A paedophile walks free, despite the evidence against him

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On 27 October 1863 a ‘well-dressed’ man, who gave his name as Thomas Martin, appeared in the dock at Southwark Police court accused of molesting a child. Well that is how I think we would see the case today but in 1863 the law was a little different.

For a start the age of consent was 13. It was not raised to 16 until 1885 following a long campaign and a sensational intervention by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William Stead. Stead had run a weeklong exposé of the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution under the headline ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. While Stead ended up going to prison for his part in the ‘kidnapping’ of Eliza Armstrong the scandal of the case helped force Parliament to pass legislation which has existed to this day.

The complaint against Thomas Martin was brought by a spirited young girl called Martha Wells. Martha was aged between 12 and 13 and described by the newspaper writer as ‘rather precocious looking’. This was probably an attempt to undermine her testimony; the hack was perhaps suggesting that she was bringing a spurious complaint against a social superior. The girl could certainly expect to be closely examined by the magistrate, Mr Combe, no concessions being made to her age or her gender.

Martha said that she had left her father’s house in Southwark to visit her uncle in Greenwich. A man had ‘annoyed’ her on the train to Greenwich but she did her best to ignore him. In court she wasn’t sure that it was Martin but he looked familiar.

After she arrived at her uncle’s shop (he was a fruiterer) she noticed a man outside peering in through the window. He was looking directly at her and indicted she should come out to talk to him. That man was Martin and she ignored his request.

At eight in the evening she left her uncle’s and made her way back to the station for the train home. As she walked Martin accosted her. She told him to go away but he followed her. She boarded the train and he entered the same carriage and sat next to her. Martha again tried ignoring him and steadfastly looked out of the window as the train made its way to London.

Now Martin had her close to him he made his assault. He put his hand on her leg and then slipped it up her skirts. The magistrate wanted to know if anyone else was in the carriage who might be able to confirm this.

‘Yes, sir’, Martha told him. ‘I think a lady and a gentleman. I was, however, ashamed to speak to them’.

She had at least one ally in court who was able to testify to Martin’s behavior. PC Alfred White (427P) was on duty on Southwark High Street that evening. When Martha left the train Martin again pursued her and the policeman saw him tap the girl on the back and then lift her skirts.

That was enough evidence for Mr Combe. He committed Martin for trial but agreed to bail, taking two sureties of £100 and one from Martin (for £200). The battle would now be to actually bring the man before a jury when the girl’s father might have preferred to take a cash settlement and avoid his daughter’s reputation being dragged through the courts.

Martin was brought to the Surrey sessions of the peace in mid November, surrendering to his bail. The case against him was outlined and his brief did his best to undermine Martha and the policeman’s evidence. The jury was told that Martin could not have been the man that hassled and insulted Martha on the train to Greenwich or outside her uncle’s shop as he was at work in the City until 5 o’clock. Moreover if he had assaulted her on the rain as she’d suggested why hadn’t she alerted the other passengers or the guard?

PC White reiterated the evidence he’d given at the Police Court hearing adding that when he had arrested Martin the man had attempted to bribe him. ‘For God’s sake let us compromise this affair’, he said; ‘if £50 will do it?’. The officer had been in plain clothes having been on duty at the Crystal palace during the day. Whether this hurt his credibility or not is unclear but the jury close not to believe him.

In the end the jurors acquitted Thomas Martin of the charge of indecent assault and he walked free from court with the applause of his friends being hurriedly suppressed by the court’s officers. It was a victory for middle-class respectability over a ‘precocious’ working-class girl who travelled third class on the railway. The jurors saw themselves in Martin’s situation rather than seeing their daughter in Martha’s.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 28, 1863; The Standard, Tuesday, November 17, 1863]

‘I merely pushed accidentally against her’; the lame excuse of a sex pest.

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Indecent assault takes many forms, and in the rather staid newspaper reports of the 1800s, detail is rarely given. This case therefore is a little unusual in that we do discover what happened to make one woman bring a prosecution against her abuser.

Anne Green (whom the paper was at pains to point was a ‘respectable woman’) was waiting for her husband in Newgate Street. She was standing with her back to a lamppost and perhaps in Henry Branson’s inebriated state she have seemed ‘fair game’.

It was 10 o’clock at night, she was under a gaslight and maybe he mistook her for a prostitute. That doesn’t excuse his actions however. To Anne’s horror she suddenly felt Brandon’s cold palms on her knees and his knelt behind her and ran his hands up inside her dress.

She fought him off, grabbed him and called for the police. Branson swore at her and when her husband arrived he challenged him to a fistfight in the street. A policeman was soon on the scene and as he tried to arrest the man Branson’s rage increased and he struck out at the copper as well. He told anyone that would listen that he would happily ‘be hung for  such scoundrel’ as he was dragged off to the nick.

In front of Alderman Challis at the Guildhall Police court Branson denied all of it. ‘It is all false’, he said, ‘I merely pushed accidentally against her’. He claimed that the indecent assault was a fabrication added at the police station by vindictive police officers. He was a married man, he added, as if that proved he could not possibly have done such a thing.

The alderman was not inclined to believe him and thought the whole case was ‘very gross’. He was minded to send him for trail where he might get a year’s imprisonment if convicted. However, he decided instead to summarily convict him and told him he would send him ‘for one month to the treadmill’, meaning he would go to prison with hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 9, 1864]

The repercussions of the Maiden Tribute are felt in Lisson Grove

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The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon (1885) was one of a handful of scandals that rocked Victorian society in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In an attempt to force the hand of parliament to pass legislation to raise the age of consent, the newspaper editor and scourge of government, William T Stead undertook to procure a young girl of 13. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette,  wanted to show the world just how easy it was for wealthy elite men to obtain access to the daughters of the working classes and in doing so shock and shame MPs and lords into protecting girls under the age of 16 (the age of consent in 1885 was 13).

Stead employed the help of a retired and reformed brothel madam, Rebecca Jarrett, who obtained a girl named Eliza Armstrong, paying her mother £5 for the child. Jarrett took Eliza to a room where she was drugged (as victims would normally be) before Stead visited her. There is no suggestion that Stead went through with any rape of the girl but simply made his point. The Pall Mall Gazette then published a serialised account of the problem and Stead’s exercise in exposing it.

One of the consequences of this was that Eliza’s mother and father came in for considerable abuse from their neighbours for selling their daughter into prostitution. Mr and Mrs Armstrong claimed they had done no such thing; as far as they were concerned Jarrett was taking the child off to be trained as a domestic servant for a wealthy employer.

Regardless of whether they knew the real fate intended for Eliza or not this led (with support from those opposed to Stead and his campaign) to a court case at the Old Bailey where Stead and Jarrett were convicted of kidnapping and indecent assault. Stead went to prison for three months, Jarrett for six. There was a ‘happy ending’ in that Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) which raised the age of consent to 16 but all parties were damaged by the process. Stead never fully  recovered his former reputation as an investigative journalist; Jarrett withered in Millbank prison, and poor Eliza was badly affected by her experience.

In August 1888, just as the cycle of killings known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’ began in East London Elizabeth Armstrong (Eliza’s mother) appeared before the police magistrate at Marylebone. Elizabeth, aged 39 and resident at Charles Street, Lisson Grove, was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting one of her neighbours and a policeman.

Ellen Tuley deposed that Elizabeth had attacked her with ‘a sweep’s broom and kicked the constable’. Constable Nicholas (100D) confirmed this and so the case was fully proved against her.

Mrs Armstrong was defended in court by Mr Pain, who had been her lawyer throughout the Maiden Tribute case. He said that ‘ever since the unfortunate case of Eliza Armstrong, when it was suggested that his client had sold her daughter for £5, she had been subjected to systematic annoyance at the hands of the prosecutrix and others’. Her husband had been sent quite mad by the affair and was now living in the Marylebone infirmary.

Elizabeth Armstrong denied the assault and counter claimed that Ellen had instead attacked her. The magistrate had to deal with several other related summons from various neighbours of the Armstrongs, binding several over on their own recognisances to behave in future. The Maiden Tribute case had clearly polarised opinion in this poor district of London.

Elizabeth was sent to prison for 14 days for being drunk and disorderly and most probably for the attack on the constable, which would not be tolerated by the magistracy in the 1880s. Mr Pain noted that it was not her first appearance or her first conviction at Marylebone and that too counted against her. By 1888 Eliza Armstrong would have been 16 and free to get on with her life, if she was able. With a father in a lunatic ward and a mother in gaol one wonders if that was possible. Stead clearly believed he was doing God’s work in exposing child prostitution but not for the first time one is bound to ask whether journalists and newspaper editors fully consider the effects of their ‘higher’ actions on the ‘ordinary’ people they use along the way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday 5 August 1888]

A lady’s ‘companion’ undergoes a most unpleasant visit to an estate agent

In May 1879 Miss Lowrie was asked to wait in an estate agent’s office while her older lady friend undertook a familial visit to her brother. What happened next resulted in a very public and embarrassing appearance for all the parties before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street.

Miss Lowrie was ‘companion to Mrs. Oldfield’ of Upper Holloway. This probably meant that she acted as a paid (or possibly unpaid) ‘friend’, somewhere between a family member and a domestic servant. Young ladies like Miss Lowrie (we have no recorded Christian name) were sometimes distant relatives but certainly members of the ‘respectable’ middle classes.

Mrs Oldfield was visiting her brother, Mr Pace of Messrs. Morton and Pace, auctioneers and estate agents and went upstairs to see him while the younger woman waited in the office of his partner, George Morton.

Morton was friendly and offered her a chair before showing her pictures of his wife and child. However, he soon began to be a little too ‘friendly’.

‘As she was looking at them he put his arm around her waist and kissed her. She struggled to free herself; but he laid hold of her indecently and forced her on a chair’.

When Mrs Oldfield came downstairs Miss Lorie left with her, saying nothing until the pair were safely back inside the lady’s brougham. When she heard what had happened the elder woman was furious and wanted to turn the coach around but her companion was adamant they should not. One imagines she was mortified by the whole experience and simply wanted to go home.

However, she was later persuaded to take out a summons against Mr Morton, which brought the whole affair before the Bow Street Police Court.

Mr Stallard, defending, suggested that it was odd that no one had heard anything of the struggle that Miss Lowrie said had lasted over five minutes. Nor was the young woman’s clothing disarranged. He argued that the incident had been ‘grossly-exaggerated’ and that if ‘she had screamed out there at least three clerks who must have heard her and who would have come to her assistance’.

Miss Lowrie responded that the door to the clerks’ room had been firmly closed by the defendant and that she had not cried out but tried to fight him off instead. Her necktie had been ‘dissarranged’ (and Mrs Oldfield testified to this) and Morton had been responsible, having undone it while he held her down. Morton’s brief tried to argue that his client was merely helping her re-tie it after it had accidentally become undone, but this seemed unlikely to the court.

Stallard said the clerks were happy to back up the agent’s version of events but sadly none had made it to Bow Street. Mr Howard, the magistrate was unimpressed. He told the defence that they could easily have made them come, by issuing a subpoena. Their absence  spoke volumes.

Addressing the accused Mr Howard said that ‘it was at least a most improper and impertinent assault, especially from a man who exhibited  a picture of his own wife and child to the lady’. He fined the estate agent £5 with the threat of gaol if he didn’t pay. The fine was paid and all the parties left the court. One is bound to wonder what the ‘office’ atmosphere was likely on the following Monday morning.

 

[from The Standard , Monday, May 26, 1879]