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. .

An uppity ticket inspector at Cannon Street

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As I was sitting on a Great Northern train at Finsbury Park four excited GN employees got off and went in separate directions. They looked pumped up for a day at work, which seemed a little odd given the flak that the railways has received in the past 12 months.  GN has frequently cancelled trains usually citing either a signaling problem (beyond their control) or a lack of drivers (which certainly isn’t). Here though were four happy employees about to start their daily shifts. As my wife pointed out though, they weren’t drivers, or even guards; they were the ticket inspectors about to embark on a day of flushing out fare dodgers.

I appreciate that the GN have to protect themselves against individuals that try to ride their network without paying but I think I’d prefer it if they actually ran all the trains they advertise on their timetable and trained up some of these eager inspectors for that purpose.

Nevertheless, the inspectors on Great Northern trains (and others no doubt) are always polite and friendly, unlike William Hill, who worked for the South Eastern Railway in 1876.

Hill was a ticket collector at Cannon Street in the City of London and on 13 April he was checking tickets at the station when a gentleman named James Herbert Smith approached him.  Mr Smith was a regular traveller and held a first class season ticket from Blackheath to central London. As he passed through the barrier Hill demanded to see his ticket. Smith fumbled in his pockets but couldn’t find it. He explained he must have misplaced and handed the man his calling card, so that he could be contacted. That, he felt, should be sufficient.

It wasn’t. Within moments Hill ‘seized him by the collar, and turned him around and stopped him’, again demanding to see his season ticket. Mr Smith tried a different pocket and this time found his ticket. This should have satisfied the collector but it didn’t. Instead of letting the passenger continue on to work Hill insisted that he accompany him to the ticket office. Smith obliged but told the man he felt it was entirely unnecessary (which it was of course) and when they got there the clerk immediately recognized him and he was allowed to carry on with his day.

Later Mr Smith asked for an apology from the ticket collector or his employer but since none was forthcoming he acquired a summons to bring him before a magistrate. On the 20 April Hill was set in the dock at Mansion House Police court to be questioned by the Lord Mayor about his actions. The railway denied any wrongdoing by their employee and provided him with a solicitor, Mr Mortimer. The defense was simply that Hill had a right to see the season ticket and was ‘merely doing his duty’.

The Lord Mayor evidently thought that the collector had overstepped the mark and acted unreasonably. An assault had clearly occurred and had the man apologized as Mr Smith requested, he would have let it go without further comment. Since the railway and the collector had been so determined to maintain their position on this he found Hill guilty of assault and fined him 20s.

One imagines that the relationship between the collector and this particular passenger in future will have been at best frosty, since they would have seen each other most mornings of the week. The case reminded Hill that he was merely a lowly employee of a service industry and, more importantly, several steps below the gentleman whose honesty he had the audacity to question. In future he would have to restrain himself  because a subsequent complaint might cause his employers to replace him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 21, 1876]

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

A young Turpin is nipped in the bud

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William Roseblade was 13 years old when he was stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court accused of stealing money from his employer, Mr Thompson. Described as ‘a sharp, intelligent-looking boy’ it was alleged that William had stolen the princely sum of £10 and ran away. The boy was tasked with errand running for the Islington watchmaker and was regularly sent out with sovereigns to change to get changed for smaller silver coins. One day in March 1864 he simply didn’t come back.

PC William Kempson (304R) was on the platform at Lewisham railway station when he noticed  a lad acting suspiciously, putting money in a purse and he moved in and grabbed him. When he asked the boy (who was William) just where he’d got such a lot of cash he was given three different, and equally implausible answers.  The policeman took young William by the collar and marched him to the local police station. There he was searched and £5 14d, a pistol, some percussion caps, powder and a bullet mould were found on him.

This was more serious than the usual juvenile delinquency the police encountered daily, just where had William got a gun from and how had he ended up in Lewisham when his stated home address was in Norfolk Street, Islington?

William now gave a dramatic and bizarre story to the police. He said he’d been waylaid by gipsies and forced to join their gang. At first they threatened his life if he didn’t do as he was told but soon he won the confidence of their leader and became his second in command. He said the gang had stopped several gentleman on the roads and demanded ‘their money or their lives’. William held the gun and was told that if they didn’t hand over the money, or were violent, he was to shoot them. He added that the gang ‘never ill-used them if they did not make a noise and at once complied with their wishes’.  He declared that he had already shot several people who hadn’t done as they were asked.

Now, however, he had grown tired of the life of a highwayman and a burglar and wanted to go to sea ‘so that he could be a pirate and a bold buccaneer, and sweep the seas and be his own master, and forever free’.

It was a romantic tale and, of course, a complete fantasy from beginning to end. The magistrate asked the police if any crimes fitting William’s description had occurred in the area he mentioned but they had not, the lad had made it up. What had inspired him then? Well, it seems young William had a passion for penny dreadfuls, for the cheap publications like “Dick Turpin”, “The Gentleman Highwayman,” and “Tales of the Daring and Bravery of Pirates”. He’d filled his head with heroic criminality and was unable to separate this from the reality of his own life.

His mother was distraught. She told the justice that she’d raised him properly, ‘religiously and respectably’ and he had brought disgrace on a  family that had never been in trouble with the law before. She urged the magistrate to send her son to a reformatory school: ‘He was young’ she said, ‘and he might turn out a bright man’.

The magistrate upbraided William for his behaviour and his attitude but the lad was unrepentant and seemingly unfazed by his appearance in court. He was living the dream of being a highwayman, acting up to authority and ‘dying game’ as Turpin did. Whether he felt the same way once he had spent a month in a cell at the Clerkenwell house of correction is anyone’s guess however.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 3, 1864]

A woman is found guilty of something, despite the lack of evidence

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On Monday 16 March 1874 Miss Caroline Greene arrived at Paddington Station on a train from Bath; she was on route to Essex, where she lived. She left the train and was waiting for her mother to join her when a well-dressed woman in her thirties approached her. The stranger engaged her briefly in conversation and then went to move off.

At that moment William Clarke appeared and took hold of the woman, accusing her of attempting to pick Miss Greene’s pocket. The would-be thief, who gave her name as Catherine Morris, was arrested and taken before Mr Mansfield at Marylebone Police court on the following day.

In court Clarke, a sergeant in Great Western Railway’s private police force, said he had been watching Morris carefully as she worked the crowds on the platform. He’d clearly seen her dip her hand in Miss Greene’s pocket and then walk away. Caroline Greene then testified that she had felt the prisoner’s hand go into her pocket but fortunately she didn’t keep her purse there so hadn’t lost anything.

Catherine Morris vehemently denied the charge and said she’d been set up. Clarke had told the young woman what to say she added, and said she too was only waiting for a friend. Unfortunately for her  the address she’d given to the sergeant implicated her further. Detective Smith of X Division said he’d visited the house she claimed as home to discover that she’d only stayed there for 10 days. He also found out that on the previous Sunday she’d been consorting with a man who’d just been released from prison.

In court Morris refused to say where she had been staying recently and that must have helped the magistrate make up his mind that she was guilty of something, even if direct evidence of pickpocketing was circumstantial at best. He sent her to the house of correction for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 18, 1874]

From the Inner Circle to Crossrail: 135 years of ‘improving’ the capital’s transportation network

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Not everything that came before the magistrates in London was ‘criminal’; the Metropolitan Police magistracy dealt with a lot of business that we would deem ‘civil’, including complaints about all sorts of things that were result of the everyday nature of living and working in the world’s largest city.

If you take a trip into London today you will be struck by the sheer amount of building and repair work that goes on. London’s streets are in a constant state of construction and reconstruction; pavements are opened up so utility companies can lay new telecommunications cables, or fix leaks in water pipers, or reroute gas or electricity. New road layouts or junctions are being set out, traffic lights replaced or pelican crossings created, cycle paths painted in, and ‘traffic calming’ measures (a misnomer if ever there was one) put in place.

Meanwhile new housing or office blocks rise up as other buildings are demolished, and scaffolding wraps existing structures in a coating of branded cladding to let us know which major building company is disturbing the peace around us. An army of hi-viz, plastic helmeted workers occupying lofty or lowly positions as they beaver away like so many bright yellow ants to make these design projects a reality.

Foremost amongst all of this building activity is Crossrail, London’s new and expensive east to west underground railway, the first new addition to the capital underground since the Jubilee Line was opened in 1977.  Crossrail has been disrupting London for years, it seems like decades, making it impossible to visit the site of Polly Nicholls’ murder in Durward Street (then Bucks Row) and other places. Crossrail will eventually connect the tow sides of the capital via 26 miles of new tunnels and allow greater connectivity and volume for an underground system that is clearly creaking under the weight of millions of daily commuters.

London’s underground network is the oldest in the world and when it was first opened (in 1863) it was – and remains – a tremendous feat of engineering. From the building of the first lines by the Metropolitan Railway and the District Railway, work expanded to drill down deeper into the capital and them, in the 1890s, the first electric trains began to run. One can only imagine what it was like to travel underground in the Victorian period, on steam-powered engines hauling wooden carries, lit by gas lamps. It is not exactly a picnic today, and recent research has revealed that levels of air pollution are contributing to the ill health of millions of Londoners.

While the tube (as it is affectionately known) was both an engineering miracle and a tremendous boost for the Victorian capital’s economy, it was also a nuisance in just the same way that Crossrail is today.  It disrupted daily life, forced people from their homes and business, and cut deep swathes through the city.  Photos from the time (such as the one above) show scenes of building work that are not unlike those we experience whilst walking or driving in London today.

And for a small glimpse into exactly how this affected ordinary Londoners we can visit the Mansion House Police court in January 1884 just as the new Circle Line (known then as the inner circle) was being constructed. John Bates, who rented rooms at 137 Cannon Street, applied to the Lord Mayor for compensation for being, in effect, evicted from the home where he and his wife had lived for some time.

Bates paid 5s a week for his accommodation and his wife contributed to the rent by cleaning the offices in the rest of the property. The property had been recently acquired by the Metropolitan and District Railways Companies and they were asking the couple to vacate the premises because they needed to knock it down to build a ventilating shaft ‘or “blow hole” for the new underground line below. In court Bates argued that since he had a three year verbal agreement with his landlord he should be compensated for moving out. In reply the lawyer representing the railways insisted that Bates was simply a weekly tenant and had no real rights to his tenancy.

Bates’ representative explained that Mrs Bates also provided a catering service to the clerks that had been occupying the site before it was sold and that she earned £3 a week from this venture; the Bates’ had more to lose than their home then as a consequence of the building of the ‘Inner Circle Railway’. A surveyor calculated the loss of income at £94 per annum and Bates’ claim was for a year and a half, £141, plus costs (which were estimated at over £50).

So what was the Lord Mayor to do? Clearly the building work was going ahead – the tube needed to be built – and so the Bates’ would have to find a new home and a new way of earning a living (or at least some new clients). In the end, having heard from the original landlord that he considered Bates to be ‘a yearly tenant’, the Lord Mayor awarded damages of £100 with 5 guineas costs (a guinea was worth 21 shillings, or £1 and 1s).

This was considerably less than £50 and so the overall compensation awarded was about half what Bates had asked for. It was still about £7,000 in today’s money but I rather expect Crossrail has had to pay a lot more to compensate those in the path of the new railway. After all the estimated cost of Crossrail was supposed to be just under £18bn in 2009 but that was revised downwards to £14.8bn. In 2018 it was announced that the project was behind schedule (by nearly a year) and over budget, to the tune of about £600m.

Hopefully it will all be worth it.

[from The Standard, Saturday, January 19, 1884]

Two Frenchman and the case of the missing umbrella

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Cannon Street Station, 1878

It was a chance meeting, the sort of thing that can happen on a long train journey. Cesar Blancher was newly arrived in England having taken the boat from France that morning. As he sat on the train to London his carriage door opened and a head appeared. The new arrival (who’s name was Emille Iron) asked if he might join the occupants and Blancher noticed his unmistakable French accent. Before long the two fellow countrymen had struck up a friendship as they travelled through the countryside of southern England.

When they got to London leaving their luggage at the railway station, they decided to dine together and, one thing leading to another, they ended up at the Royal Hotel in Blackfriars where they slept in the same room together. Iron was up early and woke his companion to tell him he was going to fetch their luggage from Cannon Street station.  Blancher acknowledged this but then rolled over and went back to sleep.

When he finally rose he wandered over to check the time on his watch. He had left his timepiece on the dressing table but now discovered it was missing. Soon he found that his purse and money (103 francs and £4 3s) was gone , along with a portmanteau and his umbrella.

Having dressed quickly he rushed downstairs to the concierge and found that there had been no sightings of M. Irons so he headed for Cannon Street. There he saw Irons leaving the station and about to step into a cab. Blancher approached him and immediately demanded he hand over his watch and chain, and other affects. Irons produced the watch but said he would give him the other items when they reached the hotel.  Blancher insisted on having his property straight away and when the other man refused he called over a policeman who arrested him.

The case ended up before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street where Irons denied stealing anything. He said he’d taken the watch so he’d know what time it was, and the purse so he could change the francs into sterling. The portmanteau he was taking to lodgings (presumably some he had found for the pair of them?).

And the umbrella Mr Vaughan asked, why had he taken that? Why, he thought it might rain the Frenchman replied to laughter in court.  The magistrate wanted to check both men’s version of events at the station so asked the clerk to track down the cabbie for his evidence. In the meantime M. Irons was remanded in custody and taken off to enjoy a slightly less grand accommodation for a few nights.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, December 04, 1878]

A quick-thinking signalman saves an impatient commuter at Swiss Cottage.

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Anyone who travels regularly on London’s underground and overground railway system will have seen people risking injuring themselves and others by rushing to catch trains just before the doors close. People get shoved, bumped into, pushed aside and generally manhandled as impatient commuters attempt to barrel their way through crowds or squeeze onto carriage as the closing ‘beeps’ sound to announce ‘this rain is now ready to depart, mind the closing doors’.

Sometimes the late arrival gets stuck in the doors, which open and close again while the assembled passengers glare at them. On more than one occasion I’ve heard the driver (often with heavy sarcasm) offer a few words of advice for the future to whomsoever has just boarded his or her train.

We’ve all done it and we’ve all seen it done.

George Sorrell was tired and his wife was unwell. In fact she was ‘dangerously ill’ and after a very long day at work for the General Omnibus Company (14 hours in fact) all George wanted to do was get home to her. So when he arrived at Swiss Cottage station late one evening and saw a train departing he ran to catch it.

The doors then were manual and swung open so he reached up and grabbed the handle and hauled himself aboard. However, the train was moving and he got stuck half in and half out. This was perilous because in a matter of seconds the train would enter a tunnel and the bus employee risked being thrown from the carriage and mangled under its wheels.

Fortunately for him a signalman had noticed him and the danger he was in – apparently it had been become all too common for commuters to risk life and limb in this way – and rushed out of his box and pushed Sorrell bodily into the compartment and safety.

At the next station Sorrell was reprimanded by the guard and asked for his name and address. George gave a false address in Chelsea but the company were persistent and eventually traced him. He was summoned to appear at Marylebone Police court in September 1873 where the charge against him – that ‘of entering a train in motion’  – was heard by Mr Mansfield, the sitting police magistrate.

Mr Gooden, the chief inspector leading the case, explained that incidents of this type were becoming commonplace and so the railway company had decided to prosecute each and every one, in an attempt to deter passengers from carrying on with this dangerous behaviour.

The magistrate listened to Sorrell’s excuse but agreed with the railway that this needed to be stopped before anyone was killed. He also noted that the defendant had put the company to considerable expense and trouble by lying about where he lived. So he fined him 10with an additional 2costs and sent him on his way with a flea in his ear.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 08, 1873]

PS. Swiss Cottage underground station had opened just 5 years before George Sorrell had his brush with death. It was the norton terminus for the Metropolitan and St John’s Wood Railway so Sorrel would have realised that his ride into central London was disappearing fast. A new station opened in 1939 so the one he used closed in 1940 and the old station building was demolished 20 years later.