A clerk with an ‘(un)natural fondness for children’ is sent down at Bow Street


Understandably in today’s society we are very concerned about child abuse, especially sexual abuse. Aside from the terrorist the chief bogeyman in modern times is the paedophile; the man in the ‘dirty mac’, hanging around children’s play areas and tempting children with offers of sweets. Today the reality is that much of this activity begins online and considerable official (and unofficial) effort is being made to thwart the activities of child abusers who use the so-called ‘dark web’ to create internet communities with the aim of sexually exploiting children.

As with most crime we would be mistaken in thinking that this was a peculiarly ‘modern’ phenomenon. Whilst changes and developments in technology might have enabled abusers to find new ways to access children and share their experiences, the urge to commit such offences has a very long history. Today, a man like Matthew Simpkin, who was charged at Bow Street in 1852 for sexually assaulting a child, would be placed on the sexual offenders register and be offered some support in overcoming or coping with his ‘condition’. In 1852, as we shall see, society may have been just as disgusted by his actions, but there was little in place to prevent him offending again.

Simpkin was described in courts as a 35 year-old clerk to an attorney. He was a member of the middle classes, respectable and was – according to his uncle who appeared to vouch for him – a God fearing man.

A passerby had witnessed Simpkin approach a young girl in the public square near the fountains, and he reported the clerk to a nearby constable. He testified that ‘after taking liberties with her’, he saw Simpkin take ‘her to a stall and treated her to some milk and sweet-meats’. The policeman and the other witness followed the man and the girl into the park where they saw him repeat ‘the same disgraceful conduct’.

Note we are told what this ‘conduct’ was; the nineteenth-century press did not describe sexual assaults of any nature in detail for fear of offending their readers. In a way this is somehow worse because we are left to imagine what the poor girl was subjected to.

Finally the girl got away and ran home, at which point the policeman moved in and arrested Simpkin. Why didn’t he intervene earlier?

At Bow Street the little girl was named as Caroline Herbert, aged nine. Today of course she would not be named. She was also described as the prosecutrix which also suggests she had to describe what happened to her in open court, another ordeal that children today are not be exposed to.

In his defence Simpkin said he was fond of children and merely playing with her. He had sent for his friends to provide him with a good character. He was not, he insisted, the sort of man that did that sort of thing. His uncle spoke in his support as we’ve heard and suggested that ‘the conduct of the accused had been misinterpreted, though not wilfully, by the constable and witness’.

Mr Jardine, the  Bow Street magistrate, was unconvinced by Simpkin’s defence and that of his uncle. He declared that ‘sins like this were always committed in private, and only discovered by accident’. However, he was also of the opinion that ‘mischief sometimes resulted from sending these cases to be re-investigated at the sessions’ so he was going to deal with it himself.

What did he mean? I wonder if he believed that Simpkin might escape punishment if he stood before a jury of his peers? Perhaps they might believe his claim that he was only ‘playing’ with Caroline because he was ‘naturally fond of children’. It is impossible to know what Mr Jardine thought but we can be sure of what he did. Simpkin was fined £5  but he didn’t have the funds (and neither, presumably, did his uncle). As a result he went to prison for a month.

This seems a light punishment to me and perhaps reflects a reality that sexual exploitation of children in the 1800s was not a big concern for society. That changed a little in 1885 after the Pall Mall Gazette ran its Maiden Tribute report into the scandal of child prostitution. This led to a change in the law and the raising of the age of consent. It did very little else to protect children from predatory paedophiles though.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 29, 1852]

Rape and Victorian Press Reportage

The nineteenth-century Old Bailey Proceedings (the records of trials prosecuted at the Central Criminal Court) offer us a picture of crime and punishment from the period that is often rich in the detail of everyday life. The online resource has nearly 200,000 trial records from the late 1600s to the early 20th century, but it is a partial record for all that. Some trials that ended in acquittals were excluded as were some of those where the nature of the offence was deemed unfit for public consumption. Most crimes of a sexual nature (rapes, particularly of children) carry very little detail at all.

However, we can sometimes get a slightly more informed view of these sorts of cases by combining the Proceedings with the newspaper reports of cases at Old Bailey and the police courts.

In September 1856 Professor Francoyne Michel was brought up at Bow Street Police Court for the second time to be examined on a charge of rape. His alleged victim was a young girl of 14, Ellen Lyons. The case was referred up to the Old Bailey and Michel (there named as Francis Michel)  was acquitted. The record of the trial is brief; the charge is posted and the barristers appearing named, along with the verdict. We get no detail at all, not even Ellen’s age.

The second Bow Street hearing is a little more useful, however. There we are told that Ellen gave her evidence in court for the second time, where she was cross-examined by Michel’s solicitor, a Mr. Lewis of Ely Place. He pressed her about a part of her evidence concerning a  young man named Tim Collins, a printer who worked in Fleet Street. Collins was her cousin, he added, and well known to her. Lewis stated that Collins had walked her home late a night about ten days before the alleged rape by his client and seems to have been suggesting that it was Collins that violated her, not Michel, or that she was already sexually active and therefore a subsequent medical examination of her was inconclusive.

Ellen reportedly wavered under the examination but said she had not seen Collins since then. The girl’s mother appeared to state that they had no such relation named Tim Collins. The paper felt it necessary to add that Ellen’s mother was ‘an Irishwoman’, whether for the benefit of adding detail or because this made her testimony the less believable we can only speculate, but the working-class Irish in mid-Victorian London were not held in high esteem by the middle-class (Protestant) readership of the capital’s journals.

We also get a sense of Mr. Lewis’ cross-examination in some of the ‘evidence’ it elicited from Ellen. Lweis said the story was invented: her screams ‘were not heard in the street’ when they clearly should have been. She admitted to the court that she had not scratched her attacker’s face when this would have easy to do; suggesting she hadn’t attempted to fight him off.

More damming still was her admittance that she hadn’t told her mistress (she was a domestic servant) until the next day, or her mother for three days. and then, Lewis added, there was the suspicious story concerning Tim Collins and Ellen relationship with him.

All of this must have been very traumatic for Ellen, not least having to face her alleged attacker in court. Today this would be very limited and while she would certainly appear at Crown Court (not at the pre-trial hearing) the cross examination would be conducted under clear rules of engagement.

One further historical point is worth making here. Ellen was described as a ‘young girl’ but she was also a servant and deemed a woman in the eyes of the law. In 1856 the age of consent was 12; it was raised to 13 in 1875 (but it was only a misdemeanor, not a felony, to have sex with a 13 year-old). It was only after the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 that the age of consent was set at 16, its current age, and that only after a fierce campaign was conducted both for and against the legislation had been fought. It took a press publicity stunt by William Stead’s Pall Mall Gazette involving the purchase of a 13-year old girl for £5 to force Parliament to pass the bill and tackle the problem of child prostitution and predatory male paedophiles in Victorian society.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, September 10, 1856]