The Aggravated Assaults Act (1853) was brought in to address the very real problem of domestic violence. Under the terms of the act an abusive husband could be fined up to £20 or sent to prison for up to six months, at hard labour.
However it seems the act was more widely interpreted by the magistracy because one Southwark Police Court magistrate in 1862 used it to send a young man to gaol for what actually seems to have been an attempted rape.
Robert Armstrong, described as a ‘decent-looking young man’, was presented before Mr Burcham at Southwark and accused of assaulting a 15 year-old girl. The court heard that Hannah Ford, the alleged victim, lived were her ‘hard-working’ parents in York Street. The family were poor and occupied just one room in the house; Hannah slept in a makeshift bed on the floor with her sister, while her parents had the only proper bed.
At 5 am both parents went out to work leaving hannah and her older, married sister behind. Her sister was ‘just out of her confinement’, presumably meaning she had just given birth, and her husband was away in the country, perhaps for work.
Soon after her parents left Hannah was rudely awakened by a Armstrong, who was undressed and on top of her. She struggled with him and her sister woke up and screamed. The noise alerted neighbours and eventually Armstrong was overpowered and handed to a policeman to be dealt with.
When he apparel in court Armstrong denied everything and claimed he had been out drinking ‘with some girls’ who had robbed him of his money and his clothes. A police inspector told the court that he had called in a divisional surgeon to examine the girl. He concluded that Hannah had been harmed, which may have meant he didn’t believe that she had been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. This probably saved Robert from a trial and a more serious outcome.
In the end the magistrate used the terms of the 1853 act to send him to prison for three months at hard labour. This case also illustrates the nature of overcrowded slum housing in the 1800s where several families and individuals shared single properties. There was precious little privacy and nothing in the way of security. Writing about Whitechapel in the late 1800s the Rev. Andrew Mearns warned that ‘incest was rife’ in the homes of the poor. He was probably deliberately exaggerating for journalistic effect but it is easy to see how this opinion could be taken seriously by a shocked middle-class readership.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 07, 1862]