A warning: if you have a sense of fair play and justice this may annoy you.

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Lewis Wills was a respectable small businessman who ran a trimming workshop in Mile End. At premises in Raven Row he employed a large number of women  who undertook piece work there and from home. One of these women was Mrs Emma Davis and on the 22 December 1847 she had an unfortunate meeting with her employer.

Emma and her husband, like many in the East End, were poor and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on what ever the pair of them could bring in by working every possible hour and hope it was enough to meet the rent, feed their children, and heat their rooms. Winter was always harder and in the run up to Christmas Richard Davis was unemployed.

Richard was no slouch however and (as Norman Tebbit would have no doubt approved) he got on his metaphorical ‘bike’ and traveled to Southampton to look for work. Meanwhile Emma continued to take in trimming work to keep the family solvent. One of the advantages she had enjoyed was that Mr Wills was generous enough to advance money to his workers, to help them meet their obligations to landlords and local shopkeepers.

As a result Emma, and others in the workshop, were literally indebted to him. Sadly, surrounded by young women this proved quite a temptation to Wills, and one he could not resist. On the 22nd Emma came to him to ask for the advance of a shilling against her wages.

Knowing her husband was away Wills decided to turn this encounter to his advantage and he suggested to Emma that if she was willing to allow him to take what she described as ‘improper liberties’ with her he would lend her a half sovereign. Emma was deeply shocked and offended, especially when Wills pressed his case and grabbed hold of her. She had been propositioned and sexually assaulted by her employer and she ran home as fast as she could.

When her husband came back she told him and he was furious, wanting to press charges against Wills but Emma was cautious. She still owed him money and had work to complete; she was worried she’d lose her job and then how would they cope. Richard went to see Wills and remonstrated with him but the man denied doing anything and sent him away. Emma decided to go and see Mrs Wills, to plead with her woman to woman but at first she was prevented from doing so by the trimmings manufacturer and then, when she did finally see her, she was dismissed out of hand. Wills had got to his wife first and warned her that a hysterical woman was about to make false accusations against him.

Unless the couple formally went to law they were unlikely to get any justice from the situation. So in January, when all the work was completed and no debts were owing, Richard applied for a warrant to bring Lewis Wills before the magistrate at Thames Police court. To get such a warrnat the case was recounted to Mr Yardley (the magistrate on duty) and Wills was defended by his lawyer, Mr Pelham.

Pelham went on the attack demanding to know why it had taken so long to bring his client to court. Emma and Richard explained (as detailed above) but it fell on deaf ears. The lawyer rejected the suggestion that Wills effectively exploited his female workforce for sexual favours by inveigling them into his debt and dismissed Emma’s testimony as nonsense.

Then Emma produced another worker, this time a much younger girl, who was being led to the witness box to support a claim that Wills’ predatory sexual behavior was widespread when Mr Yardley stopped her. He said ‘the girl would not assist the case, and he refused to examine her. It was quite impossible’, he added, ‘to trust to the evidence’. As far as he was concerned Richard Davis was at fault here: he should have brought the case immediately and implied that he’d only done so when Wills had refused his wife any more work.

Thus in his view this was a malicious prosecution and he dismissed it.

Emma and Richard left court without ever being able to bring her abuser to a public hearing to defend himself. That was exactly what his lawyer intended and in this he had the full cooperation of the magistrate, a man drawn from a similar social class. The court was in effect deciding, without a ‘trial’, that such a person could not be deemed to have done such a thing and that, therefore, Emma was a liar.

This was a crushing defeat for the Davis family and probably meant that Emma would have to seek work elsewhere, but with all local businessmen knowing she was marked out as a ‘troublemaker’. In the meantime a ‘sex pest’ was free to exploit and abuse his small army of female   workers, who were made even more vulnerable by the failure of the law to protect one of their own. This kind of behaviour has recently been called out by the ‘MeToo’ movement but it is nothing new of course, and men like Wills continue to take advantage of the power they have over vulnerable women.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 19, 1848]

The late Victorian magistracy knew how to deal with sexual assault when they saw it

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Dalston Junction station c.1905 (about 8 years after the events recounted below took place) 

Our society is quite rightly agitated about sexual assault and misconduct. There has been a well documented campaign about sexual harassment and worse which as touched the television and film industry, politics, professional sports, and even charities. I suspect we have not heard the end of this and that the empowerment of women (and men) via the sharing of stories of abuse will result in many more industries and ares of public and private life being exposed to accusations of bad behaviour, sexual misconduct and rape.

It seems to me that the abuse of women, men and vulnerable children by those having positions of power and influence is endemic in modern society and until some prominent people are very publicly made to pay the consequences of this we are unlikely to see things improve. Sadly, of course, none of this is very ‘new’ and men (and it is usually men) have been getting away with sexual harassment for centuries.

However, not everyone got away with it and in some circumstances – notably when the abuser was a member of a lower social class than his victim – the Victorian courts were prepared to act to defend the defenceless. Even when these distinctions were not obvious the Police Court magistrates could often be relied upon to make a stand.

Florence Day was a domestic servant. On Tuesday 17 March 1897 she was travelling on the North London Railway between Dalston Junction and Broad Street in a third class carriage. It was the day before St Patrick’s Day  and the carriage was also being used by three Irishmen, one of whom took it upon himself to impose himself upon the young servant girl.

As soon as the train moved off Morris Deerey, a cattleman, began to speak to her. Florence was not interested and move her seat to get away from him. He’d been drinking and he and his friends were probably quite drunk. Undeterred Morris rose and follow her, sitting down opposite the girl.

Again he tried to engage her in conversation and when she ignored him he moved his muddy boot across and lifted her skirt. This was not only an invasion of space it was a sexual assault in the context of Victorian attitudes towards the female gender. Even today it would be considered as such.

When the train pulled in to Broad Street Florence, with the help of a fellow passenger who had seen everything that occurred, had Deerey taken into custody. She went to Moorgate Station and was examined by a female ‘searcher’ (who  I imagine was employed by the railways to search women brought in accused of picking pockets).  She confirmed that there was mud on the servant’s stockings and the whole case sent before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

Deerey denied the accusation against him and produced his two fellow cattlemen to back him up. Both admitted to being drunk and claimed that Deerey’s foot had got accidentally entangled with the girl’s dress. William Holloway had acted to support Florence and had been watching the men warily since they’d boarded the train at Chalk Farm. He confirmed Florence’s story and dismissed the friends’ version of events.

Alderman Newton had heard enough. Bad behaviour from the working classes was meat and drink to him; drunken and loutish conduct by the Irish was particularly to be condemned. He told the listening press and public that:

‘the traveling public must be protected, especially unprotected females’.

He sent Deerey to prison for 14 days hard labour meaning that he missed the St Patrick’s Day celebrations that year. ‘Poor Paddy’, as the Dubliners (and the Pogues) once sung.

[from The Standard , Thursday, March 18, 1897]