‘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]

Street gambling and the law in 1850s London

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The nature of the law is at the centre of discussions this morning. Yesterday judges sitting in the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court – ruled that the highest political figure in the country (the Prime Minister) had acted unlawfully (illegally) in proroguing Parliament. The proroguing was declared null and void  and parliament will reconvene this morning at 11.30 to hold the executive to account.

This – despite what some newspaper editorials and unhappy government representatives might say – is democracy in action. We are not a dictatorship, and no one is above the law. This means that the law protects us – the people – from misrule by those that govern us.

This may be a frustration to the small majority of voters who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 but I hope they will recognize that the alternative – giving the executive carte blanche to ride rough-shod over parliamentary sovereignty – would have set an extremely dangerous precedent for the future. Many people voted to be free of the constraints of rule from Brussels (however misguided that might have been) I’m not sure they voted to ‘take back control’ only to surrender it to a modern day Hitler or Stalin.

This blog is concerned not with the highest court of the land but with some of the lowest. The Police Magistrates courts of Victorian London tended to deal with the more trivial problems of daily life in the capital. But here too law was important and central, and its application was supposed to be given without fear or favour, regardless of class.

In 1857 two justices sat in judgment on a man accused of organizing gambling in public. This was an unusual case; in part because two City magistrates were present but also because they quite clearly disagreed with each other.

Davis was arrested by City constable 325 for obstructing the footway at Bride Lane. Davis was with two other men and when the officer searched him he found betting books and £5 17sin coin on him. The case turned then on whether Davis (or the other men) were using the books and actually taking bets at the time. It was established that he wasn’t so the question arose of why the constable had arrested him. Alderman Copeland thought it a ‘monstrous interference with the liberty of the subject’ that the policeman  had arrested a ‘gentleman’ for doing nothing illegal at all.

He went on to say that not far away the officer might have found persons selling goods on the street and trading illegally by the Stock Exchange, yet they were not being arrested.  Abraham Davis had been stopped, moved on, and searched on several occasions by the same City policeman and alderman Copeland was clearly implying that the constable was enforcing the law selectively, and with bias.

Alderman Hale took a different view. He noted that gambling was a problem. It led to idleness, to debt, and to crime as well as causing large crowds to gather and block the streets. There were laws against it and he was determined to enforce them regardless of the class of individual brought in front of him.

Alderman Copeland agreed that gambling was a public nuisance but argued as well that other infringements of the law – such as the illegal trade in tallow (carried out just yards from where Davis was arrested, and ignored by the police) must also be prosecuted. He also felt that having a betting book in one’s possession was not the same thing as organizing illegal gambling and he clearly felt that the policeman had overstepped by searching a gentleman’s pockets on the street.

In the end alderman Hale agreed that while the officer was within his rights to attempt to suppress the ‘evil’ of street gambling Abraham Davis had not been found to be doing anything illegal. Under the law he was innocent and so he discharged him. The law was, even at this level, supposed to be applied  fairly and it seems that this is what the officer had been doing. Had he brought in some working class men for illegal trading I wonder whether alderman Copeland would have tried to defend them as vociferously as he attempted to defend a ‘gentleman’?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 25, 1857]

‘A most mischievous piece of fun’: a lawyer gets his comeuppence.

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Richard Thursgill and his family were awakened by someone ringing violently on their doorbell.  It was about a quarter past one in then morning of the 18 September 1878 and, in that respectable part of Ludgate Hill alarms like this usually meant one thing: fire! Despite being ill the whole family rose from their beds and rushed downstairs.

There was no fire however, and no one to be seen in the street outside either. Then, around five minutes later PC Martin of the City force appeared at the door with a young man. He’d caught him hiding near by after watching him ringing on the bell pull. The pull itself was almost wrenched clean off, so violent had the man’s actions been. The PC wanted to see if Mr Thursgill wanted to press charges.

He did and so the case ended up before Sir Andrew Lusk at the Guildhall Police court. There the young man gave his name as Arthur Stapleton, a solicitor of 62 Bishopsgate Street-without. He denied the charge and his lawyer assured the magistrate that his client was a respectable young law graduate and not the sort of person to do such a thing.

Really, the magistrate asked? In his experience this sort of ‘abominable’ behavior – ringing people’s doorbells and worrying them into thinking a fire had broken out – was exactlythe sort of thing ‘young solicitors and students did for a “lark”.

He had no doubt Stapleton was ‘respectable’ (and did not need him to produce the character witnesses he promised to prove it), but the only question he was concerned with was identification. Could PC Martin be sure that it was this person that had caused the annoyance?

Quite sure the policeman replied, there was no one else in the vicinity at that time and he’d seen him do it. In that case Sir Andrew said, he had no choice. For his ‘most mischievous piece of fun’ young Stapleton would have to pay the princely sum of 20s. He would have charged him less had been less ‘respectable’, merely 10s, but under the circumstances he could well afford 20s.

Let’s pause for a moment to share our collective sorrow for a solicitor being overcharged…

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 18, 1878]

A ‘mad cat lady’ is ordered to make the ultimate sacrifice

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We are a nation of pet lovers and one supposes that this has ever been so. But this does not mean that everyone, everywhere, sees pets as a ‘good thing’. Moreover within almost every community I have lived in I can remember at least one ‘mad cat lady’, the sort of person who keeps a number of feline friends for company and is often (albeit gently) mocked for it. The case of Louisa Bragg brings both of these statements together and shows, once again, that the range of a magistrate’s work in the 1800s was quite wide.

In July 1889 Miss Bragg (she was described as an ‘elderly maiden lady’ so we must presume she was still a ‘miss’) was brought before Mr D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court on a ‘peremptory summons’. The summons was issued by the court because Louisa had failed to comply with a previous ruling regarding her large collection of cats.

She lived at 65 Marsham Street, Westminster, in a house of multiple occupation. The other residents had complained about the old lady and her cats, saying that they were a source of disease and that several of them had died and were decaying in her rooms!

The case was presented by Mr Rogers, who prosecuted on behalf of the vestry, and he brought in the sanitary inspector to support his case. Thomas Dee testified ‘to the filthy conditions of the defendant’s room, where he saw seven cats on the table’. Sergeant Edwards, the court’s warrant officer, also reported on the state of things he’d seen when he served the summons on Miss Bragg.

The poor lady begged for leniency and to be allowed to keep her animals who she said were dear to her. She appeared in court armed with copies of acts of parliaments and attempted to defend herself, saying the law was wrong. The question was, she implored the magistrate, one of whether ‘a happy home should be broken up’.

Mr. D’Eyncourt dismissed this as mere sentiment and suggested she get rid of the cats and take a ‘nice little dog’ instead. Miss Bragg huffed at this suggestion and begged for more time so she could find a bigger room elsewhere. D’Eyncourt was in no mood to sympathize with her however, insisting that unless she cleared out the cats and cleaned up her room she would be levied with a fine of a £5 for refusing to obey the order of his court. Since she had already breached the first order he fined her a sovereign for good measure.

Clearly he was no cat lover and one imagines that Miss Bragg’s fellow tenants were heartily sick of having to share their dwelling with half a dozen or more flea ridden moggies. One only has to travel to southern Europe or to Cyprus to see what a society where stray or semi-feral cats are allowed to roam free looks like. Lovely as they are (and I am most certainly a cat lover) they bring an associated risk of disease if they are not controlled.

However, for Miss Bragg, an elderly lady living on her own and seemingly without any living relatives close by, her cats were her only companions and so while others might dismiss her as the ‘mad cat woman’ they were all the friends she had in the world and to ask her to get rid of them smacks of heartlessness.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

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 (including the life of pet food salesman…).

The book is available on Amazon here

A fatality avoided as race goers clash with an ‘honourable member’ on Wimbledon Common

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Richard Sims Donkin MP (c.1895)

On the day of the Epsom Derby 1888 (30 May) Richard Donkin was exercising his horse near Wimbledon Common. Donkin, a Tynesider, had made his wealth in shipping in the north of England and in 1885 he stood for parliament and was elected as the Conservative Party member for the new constituency of Tynemouth.

As he rode along a path that adjoined the common a waggonette approace din the opposite direction. The vehicle, a sort of large open cab capable of carrying several person, was driven by Frank Flint. Flint was carrying several passengers, taking them to the races at Epsom. As they passed Donkin there was jeering from the wagon and Flint raised his whip and struck out at the horse and rider.Unknown

The MP struggled but he was a good horseman and managed to prevent his beat losing it’s footing and sliding into a ditch at the side of the road. Had the animal fallen he feared it might have broken a leg and then have had to be put down. He made enquires and found Flint’s name and had him summoned before the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court.

The prosecution was directed by Donkin’s solicitor, Mr Haynes while Flint was defended by a Mr Hanne. The prosecution case was that this was an assault and a deliberate attempt to unseat the parliamentarian. In defence it was argued that it was all a mistake and an accident. Flint testified that his own horse had shied on seeing the other animal and that he was trying to control it when is whip accidently connected with the MP’s mount.

It was a cab driver’s word against a respected member of parliament and I think we know how those encounters were likely to play out.  For Montague Williams, the sitting magistrate, the issue was not simply who was to blame it was whether this constituted an assault. He consulted the clerk who consulted Justice (James Fitzjames) Stephen’s volume on the criminal law and decided that Flint was guilty of an indirect assault, and fined him £5.

Richard Donkin lived in Wimbledon until his death in 1919 at the age of 82. He served Tynemouth as MP until 1900 but made little impression on parliamentary history. Most of his interventions were concerned with shipping, something he knew a lot about. I’ve no idea what happened to Flint or his unruly passengers but if they had backed Ayeshire, the three year old stallion that won the Derby in May 1888 they might at least have won enough money to pay the hefty fine that Mr Williams handed down.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 13, 1888]

On June 15 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 to order on Amazon here

Dangerous dogs or well loved pets? Two magistrates, two very different interpretations of the law.’

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The law is, of course, open to interpretation. In the 1880s the law concerning the control of pet dogs was, seemingly, as a clear as mud and so we can see that two magistrates chose to apply it in two different ways.

At Lambeth Mr Biron was in the chair on 8 June 1886. The clerk produced a string of dog owners were charged, by the treasury, with failing to keep their dogs under control. For the magistrate the law depended on how one interpreted the word ‘control’.

In a number of cases dogs had been found by police, wandering 20-30 yards from their owners or their owner’s home. If the dogs were muzzled, not on a lead, or no one appeared to be in control of them, more often than not a policeman would take their collars and take them back to the station. In those instances, if they had a name on the collar the owner was summoned to collect them.

In several of the cases brought before him Mr Biron dismissed the charge. If, for example, the owner said that the dog had just been let out in the morning (to do its ‘business’ one supposes) and was within 20 yards of the house then that was ‘under control’. In another case the owner said his animal was ‘within call’ and the justice accepted that. Indeed he accepted most explanations for why dogs were not on leads or muzzled and only one case, where a dog had bitten a child, did he find strongly against the owner who was penalised with a 10fine.

In this case though the owner had already been warned about the behaviour of his beast so perhaps that was more about demonstrating that the law had to be obeyed than anything else. The courts were quite strict on those that ignored instructions previously handed down by the magistracy.

Overall Mr Biron declared that it was ‘doubtless right to take dogs unmuzzled and without owners to the station, but when animals were within a few yards of the owner or his premises he could not see much good sense in it’.

North of the river at Clerkenwell Mr Bartsow took a different line on ‘dangerous’ dogs. John Adams was brought before him charged with not keeping his good ‘under proper control’ contrary to police regulations. Adams said that the dog was walking a yards ahead of him and that ‘some magistrates held this to be “under proper control”.’

Mr Barstow told him that ‘he could be bound by the decisions of other magistrates’ and fined him 5s. If it was off the leash and without a muzzle, it wasn’t under control. I suspect the newspapers focused on this because it was a law that was commonly interpreted differently, something that must have been confusing for dog owners and policemen alike.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 09, 1886]

On June 15 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 to order on Amazon here

‘Brutal in the extreme’: one woman’s courage to stand up for herself against the odds

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It is probably fair to say that the marriage of Albert and Martha Sykes was doomed to fail. Albert was a labourer when the couple first got together and began to cohabit. Getting married may have been desirable, especially for working class women keen to uphold their reputations, but it was not always an inevitable consequence of cohabitation.

At some point in 1887 Martha gave birth to a baby girl but by then Albert was nowhere to be seen. Like many men he’d decided to shirk his responsibilities and deserted his partner. Martha though was a strong woman and insistent that her daughter should have a father to support her, so she went to law and obtained a summons to bring Albert to court.

When next she saw him in the dock at Marylebone Police court he was dressed as a sailor and stated that he was now an able seaman in the navy. The court determined that as he was  girl’s father he was obliged to pay towards her keep. However, Albert attempted to dodge this responsibility as well and never paid a penny. Martha stuck to her guns and summoned him for non-payment, so Albert found himself back in front of a magistrate in October 1889.

He promised to make good on the arrears and the case was adjourned for him to make a first payment. That never materialized (surprise, surprise) and so back to Marylebone he and Martha went. This time she had new offer for her estranged sailor: if he would agree to marry her and return home she would ‘forgive him the amount he was in arrears’. I think this tells us something about Martha, if not more about the reality of some working-class relationships in the late Victorian period. She had a small child and limited opportunities to bring in income. Therefore, as unreliable as Albert was he was of use to her. His wages would put food on the table and pay the rent and marriage would give Martha the respectability she felt she needed having born a child out of wedlock.

Albert agreed and the couple were married but they didn’t live happily ever after. Within months he’d deserted her again and she had summoned him back to court. That forced him to return to the marital home but he was a reluctant husband and things only got worse.

In May 1890 Albert was brought up before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone and charged with assaulting Martha, who was pregnant again. He was serving with navy at Chatham, attached to H.M.S Forte (which was under construction)¹, but was brought in on a warrant that Martha had taken out against him. Once again we can admire her determination to use the law to  prosecute her husband and to try to bring him to book, however futile it seems to have been.

Martha testified to his cruelty saying that she had putting her daughter’s boots on in the morning at their rented rooms at 3 Dickenson Street, Kentish Town when the little girl had started crying that she was hungry. Albert was annoyed at the noise and hit the child. Martha told him he had no right to strike the girl and an argument flared. The couple was poor despite Sykes’ navy salary and Martha was often obliged to pawn items. It seems she’d recently pawned a firearm belonging to Albert simply so she could pay the rent.

The argument escalated and he grabbed her by the throat and began to strangle the life out of her. Martha managed to fight back and free herself but he pushed her to the floor and knee’d her in the stomach. She screamed, in pain and in fear of losing her unborn baby, and the landlady came running upstairs. But Albert was already on his way out, running away from trouble as he always did.

He was back that night though and the fight started again. He took the hat she was wearing and threw it in the fire; Martha had to run from the house, in fear of her life, taking her little girl with her. It was a sadly typical example of male violence in the late 1800s but here we can see it escalate over time. Most women killed in the period were killed by their spouse or partner and often after years of non-fatal attacks. Abused women rarely went to court early in the cycle, choosing instead to believe they could calm or amend violent behavior. In reality once a man started hitting his wife he didn’t stop until the pair were separated by legal means or by the woman’s death.

In this case Martha was a strong woman who stood up for herself and her daughter in court, refuted the counter claims of antagonizing Albert which were leveled by his lawyer, and she convinced the magistrate that he was guilty as charged. Mr De Rutzen described Albert Sykes (who seemed destined to live down to the behaviour of his fictional namesake) as ‘brutal in the extreme’. Albert was sentenced to two months in prison, an outcome that seemed to surprise him. As he was led away he was heard to ask to see his mother.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]

¹ HMS Forte was launched in 1893, one of eight cruisers commissioned by the navy in the 1890s. She saw service off the coast of Africa but was decommissioned in 1913 as the navy needed a very different class of warship for the coming fight with Imperial Germany.