‘Mother Needham in the dock’ : sex and exploitation in mid Victorian London

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If you are familiar with William Hogarth’s engravings for the Harlot’s Progress (1732) then you might remember the story of Mary ‘Moll’ Hackabout. Moll arrives in London on the coach (see Hogarth’s image above) in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker or a servant in a quality household. Instead she meets Mother Needham, a notorious procuress, who tricks young women like Moll into prostitution.

While this is very much an eighteenth-century trope there is little doubt that procuresses continued to operate in the Victorian age. Indeed, there is very little difference between the actions of Mother Needham in the 1730s and the people traffickers and grooming gangs of our century. Where there is money to be made by the exploitation of girls and young women for sex you will find people prepared to take advantage.

In 1855 Anne Alice Hudson was placed in the dock at Westminster Police court and charged with assault. In reality assault was the least of Hudson’s crimes for she was a nineteenth-century procuress. Her victim was Ann Prior, a 20 year-old woman who possessed ‘considerable personal attractions’. As we can see the Morning Post’s reporter was not above objectifying the poor girl in the witness stand that morning.

Ann explained that a few years earlier she had come to London from Nottingham with the intention of finding work as a servant. She had met Hudson back in Nottingham, by chance house said, and the older woman had promised her work if she came south. However, once she arrived in the capital it quickly became apparent that she would working in a much less respectable industry than she had planned. Hudson installed her in a brothel and sent her out to walk the streets as a prostitute. Her pay was limited and Hudson extracted her rent, food and the cost of her clothes from any small amount she did earn. As a result Ann Prior was almost constantly in debt to the other woman.

This was deliberate of course; by taking control of her earnings and providing everything for her Hudson had trapped Ann in a cycle of dependency that required her to sell herself to keep up her payments. When she decided she couldn’t cope any longer and ran away, Hudson came after her. It was this that provoked the assault charge.

In July 1855 Hudson tracked Ann down to her digs at 40 Walton Street, near Knightsbridge*. The old woman demanded the immediate repayment of the debt she claimed Ann owed and when this was refused she became violent, hitting her and scratching the younger woman’s neck. In court Hudson claimed Ann had robbed her of some silver plate but could bring no evidence to prove this.

Her own defense lawyer tried to undermine Ann’s testimony but the magistrate was clearly on the side of the young girl. ‘She was anxious to reclaim herself’, he said admiringly, and abandon the wretched life she had been leading for two years’. Hudson had no right to any money as far as he could see and certainly no right to go to Prior’s lodgings and demand it with menaces.

He fined Hudson £5 and said if she failed to pay up he would send her to prison for months instead. Regardless he ordered her to find two sureties to the value of £20 each to keep the peace towards the complainant for a year. It was hefty sentence and reflected Mr Arnold’s clear contempt for the ‘wretched-looking old hag’ in the dock before him.

Did this prosecution allow Ann Prior to ‘reclaim her life’ and find respectability after two years of prostituting herself? The odds are against it of course, but with luck and if she had escaped disease or pregnancy, then maybe she might have found a pathway out of it. Let’s hope so at least.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 11, 1855]

* in 1975 the IRA bombed Walton’s Restaurant on this street, killing two people and injuring several others. The IRA unit were nicknamed the Balcombe Street Gang.

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon

‘A lawless rabble’: A jeweller is charged as guardsmen riot in Knightsbridge

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Police constable James Jacobs (404B) was on his beat in Knightsbridge at 11.30 on Tuesday 8 May 1877. He was quickly alerted to the behaviour of a large group of soldiers who were abusing passers-by and causing a breach of the peace. The 15 or 16 men of the Coldstream Guards were drunk and Jacobs ordered them to move along and go back to their barracks as quietly as possible.

The guardsmen were in no mood to obey a policeman’s order or cut short their fun and games so instead they headed for the nearest pub, the Queen and Prince tavern. As soon as they pushed their way in though the landlord refused to serve them, ordered them out, and closed up. PC Jacobs once again told them to go home and they again refused him.

A confrontation was now brewing and another officer came to assist his colleague. PC Smith (273B) waded into the dispute and got his ears boxed for his trouble. He seized the solider that had hit him and the pair fell to the ground wrestling. As the officer was down a solder kicked him in the head and another attacked Jacobs, punching him in face, splitting open his cheek and temporarily stunning him.

More police arrived and several of the soldiers were arrested and dragged off towards the police station. By now a crowd of onlookers had gathered and decided to hiss and boo the police and call them names. Shouts of  ‘cowardly beasts’ were heard and sticks and stones were hurled at the backs of the officers who were trying to escort their captives to custody. A jeweler named Frederick Buxton tried to haul an officer away from his charge and was himself arrested.

James Vince, a groom, also intervened trying to rescue one of the guards and swearing at the policeman holding him. A woman named Harriett Ansell rushed up and struck a policeman over the head with one of the sticks the soldiers had discarded. Both she and Vince were also arrested.

It had turned into a riot with dozens of people involved and utter chaos on the streets. Eventually the soldiers and the three civilians were brought back to the station house but at least one of the guardsmen had to be carried face down ‘kicking and biting like a wild beast’. The soldiers were probably collected in the morning by their regimental sergeant at arms to face whatever punishment the army had in store for them. Meanwhile the three civilians were set in the dock at Westminster to be summarily tried by Mr Woolrych the sitting Police Court magistrate.

He dismissed the charge against Harriett for lack of concrete evidence and suggested that the young groom had been set a ‘bad example’ by Buxton who, as a respectable jeweler, should have known better. Buxton was fined £4 (or two months goal) and Vince was told he would have to pay £2 or go to prison for a month. He described the soldiers, who were members of one of the finest regiments in the British army, as a ‘lawless rabble’ who had attacked two policeman who were only doing their duty. It was the soldiers  who were ‘cowardly’ that night, not the police.

Twenty years earlier the Coldstream Guards had distinguished themselves in service in the Crimean War, fighting at the battles of Alma, Inkerman and the siege of Sebastopol. Four soldiers won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry, in that conflict. So I like to think the army punished the men that disgraced the uniform of such a famous regiment, the oldest in the history of the army, for brawling drunkenly in the streets of the capital of Empire.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 10, 1877]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A boot and shoe fraud exposed by the fear of terrorism

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While I was born and live in London I teach history at the University of Northampton, so I’m always on the lookout for stories which link the capital to the east Midlands. Not surprisingly – well at least not surprisingly to someone that knows Northampton’s history – this case from Westminster concerns the boot and show trade, for which Northampton was (and remains) mostly famous.

Three people appeared in the dock at Westminster Police court on the 15 May 1883, two women and a man. They were charged with ‘unlawfully conspiring with other persons to obtain goods … by false and fraudulent representations’.  The ‘goods’ in question was a quantity of leather and boots and the trio were apprehended as the result of a targeted police investigation into fraud.

Detective sergeant Arthur Standing was on watch outside the Life Guards barracks in Knightsbridge (which had recently been the subject of a bomb threat) watching a house opposite.  The house was rented in the name of Edmund O’Connor, a commercial traveller in the boot trade. His Irish surname may also have raised suspicions given the proximity of the barracks and the spectre of the ‘dynamitards’.

Between 8 and 9 at night DS Standing and another officer waited as two women approached the house, each carrying a large bundle. Standing stopped the women and searched their bags. These were found to contain leather, which was later traced to wholesalers in Northampton and Leicester. Both women – Mary O’Connor and her daughter Elizabeth were arrested and Edmund followed soon afterwards.

The magistrate, Mr St John Poynter, was told by the police that they were investigating a number of other thefts connected with this case and asked for the three prisoners to be remanded. Poynter complied with their request and committed them to trial at Old Bailey and sent them back into custody in the meantime.

When it came to trial a couple of weeks later it became clear that Mary was the mother of the two other defendants, not Edmund’s (or indeed Edward as the Old Bailey court recorded his name) wife. Edward was the principal here and the goods stolen were in fact a large number of boots. O’Connor had apparently been trying to establish a boot and shoe shop on Knightsbridge High Street   and had obtained the lease to rent the premises from a solicitors in Jermyn Street at £120 a year. However, when he didn’t pay the money as agreed the solicitor’s cashier went looking for him in Knightsbridge, finding only his mother who said he was travelling on business.

Meanwhile O’Connor had been busy ordering samples under the name of ‘Andrews’ and placing an order with a manufacturer in Bethnal Green.  A succession of creditors and unhappy traders gave evidence and Matthew O’Brien of CID reported that he’d entered the premises (searching for the elusive explosives they’d been tipped off about) and found it empty, dirty and with ‘no sign of business’. This must have rung alarm bells and prompted him to alert DS Standing.

In the end it was a complex case in which it seems that O’Connor was possibly trying to set up a legitimate business in town based on his wider contacts but was short of ready cash. That’s the generous explanation of course. He may well have been conducting a sort of ‘long firm’ scam where he pretended to be a genuine businessman in order gain credit and goods before clearing out before he paid a penny for anything he’d obtained.

That was what the jury thought although the element of doubt possibly worked in his favour as he only received a twelve-month prison sentence. His mother and sister fared better; found guilty of conspiracy by recommended to mercy by the jurors they were sent down for two months’ each.

The name ‘O’Connor’ would have chimed with the secret services of the day; a James O’Connor had been a prominent member of Clan na Gael who had been arrested in 1881. Special Branch was formed later in 1883 to combat Fenian terror and anyone with an Irish name would have aroused suspicion that close to a military target. In October 1883 Clan na Gael planted a bomb on a District Line underground train heading for Gloucester Road station. Thankfully no one was hurt and little damage was done but more attacks on the network followed.

We forget that London was targeted by terrorism in the 1880s but this case, of a fairly mundane if ambitious fraud, reminds us that the capital’s police (like their colleagues today) had to fight and political violence at one and the same time, with limited resources.  Who knows, if O’Connor’s name really had been ‘Andrews’ he may not have aroused suspicion and his gamble might have paid off.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 16, 1883]

‘An annoyance and a great nuisance’: firemen are unwelcome at Lady Clifford’s

This case is revealing, not only of the way the the fire service operated in the late 1800s but also of the attitude of the well to do towards them and their own responsibilities as rate payers.

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Colonel Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer Clifford, Bart, resided with his wife and family at Rutland House, Rutland Gardens, in South West London. The Clifford barony (of which Sir Robert was the third holder) had been created in 1838 for Robert’s grandfather (Augustus) who had an illustrious naval career than began in the era of Nelson. There is far less information about Robert however, so perhaps he contented himself with living on the annual stipend and his other inherited wealth.

His wife. Emmelina Lowe, certainly seems to have been a woman that took money seriously, in a  way which many contemporaries would have seen as a little ‘bourgeois’.

In May 1886 a small fire broke out in the chimney of the kitchen of the Clifford’s smart London house . This alerted neighbours who raised the alarm and the London fire brigade (founded just 20 years earlier) despatched an engine to attend the fire.

However, when they arrived they were met by Lady Clifford who refused to let them in. The firemen were adamant that they needed access as their were ‘sparks and flames issuing from a chimney at the back of the premises’.

Fire was a real threat in London. Even if the capital had not experienced a devastating conflagration since the ‘great fire’ of 1666 Londoners retained the folk memory of that week of horror. Improvements in house building and private fire insurance (with private companies of firefighters) had protected homes and businesses thereafter. From the mid 1800s the capital had its a professional force of firefighters.

The Metropolitan Board of Works administered these regulations and prosecuted householders and builders for unsafe properties and dangerous structures. Failing to admit the fire brigade and not maintaining their chimney earned the Cliffords an unwelcome day in court. On 27 May Lady Clifford and her daughter appeared at the Westminster Police Court before Mr D’Eyncourt. As a concession to their social status they were not in the dock, but sat on the bench with the magistrate. This was indicative of wider class bias in the Victorian period and in this case, Lady Clifford really seems to have felt she was literally ‘above the law’.

The case was brought by Norman Bevan on behalf of the Board. He argued that the Cliffords were culpable of breaking regulations and flouting their responsibilities; he pushed for the maximum fine possible, 20s.

The details of the evening were recounted by Henry Cummins, a fireman stationed at Knightsbridge who found the front door barred. Lady Clifford admitted she had put the chain on the door to prevent the firemen entering. She had heard the fire engine’s alarm bell being rung but the family were at supper and she saw no need for panic. It was, she added, just a small chimney fire, not serious.

Her daughter backed up her mother’s testimony, saying that the ‘bell ringing [of the fire engine] was most violent and unnecessary’. Indeed the noise was such that she had been ‘unwell since the noise the firemen had made’.

Having proved the breach of regulations Mr Bevan now argued that the Cliffords should pay the full fine while Lady Emmelina tried to bargain with the court in a quite unladylike manner. She continued to argue that the fire was insignificant (‘it was only a little soot on fire, not a real fire’, she pleaded) and therefore she should only have to pay a nominal amount. She had suggested it was merely worth ‘half a crown’, not 20 shillings.

She mentioned that on the way into court Bevan had indicated that he would take half that amount, 10s, something the Board officer refused to admit. When she complained that in some cases fines were reduced the magistrate explained that ‘it was only cases where the parties are very poor’ and that certainly wasn’t the situation here. The Cliffords may not have been extremely wealthy but they were still members of the affluent elite and could well afford the fine.

Bevan seems to have been embarrassed by his earlier determination to prosecute the family and now began to backtrack. As Lady Clifford attempted to charm her way out of a fine, or argue for special treatment on account of her social rank, the Board officer said he had tried to persuade his boss that a smaller fine was indeed appropriate. D’Eyncourt was not to be moved however, the penalty was 20and 20s (plus 2s costs) was what would be paid.

Even now Lady Clifford demonstrated her contempt for the law and for her responsibilities to other citizens by continuing to say that such a small fire was worthy of  a small punishment:

‘I should have thought half a crown would have been quite enough in satisfaction of a case of this kind, especially as it was not a real fire’.

This drew laughter in court, but not from the person of the magistrate.

‘You are fined 22s., Lady Clifford, and I must ask you to remain satisfied with my decision’, a clearly annoyed D’Eyncourt told the Baron’s wife. She then left the court having paid her fine (or made arrangements to pay) ‘protesting that the whole proceedings were very unfair’.

In reality of course it probably was only a small fire but it was still the Cliffords’ responsibility and the fire brigade had been called out. Other people were fined for similar neglect of their properties, neglect which endangered the lives and homes of thousands of fellow citizens, so it seems entirely reasonable that fines should be levied that were proportionate to wealth. As the magistrate noted, ‘poorer parties’ would pay less but they would still pay, or else they would go to prison for non-payment.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 28, 1886]