The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .

‘You are a disgrace to human nature’: the meanness of the Poor Law exposed

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The Police Courts were places where people could bring their grievances on all manner of things in the 1800s. It is easy to get the impression that their main purpose was to deal with crime – petty and serious. However, this view is often reinforced by the newspapers’ selection of cases to bring to the attention of their readers: they often chose the outrageous, amusing, shocking, and heart ringing stories as well as regular examples of cases which reminded the public that working class men were brutal, that theft was common, and fraud to be avoided by the wary.

When Ellen Potts came to the Guildhall Police court to ask for Alderman Moon’s help it gave the court reporter of The Morning Post the perfect opportunity to expose an old chestnut: the misuse of authority by a lowly public servant. It helped that Ellen was pretty (‘a good-looking girl’ of ‘about 18 years of age’) and the public servant had a reputation locally for meanness.  Immediately then there was a melodramatic backstory that readers could relate to with a villain and a young heroine that needed saving.

Miss Potts told the court that she had been thrown out of her home after a row with her mother (‘over a shawl’). With nowhere to go that night Ellen knocked on the door of the West London Union workhouse at St Bride’s on Shoe Lane. The relieving officer, Mr Miller, refused her entry however, on the grounds that her mother took in lodgers at her house on Cloth Lane and so was perfectly capable of supporting her daughter.

Alderman Moon was angry with the officer whose only (and sustained) defense was to say he was only following orders. He quickly established that Mrs Potts was receiving poor relief herself and that Miller knew this.

‘Then how can she support her daughter?’ the magistrate demanded to know.

‘You have discretionary power, and I think it is a most cruel act of a man to refuse shelter to a girl under such circumstances, and your conduct is most disgraceful’.

When Miller tried once more to say it that Ellen was her mothers responsibility Alderman Moon cut him off.

‘Don’t talk to me about the mother. You may be a good badger for the guardians, but at the same time a disgrace to human nature. No wonder, when females  are thus cruelly refused an asylum, so many should become prostitutes for the sake of obtaining that relief for which the ratepayers are rated so heavily. There are constant complaints of your hard-hearted conduct, which is a disgrace to your nature’.

This brought cries of ‘hear, hear’ from all sections of the courtroom and Miller must have looked up miserably from the dock, as he continued to say that he was only doing what he’d been told to do by his employers.

The chief clerk whispered to the alderman that Miller was liable to a hefty fine for his actions. The magistrate told Miller that he was going to levy that penalty, £5, for disobeying the general rule that ‘relief shall be given to all person in urgent distress’. After one more forlorn attempt to shift responsibility from himself to the guardians the relieving officer finally work up to what was required of him.

‘Is it your wish she be taken into the house?’ he asked the alderman. ‘If so I will do it willingly’.

‘It is so’, Alderman Moon told him. ‘There’s an end of the case’.

So Miller avoided a fine and Ellen was admitted to the workhouse so she didn’t have to walk the streets and risk falling into an even worse fate.  Arguably the real villains here were the Poor Law Guardians that set the rules that Miller was expected to enforce, and Mrs Potts who was prepared to let her teenage daughter take her chances on the streets. At least this mini melodrama ended happily.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 10, 1849]

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 here

‘So after getting all you could out of him, you walked off with someone else?’: Love, music and discord in Lambeth

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The path of true love does not always run smoothly, and when things go wrong love can quickly turn to animosity. James Gray had been courting Georgina Hastings for three years, bringing her gifts and acting as a security for some of her purchases.

One of these was a pianoforte that she needed for her music lessons. Officially Georgina’s music tutor was guarantor for the piano but in reality it was understood that it was Gray that had undertaken to keep up repayments should Georgina miss any. She worked as a concert singer and she was a very attractive young woman, both of which meant that she was not short of admirers.

At some point her love for James cooled and someone else replaced him in her affections. When he found out James took his rejection badly.

After an evening’s work at the theatre Georgina came home around midnight to her rooms at 22 Lambeth Square to find the piano and several items of her clothing missing. She spoke to her landlady (Ellen Hare) and discovered that James had been round and cleared them out. Hare had given him the key after he convinced her that the property was his to take away. Georgina went to the police to get warrant for Gray’s arrest and on 1 August 1854 the couple were reunited in Lambeth Police court.

Gray was represented in court by a lawyer, Mr Wontner, who was to go on to serve as a police court magistrate later in the century. He established that Miss Hastings did not own the piano and that Gray was her de facto guarantor. He also prompted her to agree that the couple were to be married before she had ‘kicked him off for another lover’.

‘I don’t know what you mean by kicking him off’, Georgina replied, ‘but I suppose I had a right to change my mind if I thought proper’.

‘Yes, undoubtedly’, responded the lawyer, ‘but my client is a mason, and would have made you a good husband; and after three year’s courtship, I think it was quite time your loves were cemented’.

By now there was widespread chuckling in the court, though at who’s expense it is hard to judge. Georgina was unmoved, ‘that may be your opinion’ she said (it clearly wasn’t hers).

Mr Wonter continued, outlining the sums of money (amounting to around £100) that James had given his lover either in cash or presents over the three years of their relationship. Georgian challenged this admitting only that Gray had provided her with ‘five, ten, and sometimes fifteen shillings a week’. Even taking the mid point of these figures (76d) that still works out at close to £100 over three years so Wontner was not that much far of the mark.

And then, he told her, ‘after getting all you could out of him, you walked off with someone else?’

Georgina ‘did not condescend to answer this question’.

In summing up his client’s defense Mr Wontner told the magistrate (Mr Norton) that his client had removed ‘the property on finding he had been jilted and cut by Miss Hastings, and under the perfect conviction that it belonged to him’. Mr Norton, while he might have sympathized with Gray could not see any justification for taking the lady’s clothing. The lawyer conceded this and said his client was prepared to return the clothes and the piano, so long as he was no longer expected to act as security for it.

The magistrate agreed, and having removed the felonious elements of the charge this became a simple dispute over property. That being settled he was happy to discharge James Gray, who walked away to lick his wounds and find a new lover. Miss Hastings was free to return to her singing and her piano lessons but her reputation had undoubtedly suffered for having her love life publicized in the newspapers.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1854]

A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]

Tragedy in the Temple and a stabbing by a Dorset Street resident; all part of daily life in 1880s London

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Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper offered its readers (as the title suggests) a way to catch up with all the news, scandal, gossip, and ‘police intelligence’ that had been carried by the dailies in the preceding week. This Sunday paper had a little more time to frame stories or to carry features than the time limited Daily News or Morning Post did.

It was a very popular newspaper, selling over 1m copies on one day in February 1896, more than its closest rivals the News of the World and Reynold’s Newspaper. It lasted until the 1920s but didn’t survive the financial crisis at the end of that decade.

At the end of June 1889 Lloyds carried a full page of reports from the Metropolitan Police courts, ranging from a case of tea merchant obtaining credit by false pretenses to a valet that stole two gold sovereign coins. By the late 1880s the method of court reporting was well established and the typology of crime and social issues (such as poverty, unemployment, suicide) were very familiar to readers. Individual cases were routinely given a headline (such as ‘Strange Case’ or ‘An Unfortunate Visit to London’), which was not always the case earlier in the century.

Two in particular caught my eye this morning, an attempted suicide in the City and the stabbing of a woman in Deptford. The Deptford case involved was heard at Greenwich Police court but the accused – James Collins – was a resident of Whitechapel. Collins, a 68 year-old wood carver had previously cohabited with Emma Edwards in rooms at 17 Dorset Street, Spitalfields.

Dorset Street was an address that was all too familiar to readers who had been following the news story of 1888. The desperate poverty of Dorset (or ‘dosset’) Street had been highlighted after the brutally mutilated body of Mary Kelly was discovered in a room there in November 1888. Many researchers believe that Kelly was the final victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’, but other (myself included) beg to differ.

Emma Edwards told the magistrate at Greenwich (a Mr Kennedy) that she was walking along Griffin Street in Deptford when she saw her former lover in the street. She noticed ‘the gleam of a knife’ in his hand and suddenly she ‘felt herself stabbed’. She survived and Collins was arrested. In his defense he said it was an accident; he carried knives for his work and she must had fallen against one in his pocket.

The police were able to provide testimony that Collins had threatened Emma on more than one occasion, promising to ‘settle’ her ‘at the first opportunity’. Mr Kennedy sent him to prison for six months for aggravated assault.

The newspaper reports are full of accounts of casual male violence towards women and we should remember this in the context of the ‘Ripper’ murders. However you wish to depict the Whitechapel killings the perpetrator was a misogynistic serial murderer who operated in a society where working class women were placed firmly at the bottom of the social ladder; a reality that enabled him to kill almost without impunity. He was no caped crusader or criminal mastermind, as some versions of the mystery continue to suggest.

At the Mansion House along with the fraudulent tea merchant Sir Andrew Lusk was sitting in for the Lord Mayor. Lusk (no relation I think to the famous ‘Mishter Lusk’ who was sent a piece of human kidney during the Whitechapel murders) served as an MP until 1885 and was Lord Mayor in 1874/5. He was quite old in 1889, being in his late 70s.

By contrast Florence Ross was a young woman with her life ahead of her. An actress or dancer in the music hall, Ross was living with her sister in 1889 while she went through a period of ‘rest’. Whether that ‘rest’ implied she was ill, had fallen pregnant, or was simply unemployed, is not made clear from the report but I think we might speculate.

Florence Ross was rescued from a fountain in Middle Temple gardens where she had tried to drown herself. A policeman saw her rush to the water and jump in and so acted quickly to pull her out. The gardens are close by the Embankment and what is now Temple underground station.

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Whatever the reality she was lucky and survived but attempted suicide was an offence and so she was placed in the dock at Mansion House to answer for it. She said little or nothing by way of explanation but the magistrate decided to see what ways the court could find to help her. He remanded her for a week while enquiries were made. The Illustrated Police News later included its artist’s impression of her attempt in its 6 July edition. Sadly no paper seems to have recorded the outcome of those enquiries. Florence’s was one story amongst many, one human tragedy in a city which was witnesses to countless acts of violence, desperation, and cruelty each and every day, only a handful of which made the pages of the metropolitan press.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 30, 1889; 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. The book is available on Amazon here

An excess of zeal as a man tries to avoid the shame of a court appearance.

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This is one of those unremarkable cases, which, at the same time, serves to illustrate how the police courts of Victorian London actually operated. Most of the time the press does not discuss the various functions of the court. Partly this was because it is unlikely that the reading public were interested but also presumably because most people knew anyway. After all these were popular arenas for negotiating social issues and held few secrets for most of the people of Victoria’s capital.

On Thursday 24 June 1880 a number of people were brought to the Worship Street Police court charged with keeping dogs without paying for license to do so. We might have forgotten but until 1987 anyone owning a dog had to buy an annual license.  In 1880 this cost 7s 6d (equivalent to about £25 today) so while not a huge sum it was still a cost on the stretched income of the workingman. So it is not surprising that large numbers of people tried to avoid it.

This meant that periodically the capital’s police courts were filled with defaulters, most of whom were expected to pay up on the spot or face a possible fine and/or imprisonment if they couldn’t pay. Being sent to gaol for not having a dog license was not impossible but it was extremely unlikely.

On this occasion one man seemed keen to pay what he owed but then get out of court quickly and without drawing attention to the fact that he’d been there. This was understandable; no one wants his neighbours to know that he has been in court or in trouble with the law, it was potentially embarrassing. So he popped his 5fine on the ledge of the dock and tried to leave by the main entrance. A warrant officer stopped him and told him he had to go out by the door marked ‘prisoners’, which he was reluctant to do.

When the fellow refused point blank the officer picked up his coins and shoved the man towards the exit door. However, the poor man clung to the dock and continued to refuse to be expelled via the prisoners’ exit. Two more officers arrived, and a police sergeant, and a struggle ensured which ended in an unseemly wrestling match on the court floor.

Finally the man was dragged out of court by his collar and thrown into the street. If he wanted to avoid attention he’d failed quite spectacularly but it was the behaviour of the police and court officers that upset Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate.

In the afternoon he called the sergeant and officers before him and upbraided them. He told them that they had exceeded their authority and had shown too much ‘zeal’. Given the minor nature of the man’s offence there was no need for rough stuff. He was not supposed to leave his money on the ledge nor was the warrant officers supposed to pick it up from there. They should have told him to pay it to the ‘proper officer’ and, had he refused, they were required to let him leave. There was no requirement that he be imprisoned in default of payment and the proper procedure was for a distress warrant to have been issued if he continued to default on payment.

The man had been injured in the kerfuffle and Mr Bushby wanted it made clear to the officers that he didn’t want to see that sort of incident in his courtroom ever again, and he wrote a letter to the police inspector for K Division to place that on record.

So this uninteresting case becomes interesting (to me at least) because it shows how the courts operated when a fine was due to be paid. It also reveals that there was an exit designated for prisoners (or anyone presumably who had been charged, regardless of whether they came in from the street or from the cells). These were multi-purpose courts; they didn’t simply deal with ‘crime’ and we can all appreciate that some of those that found themselves there were hardly ‘criminals’ by any measure of that term. So making them walk out of a door marked ‘prisoners’ was probably likely to upset those that felt they had done little to deserve the blemish on their character.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 25, 1880]

A jilted lover causes alarm in a quiet Chelsea neighbourhood

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Cremorne Gardens, c. 1864

The path of true love doesn’t always run smoothly as we know but most people deal with rejection better than Louis Laroche.  Louis, a 23 year-old goldsmith was living in digs in fashionable Chelsea in 1876 and was courting a young lady named Miss Sinclair.

She lived in Camera Square and often entertained Laroche at her home. The couple seem to have had a tempestuous relationship with one neighbor testifying to hearing them quarrel loudly on many occasions.

On Wednesday 21 June 1876 this neighbour, Mr Sigismond Turner, overhead a loud exchange between the pair late in the evening.  The dispute seemed to revolve around Miss Sinclair’s alleged infidelity (as Laroche understood it at least). He accused her of going to Cremorne Gardens ‘with another man’. She ‘had deceived him’ he declared, and he was now intent on ‘doing away with himself’. HIs lover was refusing to marry him and poor Louis was at his wits end.

Cremorne Gradens was a popular entertainment spot in Victorian London. While it boasted music and dancing, places to eat and drink, it also had a reputation for prostitution and immorality. For some it was the place to be seen, for others it was a place to avoid. The fact that Miss Sinclair might have gone there without her beau to see another man probably spoke volumes as to her character in the eyes of the newspaper reading public in late Victorian London.

As he listened Sigismond was startled to hear talk of a pistol and a struggle over it. He thought he heard Miss Turner say that she would rather ‘he kill her than kill himself’ and then heard he demand he hand over the gun. Laroche refused, left the room and shortly afterwards a gunshot was heard.

This brought other neighbours out of their rooms and houses and Laroche, who was unhurt, was quickly apprehended and handed over to the nearest policeman. He was in possession of a six shot revolver, with only one live bullet in position. He was brought before Mr Arnold at Westminster Police court on a charge of attempted suicide.

However, he hadn’t been injured nor was there clear evidence that he’d intended to kill himself, or hurt anyone else for that matter. So as far as the magistrate was concerned the only offence he had clearly committed was to discharge a firearm in public.  Louis Laroche was bailed to appear at a later date, when Miss Sinclair would also be called to give her evidence in person. Bail was set at £50 and the unhappy lover released.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, June 23, 1876]