have been a social catastrophe for their reputation.

So it is rare to see a woman in front of the courts for assaulting her husband or partner, unless there is a very clear and obvious reason, as there is with the case of Elizabeth Penning.

Elizabeth Penning had been living with John Walthe for several years. The couple weren’t married but lived as if they were. This sort of arrangement – normal today – was much more common than me might expect in the nineteenth century. Marriage was expensive and working class society did not demand that couples tied the knot officially, especially in large urban centres such as London.

It wasn’t a happy marriage however. John was having an affair and abused his wife. By his own admission he had ‘ill-treated [her] while he lived with her. He had broken three of her ribs, [and] struck her with a chopper, for which he had been punished’.

In late January 1860 he had been out drinking late and was on his way home. As he approached the Sir John Falstaff pub on Kent Street he noticed Elizabeth sitting on the step outside.

She challenged him, calling out: ‘What have you done with your woman?’

The pair rowed and John walked on. He hadn’t gone far when he heard female screams and rushed back and down Falstaff Yard, near the pub. There he found Elizabeth armed with a knife. She rushed at him and aimed  stab at his neck. The kitchen knife went in deep and blood flowed. John was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital and his life was in danger. He didn’t recover form his wounds for a month. Meanwhile Elizabeth was arrested while the courts waited to find out whether she would be charged with attempted or actual murder.

Fortunately for all concerned John survived and the case came initially before the Southwark Police Court magistrate, Mr Burcham in February.

Now that Waltin could give evidence more detail of what happened that night emerged. He’d not been alone when he passed Elizabeth at the pub. He’d had a woman on his arm and that was how the row had started. Elizabeth had threatened him and he’d dismissed this, telling her she ‘had not pluck to do it’.

PC 171M had been first on the scene, responding to the shouts from Falstaff Yard. He saw Elizabeth brandishing a bloodied kitchen knife and arrested her. She admitted stabbing her husband and said ‘she intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving her’. John was reluctant to testify against his wife, and admitted his own fault in the matter. Elizabeth said nothing before the justice, preferring to keep her defence for the jury trial that would inevitably follow.

The case did come before the Old Bailey and Elizabeth was convicted of wounding her partner. The trial unfolded with little more detail than we have from the pre-trial hearing. We do get to hear from Elizabeth however, who issued a written statement at the end of the case. This repeats some of the facts John admitted to at Southwark but adds considerably to a picture of his brutality and callous disregard for her. I’m not for a moment suggesting she was justified in stabbing him but it helps explain why she did so:

The prisoner put in a written defence, stating that she had lived with the prosecutor for seven years and suffered much ill treatment; that she had charged him at Southwark Police-court with cutting her head open with a chopper, for which he was imprisoned for three months; since when he has fractured three of her ribs, cut her eye open, and given her two severe wounds on the head with a pickaxe, which caused her at times not to know what the did or said; that he had kept her for three months without boots or shawl, so that she could not seek work, and got involved in debt, and that when she spoke to him about it he struck her; that she saw him on Saturday night with the woman in question, whom he told to give her a good hiding.

Having been found guilty Elizabeth was sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Common Sergeant.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 27, 1860]

A ‘not so old’ septuagenarian defends his property

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Charles Wehrfritz was on his way back home from the pub after enjoying his ‘supper beer’ following a day’s work when he ran into his son and daughter in law. The pair lodged with him at his house at 109 New North Road,  Islington. Wehrfritz was an German immigrant who spoke passable English. He was also 73 years old, but ‘still vigorous’.

As he neared his home he saw two men trying to get in. He assumed they were after his other lodgers upstairs, so indicated they should go up and see if anyone was at home. Moments later the men came down and said no one was in, so he showed them to the door and let them out.

Charles was sitting down to take his supper when he heard a noise in the passage way. When his cry of ‘who’s there?’ went unanswered he opened his door and found the two men back in his house.

‘What do you want here?’ he demanded, and ‘how did you get back in?

‘We want your money, old man’, said the younger of the two men.

At this Charles lunged toward and tried to stab the robber with the knife he’d been using to eat his supper. He connected with the man’s chest but to no avail, the knife was totally blunt and didn’t penetrate the thief’s jacket. Instead Charles now suffered a fearsome attack, being thrown backwards by the man and hit on the head by the other one.

He was knocked senseless for a moment to two and came to in time to see the men ‘splitting open a door’ to gain entry. Now the younger man picked up a door mat and tried to stop the German’s mouth with it to prevent him raising the alarm. In the struggle that followed Charles was once again hit on the head, this time with something heavy, made of metal he thought.

He fell in and out of consciousness before he was finally able to cry ‘murder!’ and see the men run out of the property as fast as they could. The police were called and later picked up the men and took them to Clerkenwell police station. Having been patched up at hospital (his life being feared for) Charles was later able to identify the two robbers in a parade at the station.

William Smith (24 and a box maker), and Arthur Leslie (a 22 year-old clerk from Pentonville) denied all the charges against them when they were set in the dock at Worship Street Police Court a few days later. Nothing was missing from the house as Charles had effectively scared them off. His brave display could have ended his life the court was told, he had been lucky. Charles’ main objection however, was that he had been called old; at 73 he didn’t think he was ‘that old’. This must have amused the watching audience and the paper’s readers.

Detective inspector Morgan of G Division said Smith was well known at the station as a ‘suspicious person’ and they had bene watching him for some time. He was also on the radar of N Division, as Inspector Smith testified in court. The magistrate granted a request from the police to remand the men for further enquiries and they were taken away.

On the 23 February the robbers were back in court and fully committed for trial. Smith turned out to be the brother of one of Wehrfritz’s lodgers. At the County of London Sessions held at Clerkenwell on 7 March 1899, Smith and Leslie were convicted of breaking and entering the property and of ‘severely wounding’ Mr Wehrfritz. Leslie got 21 months in prison, Smith 18, and their victim was described as ‘making a plucky stand against his assailants’. I hope he pinned the cutting to his wall to remind him that he wasn’t ‘so old’ after all.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 20, 1899; Daily News , Wednesday, March 8, 1899]

The ‘artful urchin’ and the 8th Baronet; a contrast in mid Victorian fortunes

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Sir Alexander Grant had a long lineage. In 1852 he was 69 years of age and would die two years later. Grant had served as an MP for various constituencies until the early 1830s and had acceded to his family baronetcy in 1825. Grant had made his money in the West Indies, as a plantation owner. Whether he was an advocate of slavery or a campaigner for its abolition is unknown to me, but either way he profited from the trade and had a smart address in London at Portman Square.

Thomas Dwyer, by contrast, has no known lineage. In 1852 he was just 12 years of age but already had a criminal record for picking pockets. We don’t know where he lived or who his father or mother was; he may have had none and probably slept where he could on the street, in doorways, or any form of rough shelter. Thomas had no stated trade (and clearly no inherited wealth) and we don’t know what happened to him after he briefly made the pages of the newspapers in February 1852.

Sir Alexander was walking on Duke Street, by Manchester Square (in the wealthy West End) when a man tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see a man holding a young boy firmly by the hand and preferring him a handkerchief.

‘This boy’, the man declared, ‘has stolen your handkerchief’. He handed the lad and the hankie over and then walked off.

Sir Alexander seized the boy (Thomas Dwyer) and marched him off to find the nearest policeman, and gave him into custody. A day or so later the pair were reunited in the Marylebone Police Court.

PC Steel (33C) testified to receiving the prisoner and stated that the boy had pleaded for leniency and begged ‘that he might be forgiven’. He added that the ‘young delinquent’ had previously been prosecuted for a similar offence and, when caught, was found to wearing a black silk ‘kerchief (‘nearly new’) around his neck.

Sir Alexander complained that he lost at least six handkerchiefs to thieves like Thomas while walking the streets of the capital. There was no inclination to leniency from the bench that day and Thomas Dwyer was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment at hard labour, and to be privately whipped on one occasion.

These were the very different fates that resulted from the accident of birth. Alexander Grant had his life mapped out for him; from birth to his education (at Cambridge), then a successful business enterprise from his inherited money, to a position of power and influence in parliament, to a quite retirement in a fashionable quarter of London. Thomas Dwyer was born into poverty and stayed there; even his attempts to survive (by stealing small items of value from those way above his social status) were thwarted and ultimately ‘rewarded’ by punishment which would have made it more difficult to survive in any other way in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 19, 1852]

A teenage thief with an uncertain future

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Occasionally a dip into the Police Courts reveals an individual that we can trace using some of the existing historical databases for the history of crime. When that coincides with a topic I have been teaching in the same week it is all the more interesting.

My second year students at the University of Northampton have been studying historical attitudes towards juvenile crime and seeing how these developed throughout the period from the mid 1700s to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1908. We’ve looked at the beginnings of attempts at intervention (such as the Marine Society) and at the coming of Reformatories and Industrial schools. These aimed (as the name suggests) at the rehabilitation and education of young people (even if they often failed to live up to Mary Carpenter’s vision). However, parallel institutions  (such as the hulks and then Parkhurst Prison) continued to offer a  more punitive form of penal policy.

In February 1842 (a few years before legislation was passed that created Reformatories or gave magistrates formal powers to deal with most juvenile crime) Sarah Watson appeared before Mr Greenwood at Clerkenwell Police Court. Sarah was 14 years old and so, from the 1850s onwards, would have been a suitable example for summary trial and punishment.

She was accused by a Bloomsbury grocer of stealing  the not inconsiderable sum of £8 in cash. Mr John Wilkinson (of 18 Broad Street) testified that the young girl had entered his shop and asked for ‘an ounce of cocoa and some sugar’. As his assistant had turned to fulfil her order Sarah somehow managed to steal a packet on the counter that contained a number of coins from that day’s taking.

The shop worker realised  immediately that the packet was missing and, since she was the only customer in the shop at the time, he grabbed the child and found the property on her.

She was caught red handed and there was seemingly little or no allowance for the fact she was so young. The age of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth century was just 7. Up until 14 there was an understanding in law that the court should determine that the offender was able to understand that what they were accused of doing was wrong (the principal of doli incapax) but there seems to have been little doubt in Sarah’s case. Now of course a child of 14 would not face a magistrate’s hearing or a full blown jury trial but this was 1842 not 2018. Sarah offered no defence and the magistrate committed her for trial and locked her up in the meantime.

Just over two weeks later Sarah was formally tried at the Old Bailey. The court was told that the packet she lifted from the counter contained ‘3 sovereigns, 8 half-sovereigns, 4 half-crowns, 18 shillings, 9 sixpences, and 5 groats’. The evidence differed slightly from that offered at Clerkenwell as Mr Wilkinson’s shopman said that there were actually two other female customers in the shop at the time. He also stated that Sarah had tucked the packet under her dress concealed in her waist band, which made it seem clear to the listening jurors that her actions were intentional.

It seems a plausible story and it convinced the jury. Rather than an innocent child Sarah came across as a cunning and practised thief, who fitted the stereotype of the Victorian juvenile delinquent as characterised by the Artful Dodger and his chums in Oliver Twist. The policeman that processed her told the court that Sarah had been in and out of the workhouse, had been previously prosecuted for begging and sometimes maintained herself by selling matches. As a street urchin, with no family to speak off and a pattern of criminal behaviour, things didn’t look good for Sarah.

Nevertheless she was only 14 and the judge respited sentence on her while he decided what punishment was appropriate. At this this point she might have disappeared from the available historical record, at least the easily available one. But the the new Digital Panopticon website allows us to pick up her story if only in a limited way.

Sarah’s immediate fate is far from clear; she may have been imprisoned or even transported (although I think the latter is unlikely from the sources we have). We do know however that at some point in her life she left London and moved north, to Cumbria. Maybe this was escape of sorts, leaving the capital to find a better life. Maybe at some point she married; I doubt she was sent north by the penal system.

Whatever the reason Sarah appears for the last time in any official records in 1886 in Whitehaven, where she is listed in the death register. She was 58 years old. What happened in those intervening 44 years? Did her brush with the Old Bailey court serve as a deterrent to future offending? Like so many of the characters that pass through the police courts of Victorian London sarah Watson remains an enigma, only briefly surfacing to leave her mark on the historical record.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 10, 1842]

An embarrassed client is one ‘unfortunate’s “get out gaol free” card

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In 18657 Henry Mayhew wrote that that there were 8,600 prostitutes in London who were ‘known to the police’ (others suggested that in total there were 10 times this number of ‘unfortunates’). Mathew believed the higher figure was no exaggeration and declared that there were 8,000 or more amongst the ‘circulating harlotry of the Haymarket and Regent’s Street’.  One of these it seems, shared a surname with me.

Mary Gray was described as ‘a shabbily attired unfortunate’ when she appeared before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police Court. Mary was accused of robbing Henry Videon, a licensed victualler whose address was given as 51 Dean Street, Soho.

Mr Videon did not appear to press the charge against Mary Gray so this was brought instead by the policeman that arrested her. PC Kingston (184C) told the magistrate that he had resounded to cries of help in the street and found Mary and Videon ‘grappling on the ground’. He seized the woman and when the man had got to his feet he charged her with stealing a valuable breast pin, worth £10.

Mary denied it but before she could palm it to a nearby woman, PC Kingston grabbed her hand and found it concealed there. Mary now changed her story and said that she’d not stolen it, she was simply holding it because the man had refused to pay her the £2 he owed her for sex. Mary described how she had met Videon on the Haymarket at half past one in the morning and had taken him to a brothel, the York Hotel. They’d not stayed there very long but walked on down Regent Street where she demanded payment.

The story was now taken up by the policemen who repeated what the victualler had told him. According to him, when Videon had refused to pay her she ‘knocked his hat off’ and stole his pin. Mary said she only took the pin ‘for a lark’ but it didn’t look good for her.

However, in order to press the case Videon needed to be there. Prosecutors frequently failed to turn up to court. For some, the mere fact that they had caused someone to be locked up for a few days was satisfaction enough. In Videon’s case his absence from court that day can probably be explained by embarrassment.

Mr Knox agreed to remand Mary in custody for a week more to see if her victim appeared. She had a poor reputation as a local prostitute and had been on prison for drunk and disorderly behaviour before so he had no qualms about imprisoning her again. But the theft was serious and he could hardly commit her for trial without hearing from the man she was supposed to have robbed.

Knox had his doubts Videon would show up however.

His conduct, ‘in going to the Haymarket, then going to a house with the prisoner, and afterwards walking with her, [was] not very creditable to him’.

He’d probably been drunk or tipsy that night, had picked her up and now regretted the whole sordid affair. Unfortunately for him he had failed to keep his name out of the papers and may well have had some awkward questions to answer later that week. As for Mary well she would have to endure a week more in prison but then would be free to continue her existence as one of the better class of sex workers in the capital, operating as she did in London’s wealthy West End.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 20, 1865]

A practised fraudster with ‘considerable attractions’.

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Pimlico from Greenwood’s 1827 map – you can see the star shaped Milbank Prison on the right

When Maria Jessy York appeared before the magistrate at Westminster Police court she didn’t immediately strike the watching reporter as a typical occupant of the dock. Maria was described as ‘a girl possessing considerable attractions’ suggesting she had both looks and a respectable appearance.

She had certainly fooled a Miss Taylor of Pimlico, who she had been friends with for some time. Miss Taylor told the court that Maria had been ‘in the habit’ of visiting her regularly and occasionally staying over for ‘a few days’ at her home at 104 Warwick Street.

However, one day she noticed that some of her possessions were missing. She was perturbed to discover that she couldn’t find a handkerchief, a pair of stockings and, worst of all, a favourite purse with 15s in it. She told Maria all about her loss and received a full and sympathetic reply in the post:

‘Do not, dearest girl, think more about your unfortunate loss than possible – it will do no god, but only make you feel uncomfortable. You regret the loss of the purse, to say nothing of its contents; and I hope it was not presented to you by any one for whom you have a particular regard.

You must allow me to make you another, and I flatter myself it will be beloved almost as much; and as for the content, do feel – as I should be so  much happier if you would – that whatever I have is at your service; and I am but too happy, dear, that the kindness of others has allowed me to make an offer which I feared to do in person, lest you should not understand that it is because I love you dearly that I have taken the liberty of saying so. You are heartily welcome to anything I possess,

Maria’.

It was a kind and considerate letter from on friend to another but something wasn’t quite right and Miss Taylor must have harboured some suspicions about her new companion. A few days later Maria was picked up by the police and when PC Rice (248B) searched her he found the handkerchief, stockings, and Miss Taylor’s purse in her possession. She was charged and presented at Westminster where the justice committed her for trial.

In court she tried to use the name Crowley but I can find neither a Maria Crowley nor Maria York at the Old Bailey. Maria Jessie York does feature in the criminal registers however so we can be fairly sure she made to trial at Middlesex sessions. The summary court report suggests that Miss Taylor was merely one of her victims so this young woman was probably a practised fraudster, preying on the vulnerable emotions of the capital’s well-do young ladies. If she was convicted of multiple thefts then Maria may well have ended up staying in Pimlico for a little longer (and in considerably less comfort)  at Milbank Prison.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, December 19, 1851]