‘Did you accidentally throw you arms around their waists?’ Sexual assault in early Victorian London

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The law is supposed to deal with everyone equally, regardless of race, gender, or class. The law supposedly protects the poorest in the land and the richest, without favour. However, that was (and is) not always the case.

The courts (and gallows and prison cells) of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were overwhelming stocked with members of the laboring poor (however we define them).

Wealthy defendants were occasionally prosecuted and convicted but they often received more lenient sentences or escaped justice altogether. They certainly weren’t the targets of a justice system that was keen to make examples of some the deter others.

When it came to the lower courts, like the metropolitan police courts of Victorian London, a person with money and ‘respectability’ could hope to pay their way out of trouble, a situation that was generally unavailable to most working class defendants. Take the example of these two ‘gentlemen’, brought before Mr Grove at the Worship Police court in October 1839.

William Cooper and Henry Gordon were described as ‘fashionably dressed young men’. We might find other epithets for them today.

They were charged by Emmanuel De Palva (a ‘foreign gentleman’) with insulting and assaulting his wife and daughter in the street. M. De Palva was on his way he to Stoke Newington with his family after an evening out. As the women  walked along a few yards ahead of M. De Palva two men came up in the other direction and accosted them.

At first they ‘stared rudely under the ladies’ bonnets’, which was intimidating, but then they grasped the women around the waists and hugged them. It might seem like high jinx and far from serious but this was the beginning of the Victorian era and social norms were not what they are today. This was an act of unwanted intimacy, a sexual assault in all but name, and the ladies were outraged by it.

The women screamed for help and De Palva came running up. He grabbed hold of the men, and then handed them over to a policeman who had also rushed up having been alerted by the cries for help.

All of this evidence was confirmed by Madame De Palva, who said the men seemed quite sober.

In court Cooper took upon himself the role of spokesperson. He tried to say that it had been a foggy night and they hadn’t been aware of the women. Perhaps they had accidentally jostled them as they passed, for which they were sorry.

The magistrate asked him: ‘Did you accidentally throw you arms around their waists?’

Having now heard ‘two respectable ladies’ swear to what happened he was ‘perfectly staggered’ by the suggestion. M. De Palva now added that he had been visited by Cooper’s father that morning, who had offered an apology on behalf of his son. De Palva refused on the grounds that he would only accept a public apology, one that cleared his wife and daughter of any taint on their reputations.

Mr Grove said that an apology could now be made and would then be ‘conveyed into the required channel’, in other words be printed so everyone would know whom was at fault. It was a disgrace, but the disgrace was to be owned by Cooper and Gordon and not be allowed to damage the reputations of Madame De Palva or her daughter.

He was also instant that some form of financial penalty be extracted from the young men so he suggested they make an contribution to the local poor. Both defendants issued their unreserved apologies and donated 10each to the poor box.

Had the young men been working class I doubt they would have got away with an apology and such a small fine. Had the women been working class and unaccompanied I doubt the case would ever have reached the courts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 15, 1839]

‘There’s never a policeman here when he is wanted’: criticism of the police is nothing new

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Police Court magistrates didn’t work for the police and often didn’t even support the police, even when they brought accusations against individuals for assaulting them. I think the law is much more likely today to protect officers, even those who, like the case I bring you today, could be said to have acted rashly or at least, might have made better decisions.

Police constable 405T (no name is given sadly) was off duty and had gone to fetch himself a jug of beer to enjoy at home. As he reached his home in Rock Avenue, Fulham one of his neighbours from across the road hailed him.

‘There’s never a policeman here when he is wanted’, cried Mrs Baxter, who may have just been on the end of bit of verbal or even physical abuse from her husband. Frederick Baxter was drunk and he wandered out of his home just in time to see the officer, standing toe-to-toe with his missus, declared: ‘One here’.

Tearing off his shirt Baxter squared up to the policeman and challenged him to fight. The constable carefully took off his hat and coat and put up his fists. Baxter struck first and, despite being the worse for drink, connected powerfully. The policeman reeled backwards sporting a rapidly blackening eye. A small crowd watched as they fought for four or five ‘rounds’ like a couple of prizefighters. Eventually, and possibly because he was coming off much the worst, the PC revealed who he was and told his opponent his was arresting him for assault.

The next morning Baxter was brought from the cells to face an examination before Mr Paget at Hammersmith Police court. Baxter claimed he had no idea that his opponent was a policeman, even though he lived opposite. He said he believed that his wife was being insulted, and perhaps was being propositioned. The officer thought he would have known but he wasn’t in uniform so, in his drunken state, he may not have. Mrs Baxter had no complaint against the office but he had ‘knocked up against her’ so we can see why Baxter might have been angered.

The magistrate reserved his ire for the policeman who he clearly believed had acted inappropriately. He should have declared that he was a police officer straight away, not halfway through a fistfight. ‘He was not entitled to because he was a constable off duty to take the law into his own hands’.

To put it mildly, he concluded, the officer had behaved ‘most injudiciously and in an improper manner’. He discharged the prisoner and recommended that the constable’s conduct should be investigated by his inspector, to see if any disciplinary action was necessary.

This incident happened in early September 1888 and by the end of that autumn the reputation of the metropolitan Police had been dragged through the mud yet again as they failed to catch ‘Jack the Ripper’. This – mostly unfair criticism – was added to deep-rooted working-class dislike of the police for their role as instruments of enforcing moral and economic rules, and as ‘class traitors’ in their own communities.

The 1880s, with Bloody Sunday, the Great Dock Strike, Fenian Terrorism and a serial killer on the loose, was not a happy decade for the ‘boys in blue’.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 06, 1888]

A ‘flasher’ in the theatre is exposed

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Mr Hope was enjoying a night out at the theatre with his wife in early January 1842 when  his attention was caught by a young man in a nearby box. He was ‘fashionably dressed’ and appeared to be a little the worse for drink. This was not an uncommon sight at the Haymarket (or any other) Theatre, but Mr Hope felt there was something about the way that the young gentleman behaved that concerned him.

As he watched from the comfort of his private box he noticed that the other man seemed to be focused on a couple in a nearby box. When the man in that box rose and left briefly, the young man stood up, opened his trousers and ‘indecently exposed his person’. The poor woman had been ‘flashed’ and wasn’t sure what to do. Mr Hope reacted quickly, moving over and into her box and taking her hand to lead her back to the safety of his own. Leaving her in the reassuring company of his wife, he went in search of a policeman.

Having found one he returned to the box and explained to the woman’s husband exactly what had happened. The culprit – Thomas Sale Pennington – was pointed out and the constable asked him to come along quietly and without disturbing the other theatregoers or the performance. Pennington refused and suffered the indignity of being dragged from the venue by his collar before being frog marched to a police station.

On the following day Pennington was stood in the dock at Marlborough Street and charged with ‘an unparalleled act of indecency’. Whilst he didn’t deny exposing himself the young man did try to excuse himself on account of being drunk. Pennington said he had no recollection of the couple concerned and could hardly remember what he was supposed to have done. He also said he’d been a student at Oxford for the past four years and could provide plenty of character witnesses who would testify on his behalf.

If he thought this would go down well with Mr Maltby the magistrate he was sadly mistaken. The only issue for the justice was in establishing his guilt. For the victim and her husband (who were not named in the newspaper report, no doubt to save their blushes) the most important thing was in protecting her from having to relive the incident.  Mr Hope pleaded that his evidence and that of the lady’s husband were sufficient to save the lady from taking the stand but the magistrate and his chief clerk said she would have to answer a few questions.

Having satisfied himself that Pennington was guilty as charged and that his drinking did not mitigate his actions Mr Maltby turned to him. The justice told him that he was guilty of ‘committing a willful and intentional insult’. The public, he continued, ‘must be protected from such disgusting conduct’ and he sent him to prison for three months ‘as a rogue and vagabond’. He gave him leave to appeal to the Sessions but since there he might have been handed an even longer sentence had a jury convicted him, I doubt he took that up.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, 6 January, 1842]

‘An assault of an unmanly character’ as a trio of ‘gentlemen’ drag a Turk about by his beard

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I imagine that most owners of Indian curry houses have had to put up with a lot of bad behaviour from drunken customers who stumble into their establishments late on a Friday night demanding ‘the hottest thing on the menu’. The boorish actions of English men was satirized wonderfully in the BBC comedy sketch show, Goodness Gracious Mewhere the team talked about ‘getting tanked up and going for an English’.

It plays on the reality that for many immigrants to Britain being abused or made fun of by the native population has only recently been deemed unacceptable both in law and by the majority of the British populace. Until now those running curry houses (and other shops and eateries) have pretty much had to take whatever they were given.

Thankfully that past is (largely) behind us, although the spectre of xenophobia has re-emerged emboldened perhaps by Brexit and the ongoing debate about migration. Looking back we can find plenty of examples of racism and nationalism in British history, especially in the heady days of Empire when Great Britain really did rule half the globe and the map of the world was covered in swathes of pink.

Three friends, overtly respectable and well-dressed men, had been out drinking in central London in the run up to Christmas 1855. It was a Friday night and Charles Bowley, Henry Nation and John Tickell weren’t quite ready to call for a cab home to their wives. They were on the Haymarket, in London’s entertainment district and they decided to head for a tobacco house, or divan, where they could relax, smoke a cigar to two, and perhaps enjoy a brandy. There were several of these ‘cigar divans’ in the centre of London and they provided a range of entertainment for men with money to pay for it.

But being intoxicated and full of British swagger and arrogance they barged their way into Youssef Ben Ibrahim’s divan and upset the prevailing calm atmosphere of the club. Concerned for her establishment’s reputation and the peace of her customers, Youssef’s wife, Ayesha, told them to be quiet or leave.

It was a reasonable request but, in liquor, these were not reasonable men. Ayesha Youssef was  verbally abused with ‘course epithets’ and Nation (a Naval officer) struck her in chest and almost sent her flying. Her husband leapt to her assistance and was assaulted by the trio.

One of the men grabbed him by his beard and then the tree amused themselves by pulling him to and fro ‘by that honoured appendage’. It was both violent and insulting, and deliberately so; the men clearly thought very little of Youssef and his wife, dismissing them as mere foreigners not worthy of the respect due to Englishmen.

In the end a member of Youssef’s waiting staff got involved and, despite being hit several times, managed to pull his master free. The men were later arrested and brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street on the following day.

Mr Hardwick didn’t believe the men’s protestations of innocence and sided entirely with the Turkish couple. He was ‘satisfied that an assault of an unmanly character had taken place’ and he fined each of the men £3. That made their evening out that little bit more costly but, and more importantly, the declaration that the assault was ‘unmanly’ and the description of the attack on a defenseless woman were both made public in the papers. That would have made uncomfortable reading for the trio, their families, and their circle of friends. That was probably a better punishment than the fine which no doubt they each found in their deep pockets.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 22 December, 1855]

A pantomime villain is hissed out of court

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Horace Moore was a blackguard. He was the sort of character that might have  appeared in a Dickens novel and, at the end of his court appearance in December 1887, the watching public treated him accordingly.

Moore wasn’t in court for anything criminal he had done, in fact he wasn’t in the dock at all. He had chosen to go to court to prosecute a man that had assaulted him but it was the circumstances surrounding the assault – and the reason for it – that earned him the opprobrium of the public gallery.

Horace Moore was the son of a hay and straw dealer and lived at home on the Harrow Road. From this we might ascertain that he was a young man, probably in his early twenties. In November 1887 he was ‘walking out’ with a young lady named Miss Battrum. Horace’s brother was engaged to the girl’s sister and the couple had met at Yarmouth earlier that year.

As Horace and his companion strolled together on the 27 November Mrs Battrum (the young woman’s mother) came up behind and overtook them. She stopped, raised her umbrella, and struck Horace repeatedly over the head with it. Words were exchanged and Mrs Battrum led her daughter away.

The very next day Horace was having his shoes cleaned by a shoeblack on the Harrow Road when Mr Thomas Battrum marched up to him. He said he had insulted his wife the previous day and then hit him on the head with his fist, ‘which knocked his hat off and sent him staggering’. It was this assault which prompted the summons to Marylebone Police court.

So what had merited this seemingly unprovoked attack on a young man walking out with his girlfriend? Under cross examination by Battrum’s lawyer the truth gradually began to emerge that Horace Moore was the sort of person that enjoyed the company of women but was very far from being any father’s ideal son-in-law.

At the time Moore had met Miss Battrum at Yarmouth he had just the subject of a civil prosecution in which he had lost. He had been found to have seduced a young woman named Miss Bosher who was under 16 years of age. For that he was made to pay compensation of £250.

This was not his first offence although it may have been the first one for which he was successfully prosecuted. Miss Bosher had testified that Moore had told her he had been accused of seducing a Miss Goddard but added that ‘nothing came of it so it would be all right’.

Moore denied this and also denied ‘having ruined a Miss Taylor or any one of the name’. He wasn’t engaged to Miss Battrum he explained to Mr Cooke (the sitting magistrate) ‘he was simply walking out with her as a friend’.

The assault had been violent and he had lost the sight in one eye as a result of it. The court could not ignore the violence but Mr Cooke was not about to let a father’s defense of his daughter’s reputation earn him anything more than a slap on the wrist. What he had done was simply what any man might have done faced with the revelation that his daughter was dating such a dishonest and predatory young man.

The magistrate told Buttram that ‘no man had any right to commit an assault, no matter what the misconduct of another might be’, and then fined him sixpence, an entirely nominal sum for the builder to pay, and refused to award any compensation to Horace Moore. As the young man left the court ‘he was hissed’ like the villain in a Victorian melodrama. With a bit of luck the publication of his name by the papers would alert his future victims (or at least their fathers) to steer clear of his romantic advances.

[from The Standard, Friday, 9 December, 1887]

‘A weak-minded blackguard’: unrequited love and mental health collide at Hammersmith

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Frederick George Helmore was a troubled young man. The son of a successful coal merchant Frederick had been before the magistrates on more than one occasion, and had been cited in Chancery as a father moved to protect his daughter from the young man’s advances.

The problem had started in 1874 when Frederick had met Sarah Alice Grierson at Margate when she and her family had been on holiday. Sarah was also well connected, as the daughter of the General Manager of the Great Western Railway she enjoyed a life of considerable luxury. At first it seems that Sarah was quite enamoured with Frederick and enjoyed his attention. She wore a necktie he gave her to church and returned his letters.

But either she tired of him or her parents felt the match was inappropriate or she was too young (at 16 or 17) and she cooled on him. Fred was not to be deterred however and he kept writing to her, sending gifts and turning up at places he expected to find her (including at school and at seaside retreats like Margate and Folkestone).

This behaviour was not ‘normal’ and today we would describe as stalking. The courts soon became involved as her family tried to protect her. Frederick was summoned before Mr Sheil at Hammersmith Police court and bound over for £250 to refrain from approaching her. Her father had even fixed a sum of £100 on her to make her a formal ward of the court of Chancery as a result of Frederick’s unwanted attention.

None of this stopped the young man however and his behaviour became ever more extreme to the point that his mental health was being called into question. In October 1881, seven years after his initial meeting with Sarah, he was again in court at Hammersmith, this time in front of Mr Paget.

The charge was one of annoying Miss Grierson and threatening her life. According to the prosecution (conducted by Mr Lambert) Fred had approached Sarah and her sister in town and when they had climbed into their coach he ran after them. The magistrate was told that he tried to hang on the window and shouted threats at Sarah. Her sister reported that he warned that he ‘would do for you now, Alice’, before the window was closed and the coach moved off.

Mr Grierson gave an account of the years of trouble that Fred had caused and said that only recently he had donated a watch that the young man had sent to Sarah Alice to charity. The railwayman described Frederick as either a ‘lunatic’ or a ‘weak-minded blackguard’.  He was clearly sick of the whole business and wanted something to be done about it.

In court Frederick vehemently denied threatening Sarah Alice, swearing that all he said was that she ‘had gone too far’. He was not dealing with rejection at all well and the hints at the state of his mental health were probably close to the truth.

This is certainly what Mr Paget concluded. He bound the man over again, this time for the huge sum of £1000 plus two further sureties of £500 each (one of whom was Fred’s father).  But he warned him (and his family) that if he was summoned before the police courts again he would be dealt with as a lunatic and ‘not under proper control’. In other words he would restrained and locked up in an asylum (‘sectioned’ as we might term it today).

Frederick was led away and given into the care of his family. Hopefully they took the necessary precautions to make sure he never again troubled the Griersons.

[from The Standard, Thursday 13 October, 1881]

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]