Going to law to reclaim the streets

In July 1834 The Examiner newspaper  reported on the prosecution of two men for assaults on ‘respectable’ women in the capital. They said these attacks had ‘become latterly very prevalent among a parcel of low blackguard fellows’ and the Queen’s Square court witnessed the trials of the two ‘fellows’ the police had been able to catch, but several others had got away.

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St George’s Circus and Blackfriars’ Road, c.1835

 William Kill and his mates were strolling along Blackfriars’ Road, south of the river Thames, and behaving badly. The group were being generally offensive to everyone: ‘knocking over apple stalls, insulting unprotected females, and other such manly sports of a similar description’ the paper reported (somewhat sarcastically), when they came across Mary Carpenter. Mary was assaulted and a policeman came to her aid. Most of the men escaped but Kill was arrested. At the station he claimed he was drunk and blamed his companions.

On the previous evening Mrs Gurr and a female friend were on their way home from Astley’s Theatre and had just entered Prince’s Street, near the Bank, when they met three men. The women were abused and Mrs Gurr was assaulted. She told the men that ‘they were not the persons they took them for’ but it did nothing to deter them. Fortunately Mr Gurr (who must have been following behind at a distance for some unknown reason) arrived on the scene. The men attacked him but a policeman was alerted and the group scarpered, leaving one man in custody – George Peter, who also pleaded drunkenness.

In court Peter called two witnesses to vouch for him but to their ‘great discomfiture’ they were recognized as Peter’s two companions in crime! The magistrate fined them all 20s and the same sentence was handed down to William Kill . The message was sent that intoxication was no excuse for boorish and violent behaviour, particularly towards ‘respectable’ women.

This was the nineteenth century of course, and women were not supposed to be out unaccompanied at night if they were respectable.The implication in the response Mrs Gurr gave was that the men thought that because they were two women walking out so late they were prostitutes, a frequent complaint made by respectable women in Piccadilly at the time. It is a variation of an attitude that persists even into the 21st century, that women on the street at night, dressed in a ‘provocative’ way, or one their own, are ‘asking for it’.

[from The Examiner, Sunday, July 13, 1834]

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