Artists models raise an old lady’s hackles in 19th-century Fitzrovia

model

Sarah Gibbons was an elderly resident of Charlotte Street, in what is known as Fitzrovia. Today it would be a smart London address, in the 1880s it was less genteel, but an area much frequented by artists. and Bohemians.

Sarah was in dispute with her neighbours across the road who she saw as noisy and disreputable. On the 8th May 1885 things had reached a point where she could stand it no longer and she left her house and crossed the road to number 98. There she was conformed by her nemesis, the much younger Maggie Jennings.

When she saw Sarah the younger woman called inside to her ‘creatures’ (as Sarah later described them in the Marlborough Street Police Court), who came running out into the hallway.

According to Sarah they then assaulted her violently:

Maggie ‘and another woman, rushed out of the room and struck her, scratched her, and tore her bonnet, and it was with difficulty that she stopped herself from going headlong into the the kitchen below’. Sarah told the sitting justice that Jennings and orchestrated the attack, calling on her friends to join in.

Where was the landlord in all this, she was asked. He was present but Sarah had no immediate blame for him in this instance, however she clearly held him responsible for  keeping the sort of house he did. She declared that she would happily have ”jumped him’ if she had been able, drawing laughter from the court.

Miss Jennings’ solicitor denied the facts as presented and said his client had been the victim not the aggressor. The court was told that Miss Jennings was an artist’s model with a ‘good connection’. Indeed, ‘ladies’ went there to have drawing classes and several artists regally called on the women who lived there, in a professional capacity. It may have been the noise these men made that caused Mrs Gibbons such consternation he suggested, but it wasn’t his client or her friends that were to blame.

The landlord also appeared and spoke up for his tenants, describing them as ‘respectable’ models and adding that it was indeed Sarah Gibbons who had landed the first blow in this fight, not Maggie.

This infuriated the old lady even further and throwing up her hands she made to leave the courtroom. ‘Models indeed!’ she exclaimed. ‘Do they take models in the dark?’, suggesting perhaps that while the men did have  professional relationship with the women, it wasn’t one based on the pure practice of ‘art’, but prostitution. This would have opened the landlord up to a possible charge of running a brothel or at least an unruly house and so the magistrate adjourned the hearing to wait for the report of the policeman that had attended to the assault incident.

A couple of days later the court reconvened the case and a police inspector reported that he had visited the property. He, and PC French who had responded to the disturbance on the 8th, both testified that ‘all the inmates were respectable persons’.

Mr Cooke, the magistrate, now turned his attention to Sarah Gibbons. He told that he was going to dismiss the charge because she had no right to have entered the property in the first place. If she wished to bring a complaint then she should have proceeded through the proper channels, and not taken the law into her own hands.

As she opened her mouth to say something the justice shut her up, and said ‘he would not hear any more’. Maggie Jennings was free to go, without a stain on her character and this verdict was met ‘with loud applause’ from those in court.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 25, 1885; The Morning Post , Wednesday, May 27, 1885]

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