Poor Ellen MacCarthy. All she wanted to do was sell a few flowers to the visitors around St Paul’s but she fell foul of the City’s restrictions on street vendors. As a result she was arrested, had her violets taken off her, and she ended up in front of the alderman magistrate at Guildhall.
Giving evidence against her PC 371 (City) stated that he had seen Ellen ‘annoying and stopping’ passers-by in St Paul’s Churchyard at 7 in the evening on Saturday 26 October 1850. He said there had been ‘repeated complaints’ from local inhabitants about flower sellers and so he told Ellen to move along.
Although she initially obeyed his instruction she was soon back again, selling violets to anyone who would buy them – just like a Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady does at Covent Garden. The copper confiscated her basket and sent her away again.
Ellen was not to be deterred however: within the hour she was back with a new stock of violets, although this time she was selling them from a saucepan as the policeman had withheld her basket. Presumably infuriated the policeman now arrested her and took her back to the station. She was later bailed out, but without her stock.
Alderman Sidney was cross with the policeman who he felt had overstepped himself. There was no need, he said, for the police to detain the poor woman’s violets – how else was she to make a living? Yes, he agreed, she was causing a nuisance and the copper was correct in moving her on, and in arresting her, but once bailed her flowers should have been returned to her.
Ellen said that her violets were now ‘quite dead’ and unfit for sale so she was out of pocket to the tune of 1s 6d, a sum she ‘could ill afford to lose’. The alderman sympathized with her but she had been in the wrong and so decided she had been punished enough by the loss and let her go with a caution not to appear before him on a similar charge in the future.
PC 371 left court probably wondering what he’d done to earn the opprobrium of the ‘beak’ when he’d only been doing his duty. Flower girls like Ellen were not that far removed (in the public mind) from prostitutes in mid Victorian London, and St Paul’s Courtyard was notorious as a place for that ‘trade’ as well. Perhaps the alderman saw something else in Ellen, just as Henry Higgins did with Eliza.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 29, 1850]
Here are two other stories from the police courts that feature ‘Elizas’
“I ain’t done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman”: a real life flower girl in trouble with the law
A ‘barbarous’ attack on ‘Eliza Doolittle’ at Charing Cross