Continue reading “‘I am going to make a hole in the water’; tragedy as one ‘unfortunate’ girl gives up on life.”
‘It’s no use crying over spilt milk’, one young charmer tells the maid he has ruined. Bastardy at Westminster
The poor servant girl ‘undone’ by the master (or another male of the house) is a well-worn trope of Victorian fiction. That said it is fairly rare for stories like this to reach the newspapers, at least in the reports that I have been looking through for the last three years.
In mid October 1879 an unnamed domestic servant applied for a summons at Westminster Police court to bring Edward Salmon to court. She alleged that he was the father of her unborn child and that he had run away from his responsibilities and left her ‘ruined’.
Salmon was not in court, nor was his mother – Mrs Hermina J. Salmon – for whom the girl had worked. She had employed as a maid in the salmon’s house at 55 Oxford Road, Ealing and the girl told the magistrate that Salmon had ‘accomplished her ruin in the early part of last year’. When it became obvious that she was pregnant she was sacked and turned out of the house.
This was the usual consequence of intimate relationships between female servants and male members of the household, regardless of whether the sexual relationship was consensual or not. In this case Mrs Salmon clearly held her maid responsible. She told her in a letter that she could not have been ‘a “correct” girl when she entered service, for had she been so she would not have allowed [her son] to take liberties with her’.
Edward had also written to the girl (who had been asking for money) telling her that she should not ‘get cut up about it’. Instead she should:
‘keep up her spirits, and although he was sorry, it was “no use crying over spilt milk”.
He also advised her not to threaten him for he would be happy to ‘let the law take its course’.
He warned her to stay away until ‘any unpleasantry passed over’ (until she’d had the baby) and that she was not tell his mother either.
He wasn’t afraid, he said, of his character being dragged through the mud because ‘it was so bad at present it could hardly be made worse’.
What a charmer.
Edward Salmon had sent the girl £2, as had his mother, but they promised no more saying that was all they could afford. As a result the servant, showing considerable courage and determination, had gone to law.
Mr. D’Eyncourt was told that Edward Salmon was not available and nor was his mother. Both were represented by a lawyer. There was a certificate from Mrs Salmon explaining her absence (the reasons were not given by the paper however) but a witness appeared to depose that he’d seen Edward boarding a ship at the docks. Edward Salmon had taken a ship bound for India and was currently in Paris, although his lawyer said that he would return in a ‘few weeks’.
D’Eyncourt declared that the summons had been duly served and so the law required Salmon to appear. That explained why he ‘had bolted’. He issued a maintenance order for the upkeep of the child – 5sa week until it reached 15 years of age. Salmon would also have to pay cost of 25s, and he backdated the order to January, which was when the maid had first made her application.
I do think this case is unusual but perhaps because of the determination of this woman to hold the father of her unborn child to account. To take on a social ‘superior’ in this way was a really brave thing to do. The court also supported her, naming Salmon publically (making it harder for him to shirk his responsibility) and handing down a maintenance order, while keeping her name out of the news.
Her reputation may have been ruined by the careless action of a young man who took advantage but she had won back some self respect at least. Whether he ever returned or made and kept up his payments to her and his child is a question I can’t answer. I would doubt it but at least this young woman had tried.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, October 19, 1879]
‘Mother Needham in the dock’ : sex and exploitation in mid Victorian London
If you are familiar with William Hogarth’s engravings for the Harlot’s Progress (1732) then you might remember the story of Mary ‘Moll’ Hackabout. Moll arrives in London on the coach (see Hogarth’s image above) in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker or a servant in a quality household. Instead she meets Mother Needham, a notorious procuress, who tricks young women like Moll into prostitution.
While this is very much an eighteenth-century trope there is little doubt that procuresses continued to operate in the Victorian age. Indeed, there is very little difference between the actions of Mother Needham in the 1730s and the people traffickers and grooming gangs of our century. Where there is money to be made by the exploitation of girls and young women for sex you will find people prepared to take advantage.
In 1855 Anne Alice Hudson was placed in the dock at Westminster Police court and charged with assault. In reality assault was the least of Hudson’s crimes for she was a nineteenth-century procuress. Her victim was Ann Prior, a 20 year-old woman who possessed ‘considerable personal attractions’. As we can see the Morning Post’s reporter was not above objectifying the poor girl in the witness stand that morning.
Ann explained that a few years earlier she had come to London from Nottingham with the intention of finding work as a servant. She had met Hudson back in Nottingham, by chance house said, and the older woman had promised her work if she came south. However, once she arrived in the capital it quickly became apparent that she would working in a much less respectable industry than she had planned. Hudson installed her in a brothel and sent her out to walk the streets as a prostitute. Her pay was limited and Hudson extracted her rent, food and the cost of her clothes from any small amount she did earn. As a result Ann Prior was almost constantly in debt to the other woman.
This was deliberate of course; by taking control of her earnings and providing everything for her Hudson had trapped Ann in a cycle of dependency that required her to sell herself to keep up her payments. When she decided she couldn’t cope any longer and ran away, Hudson came after her. It was this that provoked the assault charge.
In July 1855 Hudson tracked Ann down to her digs at 40 Walton Street, near Knightsbridge*. The old woman demanded the immediate repayment of the debt she claimed Ann owed and when this was refused she became violent, hitting her and scratching the younger woman’s neck. In court Hudson claimed Ann had robbed her of some silver plate but could bring no evidence to prove this.
Her own defense lawyer tried to undermine Ann’s testimony but the magistrate was clearly on the side of the young girl. ‘She was anxious to reclaim herself’, he said admiringly, and abandon the wretched life she had been leading for two years’. Hudson had no right to any money as far as he could see and certainly no right to go to Prior’s lodgings and demand it with menaces.
He fined Hudson £5 and said if she failed to pay up he would send her to prison for months instead. Regardless he ordered her to find two sureties to the value of £20 each to keep the peace towards the complainant for a year. It was hefty sentence and reflected Mr Arnold’s clear contempt for the ‘wretched-looking old hag’ in the dock before him.
Did this prosecution allow Ann Prior to ‘reclaim her life’ and find respectability after two years of prostituting herself? The odds are against it of course, but with luck and if she had escaped disease or pregnancy, then maybe she might have found a pathway out of it. Let’s hope so at least.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 11, 1855]
* in 1975 the IRA bombed Walton’s Restaurant on this street, killing two people and injuring several others. The IRA unit were nicknamed the Balcombe Street Gang.
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
The ‘gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists’ brings the end of a popular entertainment
I have often wondered what the Victorians would make of our society should a character like H G Wells’ ‘time traveller’ actually manage to create a machine to visit the future. While one imagines that he would probably find some things to be predicable (motorized transport, even airplanes), others largely unchanged (like Parliament and the judiciary), it would be the leveling of daily life and the permissive nature of relationships that might give cause for shock.
Victorian society was not as buttoned up and prudish as it has sometimes been perceived. In fact, as Matthew Sweet argues in Inventing the Victorians (2001) even that oft repeated suggestion that they covered up the legs of their pianos is a myth; a joke aimed at themselves and at Americans (whom they felt were more obsessed with suppressing sexuality).
Nevertheless vice and obscenity were prosecuted in the courts and their definitions of what constituted ‘obscene’ were certainly narrower than our own. This is where I think the ‘time traveller’ would struggle to make sense of society: when he viewed television, looked at a tabloid newspaper, causally searched the internet, or simply walked down a busy London street, he would have been assaulted by images of (in his mind) semi-nudity everywhere.
In 1872 Frederick Shore was summoned to Bow Street Police court to answer accusations that he had published an indecent periodical. Shore, who was represented by a barrister, Mr Laxton, was the publisher of Days Doings and short-lived sensational magazine that carried all sorts of stories, romances, gossip, sports and entertainment news. The prosecution, brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, alleged that it was obscene.
Shore had been in court three months previously and had then promised that ‘all nude pictures and matters suggestive of indecency’ would be removed from all future editions of the paper. This then was a hearing designed, in part, to ensure he had kept his word.
Mr Bealey, the barrister instructed by the Society, argued that he had not. He produced a copy of the latest edition and read a selection of it to the court before showing the magistrate (Sir Thomas Henry) a nude image. The defense argued that the image in question was ‘a well known picture’ and that the editors had ‘added drapery to it’ to ‘decrease its nudity’. Sir Thomas said this only made it worse, it was now ‘even more obscene’.
He concluded that the proprietors of Days Doingshad ‘not kept good faith’. ‘There was no doubt’ he declared, ‘that the proprietors of the periodical pandered to a depraved taste’. He bound the witnesses form the Society over to prosecute and accepted bail of £150 from the defendant. The whole sorry issue would now have to go before a higher court.
Just how ‘obscene’ was Days Doings?Well not very would be the conclusion of a modern audience. It was risqué certainly, and humorous, catering for amiddle-class decadent readership. On its May 1871 cover it featured ‘Derby Night at Cremorne’ [Gardens] with a sensational scene of well dressed gentlemen drinking with women that might well have been prostitutes. Cremorne Gardens enjoyed a reputation as a lively and disreputable entertainment venuewhere the classes could mix. The 1871 article in the Days Doings supported Cremorne in the face of a sustained attack by organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Cheslea Vestry who wanted it closed down.
This brought Shore into the cross hairs of anti-vice campaigners who saw his periodical as part of the problem. In early 1872 Days Doings was (as this case shows) under constant attack and eventually caved in. It remerged as ‘Here and There’ a much milder version of itself but it still had room to comment on the attempts to close down Cremorne Gardens. It condemned the threats to popular entertainment ‘by the prudery of aldermen, ministers and police inspectors. Dancing is banned at Cremorne’ and other venues it stated, ‘for this “is the gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists”.*
Goodness knows what those same moralists would have made of most Britain today.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 02, 1872]
*quoted in Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (2005), p.139
A warning: if you have a sense of fair play and justice this may annoy you.
Lewis Wills was a respectable small businessman who ran a trimming workshop in Mile End. At premises in Raven Row he employed a large number of women who undertook piece work there and from home. One of these women was Mrs Emma Davis and on the 22 December 1847 she had an unfortunate meeting with her employer.
Emma and her husband, like many in the East End, were poor and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on what ever the pair of them could bring in by working every possible hour and hope it was enough to meet the rent, feed their children, and heat their rooms. Winter was always harder and in the run up to Christmas Richard Davis was unemployed.
Richard was no slouch however and (as Norman Tebbit would have no doubt approved) he got on his metaphorical ‘bike’ and traveled to Southampton to look for work. Meanwhile Emma continued to take in trimming work to keep the family solvent. One of the advantages she had enjoyed was that Mr Wills was generous enough to advance money to his workers, to help them meet their obligations to landlords and local shopkeepers.
As a result Emma, and others in the workshop, were literally indebted to him. Sadly, surrounded by young women this proved quite a temptation to Wills, and one he could not resist. On the 22nd Emma came to him to ask for the advance of a shilling against her wages.
Knowing her husband was away Wills decided to turn this encounter to his advantage and he suggested to Emma that if she was willing to allow him to take what she described as ‘improper liberties’ with her he would lend her a half sovereign. Emma was deeply shocked and offended, especially when Wills pressed his case and grabbed hold of her. She had been propositioned and sexually assaulted by her employer and she ran home as fast as she could.
When her husband came back she told him and he was furious, wanting to press charges against Wills but Emma was cautious. She still owed him money and had work to complete; she was worried she’d lose her job and then how would they cope. Richard went to see Wills and remonstrated with him but the man denied doing anything and sent him away. Emma decided to go and see Mrs Wills, to plead with her woman to woman but at first she was prevented from doing so by the trimmings manufacturer and then, when she did finally see her, she was dismissed out of hand. Wills had got to his wife first and warned her that a hysterical woman was about to make false accusations against him.
Unless the couple formally went to law they were unlikely to get any justice from the situation. So in January, when all the work was completed and no debts were owing, Richard applied for a warrant to bring Lewis Wills before the magistrate at Thames Police court. To get such a warrnat the case was recounted to Mr Yardley (the magistrate on duty) and Wills was defended by his lawyer, Mr Pelham.
Pelham went on the attack demanding to know why it had taken so long to bring his client to court. Emma and Richard explained (as detailed above) but it fell on deaf ears. The lawyer rejected the suggestion that Wills effectively exploited his female workforce for sexual favours by inveigling them into his debt and dismissed Emma’s testimony as nonsense.
Then Emma produced another worker, this time a much younger girl, who was being led to the witness box to support a claim that Wills’ predatory sexual behavior was widespread when Mr Yardley stopped her. He said ‘the girl would not assist the case, and he refused to examine her. It was quite impossible’, he added, ‘to trust to the evidence’. As far as he was concerned Richard Davis was at fault here: he should have brought the case immediately and implied that he’d only done so when Wills had refused his wife any more work.
Thus in his view this was a malicious prosecution and he dismissed it.
Emma and Richard left court without ever being able to bring her abuser to a public hearing to defend himself. That was exactly what his lawyer intended and in this he had the full cooperation of the magistrate, a man drawn from a similar social class. The court was in effect deciding, without a ‘trial’, that such a person could not be deemed to have done such a thing and that, therefore, Emma was a liar.
This was a crushing defeat for the Davis family and probably meant that Emma would have to seek work elsewhere, but with all local businessmen knowing she was marked out as a ‘troublemaker’. In the meantime a ‘sex pest’ was free to exploit and abuse his small army of female workers, who were made even more vulnerable by the failure of the law to protect one of their own. This kind of behaviour has recently been called out by the ‘MeToo’ movement but it is nothing new of course, and men like Wills continue to take advantage of the power they have over vulnerable women.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 19, 1848]
An unhappy drunk ‘falls’ out of a window
Amelia Glover was a woman of her word and not someone to mess around with. Unfortunately for Thomas Norris he ignored the former and committed the latter and after a brief encounter with Glover, found himself face down in the street outside her lodgings being stared at by a number of bemused and concerned passers by.
It was about midnight on Saturday 29 July 1848 and Norris was drunk. He’d met Amelia in the street and she’d agreed to take him to her rooms for sex. This was a financial transaction not a casual date however, and Amelia was an experienced prostitute. When she got Norris upstairs to her first floor room – at 10 Old Kent Road – she demanded money up front probably knowing only too well that some clients lacked the money to pay for her services, especially when they’d been out all night drinking.
Norris refused to cough up the necessary money however, perhaps either regretting his decision to engage her or simply hoping he could wheedle his way out of paying for it. It was a bad move on his part because Amelia got cross. She told him to pay up or she would throw him out of the window.
When he refused again she pushed table in front of the door, blocking his escape and manhandled him to the open window. Since he still seemed reluctant to empty his pockets she tipped him over the windowsill and he fell on his face in the street. Several witnesses apparently saw what happened but were reluctant to intervene: Amelia Glover was clearly well known in the area as someone you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
PC Lewis Bray (105P) realized what had happened and on the Sunday, after making some enquiries, he arrested Amelia, taking her before a magistrate at Lambeth on the Monday morning. There she denied the assault, suggesting Norris had fallen out the window in his attempt to evade paying her. Unfortunately apart from Norris (who appeared in court with his face ‘awfully disfigured’) there was no one to challenge Amelia’s alternative version of events. PC Bray said there were witnesses but they were too scared to testify.
The justice, Mr Elliott said it was clearly a case that needed to go to trial and he instructed the constable to enter summonses for the witnesses. He remanded Amelia in custody in the meantime.
A few days later Amelia was brought back to Lambeth Police court as at least one witness had been found. Henry Humphries was a shoemaker who lived close by and had heard the disturbance that night. He heard Norris fall and ran to help, throwing water over him to revive him. He looked up and saw Glover at the window, but he hadn’t seen her push or throw him out. Norris was unconscious for at least 10 minutes and he feared he was dead. A doctor testified that the injuries were serious and Amelia was fully committed for trial.
In the end however this was probably one person’s word against another and while Amelia’s reputation was hardly exemplary, Norris’ was compromised by admitting to having been drunk and to visiting a known prostitute at her lodgings. If the case did go to trial I cant find a record of it in the newspapers or in the Digital Panopticon, so perhaps it was quietly dropped. Without solid witnesses it was unlikely to succeed and Norris may have decided it was better if he withdrew and put it the whole affair all down to experience.
[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 01, 1848; The Morning Post , Thursday, August 03, 1848]
‘Why, that is the old, old game, they all deny they are the father!’ Paternity and the working classes
In the eighteenth century provincial magistrates spent a lot of their time adjudicating on cases of illegitimacy. While it wasn’t exactly a crime to have a child out of wedlock it was still considered a disgrace to be avoided. More pressing for the parish authorities was the fear that if the father of a newborn was not identified, and then held responsible for the mother and child, a financial burden might fall upon the ratepayers.
This seems to have continued well into the Victorian period but bastardy cases (to use the terminology of the law) are not as frequently reported as I thought they might be. This may mean they didn’t occur that often or, that they were so mundane and everyday as not to be worth reporting.
In late July 1878 one case did make it into the pages of the weekly Illustrated Police News, perhaps because it seemed to shine a light into working-class lives and allow readers to chuckle at the loose morals of the labouring classes.
Edward Bellett was summoned before the magistrate at Clerkenwell to ‘show cause why he should not contribute towards the support of an illegitimate child’. Bellett didn’t bother turn up, hardly surprising perhaps since his given address was the Monarch Public House, on Hornsey Road.
Instead it was left to the complainant, Alice Martin (of Canonbury Park) and her sister-in-law (Ellen Martin), to present the case against him. They told Mr Hosack, the justice, how Alice and Edward had met while they both worked as servants more than a year ago.
The pair got on famously from the moment they met and it was felt by everyone that saw them that they ‘are going to make a match of it’. I suspect that while this may have been how Alice saw it she may also have been laying the foundations of her suit against him, and also preserving her reputation by initiating that she fully believed their courtship would lead to marriage.
It didn’t however, but ‘improper indecency’ certainly did and, on July 15 1877 she gave birth to a little boy. Before then she’d already had to leave service; few servants could continue to work once the household had discovered they were ‘enciente’ (as the reporter put it). She didn’t see Edward at all once she left and he refused to acknowledge his paternity when they did meet, declaring that she would have to go to law if she expected him to support her.
Ellen Martin had accompanied her sister-in-law to meet with the reluctant father and she took centre stage in the hearing at Clerkenwell to describe how such things were conducted. The couple had met in a private bar of a public house (perhaps the one that was cited in the summons), with Ellen standing nearby, earwigging their conversation.
‘She merely went to see fair play‘, she insisted, and ‘at first stood on one side, but, woman-like, wanting to to see a little of what was going on, she went nearer and nearer and heard all that passed.’ She explained that Edward ‘did the usual thing on such auspicious occasions‘.
What was ‘the usual thing’ Mr Hosack enquired.
‘Why, to go to the private bar of some public-house to talk the matter over quietly and for the father to stand some refreshment, which he did, and it was a drop of gin. After a long “conflab” [Edward] told [Alice] to meet him on the following Sunday fortnight’ (as he only got every other Sunday off.
Edward told Alice to come alone, insisting that ‘two’s company but three’s a crowd’. He clearly didn’t want Ellen along to back her sister up and stiffen her resolve. He said he would pay something towards the child’s upkeep if he was forced to but no money ever materialised, hence the official summons.
Mr Hosack was dubious. He wasn’t convinced that Edward was the father of Alice’s child (which in itself suggested he wasn’t too impressed by her character, or that of her sister-in-law) but nor was he sure it could be proved that he was.
Well ‘they all say they are not the father’, Ellen quipped, ‘that is the old, old game’ and he shouldn’t fall for it. After all, she added, the baby looked ‘just like him’ and so she was sure, having met the man, that he must be the father. The magistrate played for time, saying that while he doubted much could be done he would at least insist that Edward was brought to court to speak for himself.
I dont know the outcome of this case but suspect Alice was not able to persuade Edward to undertake his responsibilities towards her baby. Curiously in early August an Alice Martin was brought before the magistrates at the Shire Hall in Nottingham and charged with leaving her employment in May of the previous year. This Alice was a maid of all work to a Nottinghamshire publican. He sued her for breach of contract and wanted to recover damages against her. Alice claimed she left because she’d been mistreated. The bench dismissed the case and let her go.
If she’d had a baby in mid July then she would have been fairly ‘big with child’ in May or at least showing, so perhaps this is our Alice Martin after all. Having left her paid employment and with a child on the way perhaps she headed for London to seek out her brother and his wife, perhaps knowing that her lover lived in the capital as well. Otherwise this is quite the coincidence.
[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 27, 1878; Nottinghamshire Guardian , Friday, August 02, 1878]
A sailor narrowly avoids having his drink spiked in Tower Hamlets
The reports of the Police Courts of Victorian London provide a useful reminder that there is very little that is properly ‘new’ in our supposedly ‘modern’ society. The sorts of things that people did in the past might look different in style to us, but rarely in content.
So we find that Londoners worked and played hard, fought and loved, laughed and cried, and argued over just about anything. The streets were extremely busy, accidents frequent, and buses and trains crowded. There were thousands of shops selling a huge range of consumer goods, the parks and gardens were trampled by promenading feet at weekends and holidays, and the capital was a melting pot of multiculturalism.
As for crime (the main business of the Police Courts) it is hard to find things here that would not be found in a modern magistrate’s court. Certainly we deal with some things differently; many more offenders were sent straight to gaol in the 1800s for relatively minor property crimes than would be the case today for example. But the same crimes come up time again: petty theft, picking pockets, assault, drunk and disorderly behavior, dangerous driving, fraud and deception.
One offence that I did assume was very ‘modern’ was the spiking of someone’s drink in a pub or bar. This is now most often associated with date rape, where a person (most often a man) adds a chemical to a woman’s drink in order to take advantage of them later. In recent years the preferred drug has been rohypnol but victims have had their drinks spiked with other substances such as ketamine or GHB (which is ecstasy in liquid form).
However, it seems there is indeed nothing new even in this apparently ‘modern’ form of crime. In June 1876 two women appeared at the Thames Police court charged with ‘attempting to drug a seaman’. They failed and ended up in front of the notoriously harsh magistrate, Mr Lushington.
Lushington was told that on the evening of Friday 23 June 1876 Sarah Murray and Mary Spencer were in the Blue Anchor pub in Dock Street, off the Ratcliffe Highway. They had picked out a sailor who’d recently returned from a voyage (and so probably had all his wages on him) and got friendly with him.
This was a common tactic for local prostitutes and thieves: find a likely looking punter, render him insensible through drink (that he paid for) then take him upstairs or nearby for sex and steal all his money and possessions while slept off the effects of the alcohol. A simpler method was to skip the sex altogether and knock him over the head in a dark alley as he lowered his guard along with his breeches.
Mary and Sarah were more sophisticated however. As Sarah distracted his attention her partner removed a paper slip from her clothes and poured a powder into the sailor’s fresh glass of ale. Unfortunately for the young women the seaman was more alert than they thought and saw the move to drug him.
‘He snatched the glass of ale off the counter, and in doing so upset the contents on the floor’. Mary tried to grab the glass but he was too quick for her and rinsed it out before she could stop him.
William Burr was working the bar that night and saw what happened. He tried to seize the woman and Sarah went for him, hitting him with her fists and anything she could find. Both women were eventually subdued and taken to the local police station. Mr Lushington said it was a shame that the barman or sailor hadn’t kept the glass with the drug in it as that would have been evidence against Mary. As it was all he could do was warn both of them that the attempt to poison another person was a serious offence which brought, on conviction, a sentence of penal servitude for life.
He could deal with the assault however and sent Sarah Murray to prison for two months at hard labour. Her accomplice got away with it on this occasion, but knew she’d better avoid appearing in Lushington’s court in the near future. The sailor was unnamed because he didn’t come to court, perhaps because he was embarrassed or maybe because as far as he was concerned the matter was done with.
The publication of the story in a working class paper like Reynolds’s would also serve to warn others of this ‘new’ means of rendering unwary individuals unconscious so that they could be robbed blind by the local women of Tower Hamlets.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 25, 1876]
Sex and the Alderman: Besant & Bradlaugh at the Guildhall in 1877
On most days the reports from the Metropolitan Police courts concerned the lives of very ordinary Londoners. The criminal, the mentally ill, the aged, the poor, the abused and the frightened all appeared in the witnesses box or dock from Mansion House to Thames, Southwark to Marylebone to be dealt with swiftly by the magistrates that sat there. In many cases hearings were completed in a few minutes whilst in others prisoners were remanded or bailed so that a fuller investigation could be undertaken.
Just occasionally however, a case appears that touched history because of its national significance. One of these happened in April 1877 when Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were summoned to appear before the aldermen magistrates at Guildhall in the City of London.
On Thursday 19 April Bradlaugh and Besant (two of the most significant radical figures of late nineteenth-century society) were called to defend themselves against a charge of publishing an obscene publication. The case had been reconvened that day and Alderman Figgins presiding heard final statements of defence from both Besant and Bradlaugh; Alderman Sir Robert Carden and Sir James Lawrence MP sat with him as this was such an important case. It was prosecuted by Douglas Straight and the Mr. Collette from the Society for the Suppression of Vice observed the proceedings.
The Guildhall Police court was packed, as it had been for the previous appearance of the pair a week earlier for the start of the hearings. Everyone liked a good sex scandal.
The publication in question was ‘The Fruits of Philosophy: Or the private Companion of Young Married People ’ by a Dr Charles Knowlton, a ‘physician of high standing and position, residing in Boston, U.S.A’. It had originally been published in 1832 in America, where it was ‘circulating widely’ in 1877 the court was told, and had first been published in England in 1834 and no one had then been prosecuted for so doing Ms Besant explained (erroneously as it turned out).
Knowlton was an atheist (as was Bradlaugh who famously refused to swear on the Bible when elected MP for Northampton three years later in 1880.) and his pamphlet advocated birth control. Knowlton had initially been prosecuted and fined (and later imprisoned) in Massachusetts for obscenity but was afterwards acquitted. So Besant and Bradlaugh, strong advocates of birth control, whilst aware that the subject was highly controversial, were probably confident that opinion was turning.
From the start Alderman Figgins was determined that his court was not about to be party to a discussion of the topic of birth control, for or against, which probably disappointed some of those in the public gallery. As with crim.con(divorce) cases, the subtext of sexual relations (rarely spoken of publicly in Victorian society) had probably brought many of them to the Guildhall.
At this news Bradlaugh announced that he could now send away the very many medical experts who he’d gathered to speak in his defence. They could now wait for the full jury trial that took place later that year. The most prominent scientist of the day, Charles Darwin, did not support Bradlaugh and Besant however. Darwin pleaded ill-health on the week of the trial but in his apologetic letter to Bradlaugh he said he wasn’t himself an advocate of birth control.
Many were however, because the Victorians were worried about rapid population growth and the impact this had on society and the poor in particular. The Malthusian League was established in 1877 to promote contraception and family planning believing that poverty was caused directly but the inability of the working classes to control the size of their families. But for most people the discussion of birth control – as with the discussion of anything to do with sex – was taboo, hence the prosecution.
In the end Alderman Figgins was always going to commit the pair for a jury trial which took place later at the High Court. The jury ‘were unanimous in the opinion that the book was calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time said that they “entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it.”’* However while the foreman responded to the judge’s question as to guilt in the affirmative, a juror told Annie Besant afterwards that they had not actually agreed a guilty verdict. She thereafter interpreted this as ‘not guilty, but don’t do it again’.
Six months later the cases was overturned in the Court of Appeal and the defendants were effectively vindicated by the fact that the exposure gained from the case saw sales of Knowlton’s pamphlet rise from ‘fewer than 1,000 to more than 250,000 per year’.** The genii was out of the bottle.
Bradlaugh went on to represent Northampton from 1880-1891 although it took him years to take his seat because of his refusal to swear. Because of him the rules of Parliament were changed and members were allowed to affirm, a privilege that was also then extended to those giving evidence in court. Annie Besant also continued to champion the rights of the underprivileged. A socialist, she was present at ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 and played a significant role in the 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant & May.
Poor Alderman Figgins was probably quite glad to get back to the ordinary flotsam and jetsoms of the City streets however, when his court was less full and the proceedings less controversial.
Annie Besant in later life
[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 20, 1877]
* [from http://what-when-how.com/birth-control/bradlaugh-besant-trial-birth-control/]