‘MeToo’ in the 1870s as some brave young women fight back

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The MeToo movement in the US and over here has helped expose the widespread exploitation of power by men for their own sexual gratification. Several prominent female actors have testified to being sexually assaulted or otherwise manipulated into performing sex acts by men who had the power and influence to further, or finish, their careers.

It took considerable courage for the survivors of these attacks to speak out and help bring their abusers to court. Victims are not always listened to, even today, and we did see instances where victims were effectively abused again, notably by the incumbent president of the United States, simply for daring to speak truth to power.

Given how difficult it remains for women to bring accusations against men for sexual abuse in the twenty-first century one wonders just how easy it was 150 or more years ago?

Victorian Britain was a much less female friendly society after all. It was a male dominated society where women did not only lack the right to vote, they lacked pretty much any rights at all. There were no female judges or magistrates, no policewomen, women were expected to look after children and the home, obey their husbands and fathers. They earned a lot less than men, were not allowed to study at university, and not encouraged to study at all. Queen Victoria was an exception in being a woman who held power (or sorts) and even she deferred to her husband in domestic matters.

So the young women that worked for Messrs. Fourdrinier and Hunt at their paperhanging works on Southwark Bridge Road deserve a mention this morning. In August 1875 James Fellows, a 34 year-old employee of the firm, was brought before Mr Benson at the Southwark Police court. He was accused of ‘disgraceful conduct towards several young girls’ working at the paperhangers.

Just what that ‘disgraceful conduct’ was soon became clear as a number of the women testified in court. Alice Page was just 16 and still lived at home with he parents. She worked making paper collars for Fourdrinier & Hunt’s in the same building as Fellows. She was working on her own on the previous Wednesday when Fellows came into the workshop and exposed himself. He did it again on Saturday and she informed her foreman.

I think we sometimes used to consider ‘flashers’ as a ‘bit of a laugh’; they featured in 70s comedy routines and perhaps weren’t taken that seriously. But Fellows was an active ‘sex pest’ using his position, as a male employee in a firm full of female workers, to gratify his own sexual urges at the expenses of his co-workers. His abuse did not end with ‘flashing’ either.

Alice Gillings told the magistrate that on the previous Saturday Fellows had entered the room where she worked and had thrown her down and sexually assaulted her. Caroline Smith had seen what happened to Gittings and rushed over to help. She scratched the man’s face in the process. Alice then managed to get away from Fellows, slapping his face and pushing him off, and told the foreman. Sadly, he did nothing about it.

Other girls had complained of Fellows’ conduct but were too ‘ashamed to tell it’ in court. Sexual predators and abuser like Fellows often rely on the silence of victims too scared or embarrassed to speak of what had happened to them. Just as in the MeToo movement it took a handful of brave survivors to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unfortunately in this case they had left it a bit too late. Mr Benson was disgusted by Fellows’ behaviour but since it had been over a week since the alleged attack on Alice Gillings he could not proceed with that charge. He reprimanded the foreman, James Collier, telling him that he should have sacked Fellows straight away after the first offence was reported saying that ‘he should not have remained in the place an hour’.

The indecent exposure had only been seen by Alice Page and he could not simply take her word for it uncorroborated. He suggested that the firm terminate his employment and ordered Fellows to enter into recognizances against his future behaviour for 12 months. It was a limited victory for the women at the paperhangers and hopefully prevented others from being victims of Fellows in the near future. It is deeply depressing to know that similar and worse episodes of male sexual violence and exploitation are still occurring in our ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ society.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 15, 1875]

A close encounter on Holborn Hill: two young women have a narrow escape

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Holborn in the mid Victorian period 

This blog has noted before that violence towards women was endemic in the Victorian age. The court reports are full of husbands and partners hitting, stabbing, burning, and otherwise beating their wives and lovers, and casual violence towards women in the streets is also a reality of daily life in the nineteenth-century city.

None of this should come as a surprise of course; violence towards women remains a serious social problem alongside the sexual abuse that has precipitated the Me Too movement in recent years. Some men it seems believe they have a ‘God given’ right to abuse women or, at the very least, to treat them as inferiors. I place ‘God given’ in inverted commas but note that it is the great religious texts that created the idea that women are in some way second-class citizens under a system of male domination. I don’t necessarily believe that religion is ‘bad’ but this element of religion continues to provide an excuse for discrimination and violence.

In 1855 two sisters were walking through Holborn and got lost. It was late and as they wandered the streets they saw a man standing on Red Lion Street and asked him the way to Haverstock Hill. He agreed to show them and they set off together.

The man was well dressed, gave his name as Thomas Reddington, a jeweler, and so they had no fears about walking with him. At some point one of the sisters, Mary McKay, said felt tired and needed to rest. Reddington said he had rooms nearby in Holborn Chambers and she was welcome to sit down their for a while before continuing her journey. The women agreed and followed the jeweler to a building in Union Court on Holborn Hill.

These rooms were not lawyers chambers however, they were quite ‘low and dirty’ and the women immediately felt uncomfortable there. The elder sister (Susan Hale, who was married) complained and said they should leave and was about to go when the man seized her and punched her in the face. Shocked she grabbed her sister and they ran out. They soon found a policeman on Holborn Hill and told him what had happened. PC Swinscoe (Sity 216) said he found Reddington at ‘an ice shop’ near Union Court and arrested him based on the women’s description.

The case came up before Mr Corrie at Clerkenwell Police court and one the face of it was a fairly straightforward incident of assault, perhaps with a darker sexual motive. Reddington’s key defense was that he was drunk at the time. ‘I’d been drinking all day long’ he told the magistrate, as if that was justification of his actions.

Incredibly, Mr Corrie seems to have taken this as mitigation and turned his ire on the young women, especially on Susan Hale as she was married. He told she had ‘acted most indiscreetly in accompanying a complete stranger into a house, even if what he represented to them was true, that he had chambers there’.

He ascertained that Reddington earned 30s a week and because the offence was serious he fined him £3. Reddington didn’t have the money (presumably because he’d drunk it all away) so he was sent to gaol for three months. The ‘young ladies quickly left the court’ chastened no doubt both by their narrow escape from a possible worse crime and the rebuke they had received from the magistrate. This was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a rape victim being told that her choice of clothing was to blame for the assault she suffered. Corrie may have been punishing the drunken jeweler but he was asserting the dominance of the patriarchy as he did so.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 04, 1855]

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A rapist offers ‘atonement’ to buy off his victim’s father

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A warning, this is a most unpleasant case, because it concerns the alleged rape of a 14 year-old girl.

Rachael Potts worked as a domestic servant in a household at 30 Grosvenor Park South, Camberwell, south London. In mid April her mistress went off to her country home for a few days so it was decided that Racheal would lodge with her father in Camberwell and travel the short distance to work each morning, not staying there overnight. Her father was a tradesman, a furniture broker on Southampton Street and probably saw his daughter’s employment as a respectable occupation and education for a young girl. He also expected her to be safe there, but he was wrong.

While Rachael’s mistress was away Montague Musgrave, her brother, was not. He lived with his sister at number 30 and one Wednesday evening he noticed that the young serving girl had scratched her arm. He offered to bandage it and as he was doing so he pulled her towards him onto his knee. Rachael wriggled free and ran off into the kitchen but Musgrave followed.

With no one about in the kitchen (presumably because most of the staff had gone to the country) Musgrave was able to catch Rachael, force her to the floor and rape her. He then made her a present of some ribbons and urged her to say nothing of what had happened. The teenage girl went home to her mother and kept her silence until she realized she had contracted a sexually transmitted infection or, as the press at the time put it: ‘a loathsome disease’.

The mother complained, Musgrave was arrested and the whole sordid affair came before Mr Elliott at Lambeth Police court. Musgrave was represented by his attorney but Rachael had to give her evidence herself. The prejudice of the papers was apparent as she was described as ‘precocious’ and ‘indifferent’, while Musgrave was ‘gentlemanly’. The accused lawyer argued that no jury would convict his client based on the evidence of a young girl (and by implication at least, a young girl of lower social status) and so offered some ‘atonement’.

In reality he was probably offering Rachael (or rather her father) some financial compensation in the hope that the charge would be dropped and further embarrassment could be avoided.  Unfortunately for Musgrave the magistrate did not feel that ‘atonement’ was an appropriate thing to discuss at this stage and bailed the suspected rapist to appear a week later.

At this point both Rachael and her alleged abuser vanish from the records. I doubt a trial took place; it is much more likely that an out of court settlement was made and Rachael left her position as a domestic in Camberwell and returned to her father. No doubt he received some money and the girl received some medical care but Musgrave would have walked away without any further taint on his reputation.

One expects however, that his sister may well have recognised that  her brother was not to be trusted with the young female staff and that is why she tried to keep Rachael away when she was not at home to supervise him. Let’s hope she was more careful in the future for leopards rarely change their spots.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 7, 1856]

“Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children”: child abuse in mid Victorian London

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The police had their work cut out for them in ensuring Edward Smith reached the Marylebone Police court safely. A large crowd had gathered outside the police station that was holding the ‘ruffianly looking fellow’ – a 26 year-old sawyer who lived in Paul Street, Lisson Grove. Had the crowd been able to get to him the press reported, ‘he would no doubt have been subjected to much violence’.

Smith did make it to court that day and Mr Broughton’s courtroom was crowded as the public crammed in to see that justice was done to Smith. The exact details of his offence were alluded to rather than described in detail by the Morning Post and that was because they involved the attempted rape of a young girl.

That child was Sarah Harriett Cooper and she was also in court that morning. Today Sarah would have been spared another direct confrontation with her abuser but in the mid Victorian period there were no such considerations for the welfare of the vulnerable. Sarah, aged 11 or 12, was stood in the witness box and asked a series of probing questions about her experience.

She told the magistrate that while her mother was a work she and some other girls were playing in a piece of open ground on the Harrow Road which was owned by a nurseryman. The little girls were trespassing but doing nothing more than running about and having fun. Suddenly Smith appeared and seized hold of Sarah and the three other children ran away in fear. Sarah said she pleaded with him to ‘let me go home to my mother’ but the sawyer put his hand over her mouth, told her not to make a noise, and threatened to cut her throat.

What happened next was not recorded by the press except to state that it amounted, if proven, to the committal of a ‘capital offence’. By 1852 adult rape was no longer capital but Sarah was under the age of consent (which was 13 until 1885) so perhaps that was a hanging offence. Sarah testified that she had ‘cried all the while he was ill-using me’ until ‘he at last lifted me up and brushed down my clothes, which were dirty’ [and] I ran away’. A crowd had gathered near the gates of the gardens and she told them what had happened.

Smith had hurt the child in other ways; he’d used a knife to cut a wound in her hand and she held it up to show the magistrate the puncture mark on her left palm. If this wasn’t evidence enough of Smith’s cruelty there other witnesses appeared to add their weight to the charge.

George Ashley had been walking past the gates to the nursery with friend when a small boy ran out shouting that his sister had been taken away by a man there. Ashley entered the gardens and saw Smith lifting the child up. Sarah was screaming at the top of her voice and the man was telling her to be silent. He sent his companion to fetch a policeman.

PC Lane (372A) arrived soon afterwards, finding a large crowd gathered around Sarah, who hand was bleeding badly. He soon discovered Edward Smith hiding in an outside privy at one end of the nursery grounds. The door was locked but PC Lane burst it open and arrested the sawyer. Questioned about his actions Smith simply declared:

‘Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children, knowing they had no business in the garden’.

The accused was taken back to the police station house and a search was made of the water closet. PC Cookman (55D) found a large bladed knife buried in the loose soil by the WC, which was open (suggesting it had been recently used and abandoned in a hurry). The girls’ mother described Sarah’s injuries and trauma when she’d got home, and a certificate from the surgeon that had treated her was read out in court detailing her injuries.

Finally the magistrate turned his attention to the man in the dock. Smith denied using violence against Sarah, or at least denied acting in an unlawful way. She and her friends were trespassing and he insisted he was only intending to ‘pull up her clothes for the purpose of giving her a smack, when she began to cry, and ran off’. He said the knife wasn’t his and he had no idea why it was found by the closet. He’d been drinking he said, and because he rarely touched alcohol, that had affected his head. Mr Broughton remanded him for a week and he was taken away to Clerkenwell Prison in a police van, followed all the way by a baying crowd of angry locals.

Just under a month later Smith was formally tried at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace for an aggravated assault with the intent to rape. Smith was convicted by the jury and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 30, 1852; The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 14, 1852]

A victory for William Stead or just another victim of male lust?

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On Saturday I left you with the unfinished case of Louisa Hart who was accused at Marylebone Police court, of the abduction of a young girl for the purposes of child prostitution. The hearing was one of the first to result from the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 after a sensational campaign by the leading journalist of the day, William Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette.

On the 8 February 1886 Louisa Hart was remanded in custody so that an investigation by CID could be further pursued. On the following Tuesday (16 February) Hart was back before the magistrate flanked by her solicitor (a Mr T. Duerdin Dutton) to hear a prosecution brought this time by the Treasury. She was described as being 21 years of age and residing at 32 Fulham Palace Road. The charge was that she had ‘unlawfully procured two young girls of reputable character, aged twelve and thirteen respectively, for immoral purposes’.

Florence Richardson was again called to give evidence, this time in person, and she recounted her experience of visiting Mrs Hart with her friend Rosie Shires in the summer of 1885. This account had a little more detail than the one I reported on Saturday as Florence described some of the events that had occurred:

Having had tea with Mrs Hart Rosie and Florence ‘went downstairs to a back room furnished as a bedroom. They washed their hands and presently an old gentleman came in’.

He spoke to the girls but she couldn’t remember what he’d said. Soon afterwards though both girls undressed and then things happened which were said in court but not written up or published by the Daily News’ reporter. Mrs Hart gave Florence a half-sovereign and Rosie 10s, adding 3s 6for their cab fare home to Holloway. Florence returned on the next Saturday and the same man was there and the same thing happened again.

It was an awful experience for Florence who cried bitterly in the witness box, especially when she was being cross-examined by Mr Dutton. She was being asked about her family, her withdrawal from school, and her sister, but she pleaded with the bench that she had nothing more say having already  ‘brought sufficient disgrace on her family’.

The next witness was Sophia Shires (22) of Spencer Road in Holloway. Rosie was her daughter and was not yet 13 years old. She’d found a letter (form Mrs Hart) in her daughter’s pocket and had contacted the police. Again she was cross-examined with doubt being thrown on her morality with regards to her daughter. Had she been aware of what Rosie was involved with? Had she been complicit?

This chimed with the case of Eliza Armstrong, the 13 year-old girl that William Stead had bought for £5 as the centerpiece of his ‘Maiden Tribute’ exposé. It was Mrs Armstrong’s strong reaction to the idea that she had ‘sold’ her daughter into prostitution that helped bring Stead and his accomplice Rebecca Jarrett before an Old Bailey judge and jury in the previous year.

Rosie was not in court and her mother clearly wanted to spare her the trauma that Florence was going through but Mr De Rutzen, the magistrate, insisted. The case was adjourned for a few days and Louisa Hart again remanded in custody. Meanwhile Mr Mead, the Treasury solicitor, muttered darkly that there had already been attempts to interfere with some of his witnesses. Powerful forces supported brothels and child prostitution just as they had opposed the attempted to pass the legislation that was at the heart of this prosecution. Some members of the elite strongly believed they had a right to prey on the children of the poor to satisfy their carnal desires.

During the course of the following week it emerged that Louisa Hart’s husband, Ben, was possibly the real power behind the relationship. The Pall Mall Gazette noted that when Louisa had been searched at Paddington police station she had told her female searcher that Ben Hart had married her when she was just 15 years old. It was against her will, she said, and it was him that had been the driving force in setting up what was described as ‘a child’s brothel’ in Markham Square.

Louisa Hart was back before Mr De Rutzen on 2 March. The same evidence was repeated but with some clarifications. Rosie was there this time and gave her version of the events in the house. She described the gentleman there as ‘middle aged’ and was clear that she had been asked her age, and ‘Florry’ asked hers. The prosecution was trying to establish that the girls were underage and that Mrs Hart (and the mysterious unmanned pedophile) knewthey were underage. She later added that on another occasion at the house she clearly remembered Mrs Hart insisting she tell the old gentleman that she was over 16, despite her knowing that she wasn’t.

This last point seemed to knock the defense solicitor somewhat and he asked for an adjournment for a week. The magistrate allowed this and again remanded the prisoner. A week later a much shorter hearing ended with Louisa being fully committed to take her trial at the Old Bailey.

That trial took place on 3 May 1886 and Louisa Hart was accused and convicted of ‘feloniously aiding and assisting a man unknown in carnally knowing Rosie Shires, a girl under the age of 13’. That was all the details the Old Bailey Proceedings recorded apart from Hart’s sentence, which was five year’s penal servitude. She served just over three years, being released on license in August 1889 and listed on the habitual criminals register. She died ten years later at the age of just 34. What happened to Rosie and Florence is unknown. The man that abused them seems to have got away scot-free as did Louisa’s husband Ben.

[from The Daily News, Wednesday 17 February, 1886; Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday, 24 February 1886; The Standard, Wednesday, 3 March, 1886]

‘Oh, I am glad you have brought some one with you’: one girl’s descent into prostitution

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This is quite a disturbing case and as yet I’m not sure what the ending would have been. It concerns the trade in virgin girls that had been exposed by William Stead’s sensational piece of journalism, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Stead’s exposé help force Parliament to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act that year, which raised the age of consent for 13 to 16. The underlying intention was the save ‘the unmarried daughters of the poor’ from exploitation for the pleasure of the ‘dissolute rich’.

The act gave the police the weight to investigate cases of child abduction (for the purposes of prostitution) and one of the results of this can be seen in this case from February 1886.

Louisa Hart, a 21 year-old married woman residing at 32 Fulham Place, Paddington, was brought before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court on a warrant issued to detective inspector Morgan of CID. DI Morgan had arrested Hart after an investigation which had led him to Finsbury Park and back to Chelsea and a house which may well have served as some sort of brothel.

The detective wanted a remand for Hart and was able to produce both a witness and a copy of the ‘information’ (or statement) she had given him. The witness was Florence Richardson, a ‘good-looking girl, wearing a large hat’. Her statement was read by the clerk of the court, probably because some of what it contained was deemed unsuitable for her to read aloud in person.

The court was told that Florence (who was nearly 14) was friendly with a another girl called Rosie Shires. Both girls lived in St Thomas’ Road, Finsbury Park and about six months previously Rosie had shown her a calling card with the name ‘Louisa Hart’ inscribed on it. The card also had an address – 43, Markham Square, Chelsea – and Rosie asked her friend if she would accompany her there to visit Mrs Hart for ‘tea’.

Florence agreed and the pair set off together. When the got to the house Florence noticed a lady in riding habit get off a horse and enter the house. A few minutes later the pair were invited into the drawing room where the lady in riding clothes introduced herself as Louisa Hart. She welcomed Rosie and said: ‘’Oh, I am glad you have brought some one with you’.

Florence waited while Hart and Rosie left briefly, apparently going downstairs to the parlour. They then had tea together before the door opened and an elderly man entered the room. What happened next was ‘unfit for publication’ so I think we can safely assume that Florence (and possibly Rosie) was subjected to some sort of sexual assault. Both, we should remember, were under the age of 16 and therefore under the age of legal consent.

That money changed hands  was not in question and Florence went back to the house a few weeks later and saw the same man again. She never told her parents what had happened but spent the money on ‘sweets and cake’. She later discovered that Rosie had also been ‘ruined’ by the old man and clearly her mother (Mrs Shires) had found out and was angry. Perhaps this was the point at which the police became involved.

Mrs Hart’s solicitor lamely applied for bail for his client but recognized that the case was far too serious for the magistrate to allow it. Mr. De Rutzen allowed him to try but refused bail. Decretive inspector Morgan’s request for a remand was granted and the investigation continued.  If I can find out some more you’ll be the first to know.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 09, 1886]

A ‘miserable lad’ and a ‘monster’: contrasting fortunes revealed in the press

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The Regent’s Canal in the early 1840s

On Saturday night my wife and I were crossing Blackfriars Bridge in the early evening. We were on our way to eat out at a fancy restaurant on the south side of the Thames on what was a lovely early autumn evening. The Thames was lit up and locals and tourists were strolling back and forth across the river and along the embankment. As we passed one of the inset buttresses of the bridge I noticed the rescue equipment attached the wall and, close by, a notice from the Samaritans offering a phone number for anyone in distress.

This was a reminder that people still jump from bridges like Blackfriars as they have done for centuries. It’s easy to do, there is little to stop you on Blackfriars for example and the pages of the Victorian press regularly recorded the discovery of floating corpses or the efforts of the police and passers-by to drag distraught ‘jumpers’ from the water.

Not everyone chose the Thames however, as this case shows.

Joseph Davis was described in court as ‘miserable, half-starved, and wretchedly clad’. A young man, Joe was down on his luck and at 10 o’clock on the 23 October 1846 PC 323K found him climbing the parapet of a bridge over the Regent’s Canal. As the policeman watched the lad launched himself into the water and the bobby had to rush to get help in dragging him out again.

Fortunately medical help was swiftly found and after a good meal Joseph was locked up overnight in the station house and taken before Mr Bingham at Worship Street Police court. The policeman said he knew the lad and one of his brothers, so a messenger was dispatched to find him and bring the family together to support the poor boy. Hopefully this was a one-off and Joseph Davis went on to lead a happy life.

Sadly this was not the case for the next person Mr Bingham saw that day. The newspaper reporter described William Clarke as ‘a monster’ and it sounds to have been well deserved. The ‘respectable’ watchmaker was brought up from the cells on a charge of rape and additional charges of sexual assault. He was committed to Newgate to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The report of that trial in the Proceedings is scant; it merely records that he was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life. As with nearly all cases of indecent assault and rape the details were withheld from the public, for fear of corrupting morals. One fact was recorded however: Clarke’s victim was his daughter Ann, who was just 12 years of age. Moreover her younger sister (not named) had also been assaulted by her father.

So that day the magistrate had two very different cases to deal with and both have disturbing echoes to our own ‘modern’ society as stories of child abuse and suicidal teenagers continue to dominate the newspapers.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, October 25, 1846]