‘For aught known the contrary these women were respectable characters’. The establishment protects its own

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Great Windmill Street in the 1850s, London’s entertainment district 

Prostitution is a perennial issue for society and one which shows no signs of going away. Often described as ‘the oldest profession’ prostitution itself. of course, is not (and has never been) an offence by itself. As the Police Code for 1889 notes:

‘Prostitutes cannot legally be taken into custody simply because they areprostitutes; to justify their apprehension they must commit some distinct act which is an offence against the law’.

Police Code, (1889) p.143

They could however, be arrested under the Vagrancy Act (1824) , the Town Police Causes Act (1848) and the Metropolitan Police Act (1839) if they were causing a nuisance on the streets and this is often where police encountered them.

Police powers to deal with brothels were only really effectual from 1885 and the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (which also raised the age of consent to 16 and made homosexual acts easier to prosecute). Yet well before then police divisions recognized prostitution as a public order nuisance and saw the women employed in the sex trade as part and parcel of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London.

Thus, like so many policing agents before and since, the police in the Victorian capital engaged in periodic cleaning up operations to clear the trade from the streets, pubs and theatres.

Or at least they tried.

The problem they had was vast however and it didn’t help when the powers that supposedly operated the justice system did little to help the rank and file officers who were attempting to close down ‘houses of ill-repute’ or taverns and clubs that masqueraded as legitimate entertainment venues.

In some cases, one imagines, this was because the owners of these premises were paying for protection from prosecution; in others it may well be that the clientele were of a similar class to those before whom any miscreants would be brought. The establishment has a long track record of looking after their own.

In January 1850 Inspector Lestor and Sergeant Burney of C Division conducted a series of raids on West End hostelries.  Acting on information police raided the saloon (on Piccadilly), the Waterford Arms on the Haymarket, and the Saxe-Coburg on Windmill Street, Soho. At two in the morning the Piccadilly Saloon was still busy and the police found no less than sixty single women in the building, some in the saloon, others in upstairs rooms. There were about forty males there, all described as ‘gentlemen’.

According to the superintendent of C Division, giving evidence at Marlborough Street Police court:

‘Thirty at least of the women he knew to be common prostitutes, and he believed the remainder were of the same loose character’.

The evidence was the same for all three of the venues the police had entered. In each drinking was taking place and ‘immoral’ women could be found alongside ‘respectable’ men. It seemed a cut-and-dried piece of police work but Superintendent Beresford was to be thwarted by the clever arguments of lawyers hired by the defense and by the collusion of the police magistrate Mr. Bingham.

Thomas Beale ran the Picadilly Saloon and was represented by Mr Clarkson. He asked the police witness if  there had been any evidence of ‘drunkenness or disorderly behaviour’ in his client’s property. The police had to admit that no, there was none. Mr Parry (for Mary Ann Smith at the Waterford Arms and Harriett Ottley at the Saxe-Coburg) asked similarly and the same answer was given.

Mr Bingham now delivered the knockout punch: he said the summons against the trio had been brought under section 44 of the Police Code which made it an offence to ‘knowingly permit of suffer prostitutes to meet and assemble in houses of private report’. Not only was there no ‘disorderly behaviour, there was no proof that the venues’ owner had played any role in bringing or allowing immoral women on their premises.

Indeed ‘for aught known the contrary’, he declared, ‘the women present were respectable characters’. He dismissed the summons and the three defendants were released. The West End’s reputation as a haven for rich men to drink, gamble and buy sex was preserved, for a few more decades at least.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 22, 1850]

Is there ‘anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents’?

Worship Street from Builder

When Mr and Mrs Thomas French began to notice money was missing from the till they scratched their heads for an explanation. The couple ran the Chequers pub in Worship Street, Finsbury and the only other person they thought could be responsible was their young son, a child of just nine years of age.

Ada French decided to collar her boy and make him tell her the truth: had he been stealing, and if so, why? The poor lad confessed but said a woman named Bencker who lived in Fitzrovia had put him up to it. Ada resolved to find out if he was lying so set a trap for him (and his partner in crime).

Acting on the advice of the police she marked a handful of sixpence pieces and put them in the till. Soon afterwards she saw her son take coins from it and leave the pub. She followed afterwards  with a police constable and tracked the lad to Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, where Louise Bencker lived.

Ada found her boy inside the 36 year-old fur sewer’s home and the policeman discovered the two marker coins in Bencker’s possession. She was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in the morning. The magistrate was horrified:

He told the prisoner

that anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents he could not conceive’,

and he sentenced Louisa to three months at hard labour.

But what exactly did Louise Bencker have on the unnamed nine year-old? What do she say or do to induce him to risk a beating at the very least, and possibly worse, by stealing from his family? And what was he doing all the way over in Fitzrovia? Sadly of course, that bit of the story we will probably never know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]

A man is attacked for complaining about the noise

Assault was one of the most frequently prosecuted offences at summary level in the police courts of London, as it was in all the studies we have to date on the activities of justices of the peace in England and Wales throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. My own work has shown that magistrates in the City of London in the second half of the 1700s spent just under a third of their time hearing individual complaints of assault, most of which ended in a settlement between the warring parties, often brokered by the justice.

It has been suggested that as the 19th century unfolded the state increasingly intervened in what had been a largely ‘civil’ prosecution process for assault, to assert society’s growing distaste for interpersonal violence. However, violence (particularly spousal or ‘domestic’ violence) remained a prominent feature of everyday life, especially in the poorer areas of London.

In March 1867 John Angus, a ‘young man’ who lived in a court off Windmill Street, near King’s Cross, was charged with attacking and wounding Randell Payne, a local bricklayer.

Payne, who also lived on Windmill Street,  had come out of his house to remonstrate with  group of youths that were making a noise. He told the magistrate at  Marlborough Street that:

‘he was much annoyed by a number at boys at night in the court he lived in, and requested they go away. They refused to do so, and he then took hold of one boy and pushed him to get him away, when the prisoner [Angus] came and struck him two violent blows on the head with something sharp he had in his hand, inflicting two severe wounds’.

In his defence Angus denied using a weapon but admitted striking the bricklayer. He said he had only done so because Payne was ‘ill-using his brother’.

With some doubt as to whether a sharp edged weapon had been used (which would have the more serious charge of wounding could have been proved) the justice requested that Angus be remanded until medical evidence could be produced.

Some time later Dr Peter Duncan of Marlborough Street testified that he had examined Payne’s  wounds some 48 hours after the incident had occurred (another doctor, Harris, had conducted the initial inquiry but he was not available to speak in court apparently). Dr Duncan told the court that while he had found two contused wounds, which were certainly serious, they were not incised ones and so not caused by a weapon of any sort.

Mr Knox, the sitting magistrate, turned to the accused and told him that while he would not proceed against him for wounding he had ‘struck harder than he should have done’. In consequence he convicted him of common assault and fined him £5 or a month in prison.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 16, 1867]