Extortion and an accusation of rape in 1830s Shoreditch

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“Even if I keep on runnin’, I’ll never get to Orange street”, (The Prince, Madness)*

Mrs Thomas was the wife of a respectable surgeon living and working at 225 Shoreditch in East London. When the door was knocked on 8th December 1833 she much have assumed the caller had come to inquire after her husband for a medical matter.

She was half right.

Samuel Hewson, a bricklayer from Orange Street in Bethnal Green, presented himself at her door and declared that her husband had sexually assaulted his wife.

‘This is a bad job between my wife and Mr Thomas’ Hewson explained, ‘he has violated my wife; I must have means to leave London’.

Mrs Thomas was horrified and refused to believe it. Hewson was undeterred and insisted it was true. He added darkly that ‘unless he had money to take himself and wife from town , he go and make a charge before Mr Broughton [the sitting magistrate] at Worship Street’. Until 1842 rape was a capital offence and so Hewson was correct in warning Mrs Thomas that her husband ‘could be tried for his life’.

Faced with this threat (regardless of whether she believed what her husband was alleged to have done) Mrs Thomas broke down and asked what amount Hewson required.

He said it was up to her, effectively inviting her to make him and offer for his silence. She offered him £20 (close to £1000 in today’s money) but he angrily rejected that.

‘That’s not enough’ Hewson complained,, ‘If you wish to see your husband where I said he should go [i.e. in court] you may do so. If you like to make it £20 more, that will do. I will take £40 but not less’.

She handed over the money and he went away. Mrs Thomas said nothing of this to her husband but at the end of January she again heard from the bricklayer. As is common with blackmailers they don’t stop when you pay up. He now demanded an extra £5 for his continued silence about her husband’s supposed crime.

Eventually she told her husband what had happened and he immediately declared that he would prosecute Hewson for extortion. The bricklayer was tracked down (having left his address for Mrs Thomas to send money to) and he and Mr Thomas met. The surgeon denied any indiscretion with Mrs Hewson whom he had treated for a four month period in 1833. Hewson apologised but having conned the Thomas’ out of at least £45 the surgeon was in no mood to let it rest.

On the 16 February 1834 Hewson was formally charged at Worship Street – the very police court he had threatened to bring the medical man before – and whilst he said he was sorry and begged forgiveness the magistrate remanded him in custody to face a later trial.

There are no trials recorded at Old Bailey involving a surgeon named Thomas or a Samuel Hewson (for rape or deception or extortion) so perhaps the case was not written up (not all of them were published) or , more likely, it was settled by Hewson apologising and agreeing to repay what he had extorted. It is a reminder that those that place themselves in one-to-one private situations with others risk being the victim of false accusations.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 17, 1834]

*Madness’ homage to Prince Buster in their first single on 2-Tone (in 1979) name checked the legendary singer-songwriter and producer’s home in Jamaica. The B-side of that early release was a cover of Buster’s (real name Cecil Bustamante Campbell) 1960s hit ‘Madness’. Madness, along with the Specials, Beat and a number of other UK bands helped bring Jamaican Ska and Rocksteady to a new audience and developed in the wake of a political movement opposed to racism in society.

 

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