Casual violence: an everyday occupational hazard for London’s ‘unfortunates’

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In late February 1865 Elizabeth Smith and Emma Harrington were standing at the corner of Gardener’s Lane at one in the morning. Clearly the two women were prostitutes although they were later referred to in court as ‘unfortunates’. Smith was particularly ‘unfortunate’ that night because she was about to become the victim of a nasty attack by a soldier.

Corporal Cornelius Ford, of the 1st battalion Scots Fusilier Guards, approached the girls and demanded to know if Smith knew the address of a woman he was looking for. When Elizabeth replied that she couldn’t help him he flew into a rage.

He said ‘You lie you _____’ and struck her, knocking her to the floor. Then he drew his bayonet and stabbed her just above the eye, causing her to ‘become insensible’. This was according to the evidence given to the policeman that attended and arrested the corporal; the wounded woman was taken to hospital.

Police constable Aitchison (PC A1) had already encountered Ford and the two street girls, they had been arguing and he had told the soldier to be on his way quietly. He ran back to the scene when he had heard Emma shout ‘murder!’ – the standard alarm for any attack in Victorian London it seems.

He removed the bayonet from the soldier’s hand and returned it to the scabbard at his belt before calling a colleague to take the woman to hospital and conveying his charge to the police station.

At Bow Street Police Court Ford was charged with assault and denied drawing his weapon or attacking Smith. Instead he accused her of trying to steal his watch. He suggested she was the aggressor and that she had run into a nearby pub, grabbed a pint pot, and came out and tried to hit him with it. As she did so she fell and that was how she cut her head.

His sergeant appeared in court to back him up by giving him and excellent character reference. Sergeant Parsons added that corporals were entitled to carry their bayonets when off duty, something that the magistrate felt was a mistake. Mr Henry noted that this ‘was one of the dangers of letting men wear their bayonets’. There ‘is no doubt that he used’ it and because of that, he added, he had to ‘go before a jury’.

In 1888 another street walker, this time in Whitechapel, was stabbed multiple times by a person or persons unknown. She was Martha Tabram (or Turner) and at the time two off duty guardsmen were suspected. It is quite likely (but hard to prove) that Martha was an early victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

‘Jack’ wasn’t around in 1865 however, when this case was heard. Corporal Ford would have been sent to the Middlesex Sessions that year, for a jury to decide if he was guilty of the assault on Elizabeth. I doubt he would have been convicted; it is more likely the ‘respectable’ men of the jury would have sided with a servant of the Queen than with a common ‘unfortunate’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, February 23, 1861]

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One thought on “Casual violence: an everyday occupational hazard for London’s ‘unfortunates’

  1. Interesting story with more to it than meets the eye. Martha has a friend with her, who was witness to the stabbing presumably, but perhaps would not have made a credible witness, sadly.

    Like

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