Outrage at the Houses of Parliament as a lunatic is let loose

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It was just before 5 o’clock on the 16 July 1894 when Mr John Sandys, the public orator (literally the voice) of the University of Cambridge, arrived at the Houses of Parliament with his wife.  He and his wife Mary were supposed to be meeting Sir Richard Temple, the Conservative MP for Kingston a privy councilor.

Mary stepped out of the cab and as her husband settled the fare a ‘rough looking man’ rushed up to her shouting incoherently. Some witnesses claimed to have heard him shout ‘I’ll do for you’, or ‘Now I’ve got you’, but none were clear. What was certain was that he was brandishing a clasp knife and seemed intent on doing her some harm.

He lunged forward and slashed at her, slightly damaging her dress but thankfully not Mrs Sandys’ person. A quick thinking passer-by came to her assistance and two police officers helped wrestle him to the ground before taking him into custody. He was marched to King Street Police station where Mrs Sandys officially identified him as her attacker and signed the charge sheet. The man refused to give his name and nothing was found on his person that might explain who he was or why he had attempted to stab Mary.

At his first hearing at Westminster Police court his name emerged. He was Watson Hope Scott, also known as Samuel Strange – which seems an appropriate nom de plume. The magistrate expected that Strange or Scott was quite mad and could discern no connection between him and Mrs Sandys. He remanded the prisoner for further enquiries.

On 24 July he was again brought before the Westminster magistrate and a certificate was handed over (by Detective Inspector Waldock) that established that Scott was indeed insane.  He had discovered that Scott had served in the army in China but had been discharged in 1884 after suffering a severe bout of sunstroke. This had left him mentally damaged and unfit to serve. On his return to England he had found work with a medical herbalist but that only lasted three years before his employer dismissed him, because of his mental health problems.

Scott then worked at a cement factory but they couldn’t cope with hi either and let him go. Just recently he had found work in a City factory (doing what isn’t clear) but he suffered from fits and so the manager sacked him, fearing he might fall into the one of the machines and injure himself.

Throughout his hearing Scott sat in the dock looking dejected, ‘his face buried in his hands’. The magistrate declared him to be a lunatic and sent him to the workhouse asylum in Poland Street.  It is a desperately sad story. I doubt the sunstroke (more properly heatstroke) caused Scott’s mental health problems but it may well have exacerbated them. Once he lost his military career he was on a downwards spiral and the state would have done little to support him. He clearly did try to support himself, this was someone who wanted to work, wanted to contribute to society. But no one it seems was prepared to do anything for him.

Perhaps that’s why he ended up at Parliament – the place where British citizens might hope to get their problems heard and dealt with. After all, as Mr Johnson said yesterday, politicians are there to serve us, not themselves. This is not to excuse his attack on an entirely innocent woman but more to understand that it was probably born of a deep frustration and therefore represented a cry for help not a serious desire to do anyone harm. Sadly he didn’t really get any help, just a bed in an workhouse asylum, a slow death sentence if ever there was one.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 25, 1894; The Standard  Tuesday, July 17, 1894]

‘A gross outrage’ on a young woman reveals the commonplace nature of sexual harassment in London

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Farringdon station under construction in the 1860s

The news feed is still dominated by the Westminster ‘sex pest’ scandal with a growing list of male MPs having to deny, admit or explain their poor behaviour towards female colleagues in the palace or outside. What has emerged is that sexual harassment (from the relatively minor to the extremely serious) is endemic in British politics.

As I discussed last week the Victorians experienced this problem, especially when the new railways began to break down the barriers between the sexes (and classes).  The busy railway carriages of Victorian London provided men with an opportunity to get close to women in ways that were usually denied them. We have seen this replicated in the modern world with attacks on female commuters on the London Underground.

Of course sexual  harassment is not (and was not) confined to the tube or other forms of transport. The Westminster scandal is just the tip of the iceberg; the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations have opened a can of worms in the movie and wider entertainment industry and I fully expect that over the course of the next year or so we are going to see more and more women come forward to complain that they have been assaulted at work or pressured into having unwanted sexual relations by men in positions of power.

This is because we don’t live in an equal society in terms of gender, despite the progress that has been made since the end of the last world war. There needs to be a reckoning and I rather suspect that it is just beginning. But let us return to the nineteenth century and to an incident that was reported, if not in great detail.

Miss Mary Ann Newell was ‘quietly walking along the street’ minding her own business one afternoon in November 1866. Mary Ann was quite close to her lodgings in Northampton Square, Clerkenwell (close to where the London Metropolitan Archives are located today) when a young man came up behind her.

Without warning or introduction he reached around her with his arms and ‘assaulted her in a  very indecent manner’. The newspaper report does not give any more details than this but I think it is quite clear that he must have touched her breasts. Such an action was of course as outrageous then as it would be today. Mary Ann escaped from his grasp and ran home where she told her landlord.

He set off in pursuit of the young man, capturing him a few streets away and taking him to a police station. The next day all three appeared at the Clerkenwell Police Court in front of Mr D’Eyncourt.

The young man, whose name was William Sparrow Cumber was just 16 years of age, and described as a bookbinder. Several of his friends appeared to give him a good character but the offence was proven against him. The magistrate made no comment that was recorded by the reporter but fined him the significant sum of £2 10(about £240 today). Mr D’Eyncourt warned him that if he failed to pay the money he would go to prison in the house of correction for a week at hard labour.

Did this represent ‘justice’ for Mary Ann or an effective deterrent to William and those inclined to behave similarly? I suppose the proof would in what happened next. If this served to let the young bookbinder know that he couldn’t treat women as objects, then a hefty fine (rather than gaol) allowed him to keep his job whilst being effective in protecting women locally. If his mates helped pay his fine and his ruffianism and day in court was considered a ‘badge of honour’ then more young women were likely to fall victim to similar assaults.

Given the deeply gendered nature of Victorian society and the generally subservient position of women in it, and the experience of modern women in a society which is supposedly so much more ‘enlightened’ where equality is concerned, I rather fear Mary Ann was forced to tread much more carefully when she left her home, with more than half an eye on who was behind her from then on.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 07, 1866]