‘A very bad case’, as temptation gets the better of a young servant girl

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The temptations faced by servant girls working in the homes of the wealthy must have been very hard to resist. For a young woman like Ellen Shean her mistress’ home, with its fine furnishings, ornaments, silver plate and glass, and other comforts would have been a world away from her own humble beginnings. Even more stark was the contrast between Ellen’s personal belongings (such as they were) and those of her employer, Mrs Elizabeth Bailey.

When Ellen began her service, in mid September 1862, she arrived with just a couple of changes of clothes and a few personal effects – she had no money at all. By contrast Mrs Bailey lived in relative luxury, at 13 Sutherland Place, in fashionable Westbourne Grove. 

It wasn’t long before Mrs Bailey began to notice that money was going missing. Servants weren’t paid weekly or even monthly in the 1800s, they had an annual salary (of around £10-£20) which was paid out quarterly. Wages were low but of course their bed and board was included, as was a uniform, so what money they had was supposed to be for ‘treats’ (the odd day out) and to save for their future.

London of course, was a very tempting place with all sorts of sights and delights to turn the head of a young woman. Many domestics migrated to the capital looking for work so while Ellen may have been a local girl it is entirely possible she had traveled from as far away as Ireland. Shean is a surname with a variety of roots, from Ireland (as a shortened version of Sheenan) to Surrey and Staffordshire. Sheens are also found in the census in south Wales and across the Bristol Channel.

As Ellen was a new servant Mrs Bailey soon began to suspect that she might be the source of her missing money and so she decided to set a trap for her employee. She marked a florin (a coin valued at 1/10 of a pound) and left in in one of her dresses. Some time after Ellen had finished her rounds upstairs Mrs Bailey decided to investigate whether she had taken the bait.

Sure enough, the coin was missing and Elizabeth confronted her servant with the theft. At first Ellen denied it but soon broke down when Mrs Bailey threatened to involve the police. Ellen threw the coin onto the carpet in front of her and then reached into her pocket and took out a purse. Inside was a significants amount of money in coin (£1 8s) and Mrs Bailey’s wedding ring.

Ellen admitted her crime and the next day both women appeared before Mr Dayman,  the Police Magistrate at Hammersmith. Questioned in court Ellen burst into tears and could say nothing in her defence. She must have known that she was effectively ruined; no one would be likely to employ her again as a servant in a respectable household and with a criminal record and no references her future looked very bleak indeed.

It was a serious offence which merited a jury trial and possibly a long prison sentence but Mrs Bailey (perhaps wishing to avoid further embarrassment to herself as well) requested that the justice deal with her servant summarily. She told he she ‘did not want to press the case severely’ and Mr Dayman agreed. However, he said ‘it was a very bad case, as servants must be trusted. There was no excuse for the prisoner to rob her mistress, as she had a comfortable house’.

He sent Ellen Sheen to prison for two months, with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 31, 1862]

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A ‘sex pest’ is exposed on the Liverpool Street to Stratford line

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Today’s papers are understandably full of discussion about sexual assaults on women by men in positions of power. Following the ongoing revelations about the American film producer Harvey Weinstein and suggestions that such exploitation of women is rife at Westminster , the world seems to be waking up to the reality that casual sexual assault is endemic in our society.

There is nothing new in this (in fact regular readers may be coming to the conclusion that the London Police courts reveal that there is almost nothing new today at all; when it comes to crime and anti-social behaviour our Victorian ancestors were just as ‘bad’ as we are). What may be different today is that the climate has changed and women feel more empowered to speak out – to speak truth to power as the saying goes.

It is not (and never was) easy for a woman to accuse a man of sexually assaulting her. In the nineteenth century a woman that cried ‘rape’ exposed herself to accusations that she was at best lying, and at worst had encouraged the perpetrator by placing herself in a vulnerable position. The Victorian lady that allowed herself to be alone with a male was effectively ‘asking for it’ in much the same way that those accusations are levelled at women who dress ‘provocatively’.

For Victorian society the answer was a separation of the sexes wherever possible. Of course this really meant a separation along class lines. The daughters of the wealthy middle and upper classes were chaperoned and never allowed out on their own. No ‘respectable’ women would be seen out at night without a male companion and so any woman that was on her own, could not, by definition,  be ‘respectable’. This led to women being accosted on the street in the evening (and in broad daylight if they were in areas where prosecution was common) by men who thought them ‘fair game’. Much of this went unreported of course, as did most of the assaults on servant girls by fellow domestic staff, or their masters and his sons.

When Victorian society began to develop a system of public transport the boundaries between public and private space began to become mutable. The railway carriage soon became a dangerous place for single or unaccompanied women, seemingly regardless of the time of day or even the other occupants. Today we are familiar with the problems some women face traveling on the London Underground (the ‘tube’) and attempts to get women to report offences. It would seem that from the very introduction of steam driven railways men were subjecting women to unwelcome sexual harassment.

Hobart Moore was one of these so-called ‘sex pests’. In October 1877 Mary Ann Cocks, a young governess, was travelling in a second-class carriage on the Great Eastern railway from Liverpool Street to Stratford. It was just after 8 o’clock in the evening and so Mary Ann was probably on her way home after a day out.

Moore entered the same compartment and sat down directly opposite her. There were three others in the car, a man and two ladies. Moore asked Mary Ann if the train went to Forest Gate, and she replied that it did. He had established conversation.

As the train left Bethnal Green nation Mary Ann noticed that Moore ‘shuffled about a great deal with his feet, and between Bethnal Green and Old Ford stations he leaned down and touched her’.

Clearly shocked by his behaviour, Mary Ann asked him move. One of the other women in the carriage then suggested they swop seats and the school governess gladly accepted the offer. Then the other man in the carriage then helped her move to another carriage when the train stopped. She had escaped the ‘pest’ but had still suffered form the unwanted contact with him.

This is a Victorian news report so it gives nothing in terms of detail about how or where Moore touched Mary Ann. But she considered that she ‘had been insulted’ and the gentleman that had assisted her now fetched a porter so she could make a formal complaint about Moore. The porter now rode in Moore’s carriage and handed him over to a policeman when they disembarked at the next stop.

Moore must have known what he had done and the embarrassing consequences should he be called to appear in a public court to answer the charges. He now compounded his crime by attempting to bribe his way our of the situation. He pressed a half sovereign into PC 79K’s hand and asked him to forget all about it. The constable did no such thing of course and so Moore found himself before the Police court magistrate at Worship Street in the East End.

In court Moore’s lawyer, a Mr Willis, explained that his client held a ‘highly respectable position’ in society and had ‘recently married’. Ms Cocks must have been mistaken in what she alleged he argued. His client had been out to dinner and had eaten and drunk too much.

As a result he was ‘sick, and leaned from the window. While ill in that way his foot or leg might have done all that the prosecutrix had said, but he denied the hand or any intention to insult’.

Mr Hannay, the magistrate, said that on balance the evidence suggested that there was a case to answer and so committed Moore to jury trial at the Middlesex Sessions. The Digital Panopticon has a record of a 28 year-old Hobart Robert Moore being in prison in 1879, although (and thanks to ActonBooks for the information on this) this wasn’t because he was convicted of the assault on the governess. Instead it seems that he pleaded guilty at the sessions to a common assault and was fined. Two years later he was sent to prison for stealing money from his employer, allegedly to feed his gambling habit (Cheltenham Mercury, Saturday 6 September 1879).

We have yet to see whether any of the current revelations in America or Britain result in prison sentences for those accused of sexually assaulting  vulnerable women. I’m not holding my breath however.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 30, 1877]

The showman, the tram conductor, and the irritated magistrate.

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Fare dodging was frequently punished at the summary courts. Conductors of trams or buses, hackney coachmen, and train guards brought in travellers  who had refused or neglected to pay for their journeys. In some circumstance this was because they disputed the amount charged (most often when it came to cabs) or claimed that they hadn’t realised the vehicle was going as far as it was, or had missed their stop. It seems that in most of the instances that were reported by the press the customer paid up, often with an added penalty of paying the transport company’s court costs.

Harry Perkins was one such example of a fare dodger that annoyed the sitting magistrate  at Thames and ended up paying much more than he need have had he simply bought a ticket in the usual way.

Perkins was described as a ‘showman, living in a caravan at Dalston’. So perhaps he was a part of a travelling circus. His actions in late October 1890 certainly entertained the editor of The Standard who decided to submit his story to print for his readership. The circus man boarded a tram in Dalston and travelled to Shoreditch where he attempted to get off. At this point the conductor (‘Conway, badge 1227’) asked him for 1s for his fare. When this was refused Conway restrained his customer until a policeman was found who could take him into custody.

In court the next day Perkins was charged with refusing to pay his fare and with being drunk. The magistrate started by questioning the tram’s conductor as to Perkins’ conduct.

Was the prisoner drunk, Mr Williams asked Conway.

‘Well that depends’, came the reply.

‘What?’ said the justice.

‘It is a very difficult thing to say whether a man is drunk or not’, was Conway’s response.  ‘Some people say that a man is not drunk when he can stand; others say that…’

At this point the magistrate cut him off.

‘I don’t want a lecture on drunkenness’ he grumbled, ‘if you can’t prove that the man was drunk on your care there is an end of that part of the charge. How about refusing the fare?’

Once a sheepish Conway had muttered that yes, he had refused the shilling demanded Mr Williams turned his attention (and clear irrigation) to the showman in the dock. Why had he attempted to get off without paying he wanted to know.

‘I did not want to ride’, answered Perkins. ‘I got on the car, and found the seats on top wet, and the inside was full, so that I wanted to get off, and the conductor would not let me’.

‘But you had a good long ride’ declared Mr Williams, adding ‘so it took you about half-an-hour to find out that the seat was wet?’

The prisoner could only restate his previous explanation that he ‘did not want to ride’. The magistrate dismissed this with a curt statement that he was fining him 10for the trouble he had caused when all this could have been avoided had he simply paid, when asked, the 1s fare.

I rather suspect that the message Mr Williams was sending was intended for a wider audience than the circus man. His time had been wasted unnecessarily and he wanted to avoid similar cases coming before him in the future. It probably also served as a rebuke for the conductor (and therefore all bus and tram conductors) and allowed readers to chuckle over the discomfort of ‘jobsworths’ everywhere.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 29, 1890]

The bailiffs thwarted – a small victory at the Mansion House

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On Wednesday 27 October 1886 a man appeared in front of the alderman magistrate at the Mansion House Police Court to answer a summons. Mr B. A. Bird was a clerk employed by Messrs. Norman & Co. (Limited) of Queen Victoria Street.

The company either sold furniture or operated a loan scheme for those making hire purchases of large items. In July 1885 a City merchant named Gray (first initial ‘F’, possibly Frederick) had bought some furniture for £22 using the hire purchase service. He paid £3 deposit and agreed to make subsequent monthly payments of £1 until the whole sum was covered.

By June 1886 he had paid back £13 but had fallen into financial difficulty and fell into arrears. Anyone who has a mortgage or large credit card bills to service today will understand how this feels. By the 1880s debt was no longer something that was likely land you in debtor’s gaol but it still carried a stigma. In 1869 legislation restricted the amount of time one could be thrown in prison for debt to six weeks, and in 1883 the Bankruptcy Act further protected the person of those that couldn’t pay their debts.

Normans waited five months before they chose to recover the debt by other means. When no further payments were forthcoming they despatched Mr Bird and ‘some carmen’ [the Victorian equivalent of van drivers] to Gray’s business address.

There ‘they forcibly broke open the door, and removed the whole of the furniture in question, together with Mr Gray’s papers in the table-drawers, and a mat which did not belong to them’.

Regardless of whether they had a right to recover the debt or not Alderman deemed them to have acted unlawfully and excessively and sided with the complainant. He fined Bird £5 for the offence, and awarded £2 2s costs, plus an extra 5s 6d  for the damage to the lock they broke as they entered.

I know that in my own family history there was a Frederick Gray who we believe worked as a clerk and settled in West London. The family originated from Cambridgeshire, from the small village of Maney in the heart of the fens, and at some point in the mid 1800s one of them chose to travel down to London to look for work. Was this ‘F. Gray’ a relative of mine? From this distance it is hard to say and, of course, it is highly unlikely –  this man was a merchant not a humble clerk, and it is not an unusual surname after all. But for all that I feel a certain link to the past in this story a man who stood up to the bullying tactics of the debt collectors and won.

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1886]

An ‘indescribable jabber’ at Marlborough Street

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It would seem that even the radical press in the nineteenth century were not above a little bit of casual racism. We might have expected The Charter, as a newspaper founded to represent Chartist views in London, to be more inclusive (to use a modern term) in portray of foreigners in the capital. Instead it seems to have replicated exactly the sort of representation of ‘others’ as all its less ‘radical’ rivals did.

Perhaps this was deliberate; in appearing to be as ‘normal’ as every other organ The Charter could position itself as a legitimate weekly newspaper covering all aspect of daily life but with a clear political purpose – that of promoting the People’s Charter and its call for universal manhood suffrage and five other demands. The Morning Star (the mouthpiece of the British Communist Party) does much the same thing today, providing its readership with a left of centre version of the news plus sport and entertainment.

So, let us return to the pages of the paper in October 1839, when it was at the height of its popularity. It reported the London Police Courts in much the same way as all the other newspapers did, and, as I suggested above, wasn’t shy of poking fun at foreign visitors to the capital. Two men appeared before the sitting justice (Mr Long) at Marlborough Street, one Prussian (Dirk Singer) and other Swedish (Tjebbes Raynor). Both men were tailors and they had come to blows after exchanging insults.

This was all fairly common material for the reportage of the summary courts; assault was a daily occurrence and most cases were settled or dismissed with just a few being sent on to the Sessions for a jury trial and some being dealt with by fines or even a short period of imprisonment. Unless an assault involved weapons or actual bodily harm it was unlikely to trouble the magistrates for very long.

Singer accused Raynor of putting ‘him in bodily fear, á-la-mode-Anglais‘ (which I take to mean with his fists). The case was conducted in weak English which the paper rendered in dialect for maximum comic effect. The essence of the case was that Singer has supposedly insulted Raynor by calling him ‘a Jew’.

To add to the European melting pot the main witness for the prosecution was Swiss. He explained what happened:

‘dey bote had much loud words. Dis-a man they call my fren a “Jew,” ven he am nevare dos von Jew’.

‘And I suppose this epithet was considered as a sort of affront?’ enquired the magistrate.

‘Vet mosh, Sare; zo my fren call upon him back as von verdomd “scheinhalt,” dat is der hedgehog ; and den dey stock upon each other’.

Earlier Singer had complained that the Swedish tailor had punched him in the face: ‘he made his fist for his box’ he said, ‘and knock upon my nose very not much’.

On can imagine the scene in court: a collection of angry and argumentative tailors dressed in their work clothes, with bristling beards and moustaches, and a cacophony of European accents being raised together. All of this was being conducted in a form of English which Mr Long struggled to understand. On top of this the case was clearly one which involved fault on both sides; insults had flown back and forth and both men had hit each others. It was hard for anyone to determine who was to blame and so, in the end, Mr Long declared that he ‘couldn’t make out who is in the wrong’ and dismissed the warrant against Raynor.

No one was satisfied with this outcome and the paper reported (with a last comic flourish) that the ‘foreigners set up an indescribable jabber, and were ushered into the passage’. Sadly even humorous stories like this were not enough to keep The Charter commercially viable. It launched in 1838 and reached a circulation of about 5-6,000 before folding in 1840. In London competition for readers was fierce and only a handful of papers continued to dominate the newsstands and survive into the 20th century.

[from The Charter, Sunday, October 27, 1839]

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Poplar High Street in the late 1800s

Thomas Thomas had only recently docked in London from a long voyage out of Adelaide, Australia. The steamship fireman had picked up his wages on the Monday and headed from his digs to a beer shop in Poplar to relax.

As he sat drink ‘some ale’ two women approached him and asked him to join them. This was a fairly standard approach for the area’s prostitutes and I expect Thomas knew what he was letting himself in for when he accepted their invitation.

Ellen White and Elizabeth Johnson, (described in the report as ‘dangerous thieves’) were clearly well-know to the police and courts and were soon deploying diversionary tactics to rob the sailor.

As Johnson held his attention in conversation White,’thrust her hand in his trousers pocket and took from it a bag containing three half sovereigns’.

Thomas felt the attempt on his purse and grabbed her, but wasn’t quick enough to prevent her passing ‘something’ (his money most likely) to her confederate. Both women rose and quickly tried to get away with their prize. But Thomas maintained a firm grip on White and ‘called out lustily for the police’. Within moments both women were in custody and were taken to the police station.

A ‘female-searcher’ was employed to search both prisoners but nothing was found on them. She reported, however, that while she conducted the search she thought she saw both women swallow something. One of the police constables present at the search also said that he believed each defendant had swallowed at least one coin to prevent any evidence being found on them.

In court at Thames both women protested their innocence before Mr Selfe, the sitting magistrate. He told them them that in the circumstances he was going to commit them for trial before a jury. At this the women asked him instead to deal with them summarily, as they would receive a much reduced sentence if he did.

‘Oh, settle it here. Settle it here, sir; pray do, Mr Selfe’ they pleaded.

‘You say you are innocent, and I can’t settle it here’ replied the justice. ‘If you plead guilty I will settle it now. Are you guilty or not guilty? You may plead now or be committed for trial.’

White and Johnson were clearly upset at being put in this situation and continued to protest their innocence, presumably knowing that the lack of any hard evidence against them meant there at least was some doubt whether a jury would convict. ‘It was very hard to be charged with a crime they did not commit’, they argued. Mr Selfe was adamant however: they had to plead guilty if they wanted him to determine their fate, otherwise a jury would decide.

The women now conferred and must have been weighing up the chances that a jury might convict them anyway, and that they risked a much more severe prison term from the Middlesex sessions if convicted. Eventually they reluctantly agreed to confess to the theft and take their punishment.

Now a policeman piped up and said that Ellen White had a previous conviction for stealing and had served a month in prison for it. Mr Selfe said he was not interested and declared that he knew both of them well as defendants in his court.  Since Thomas Thomas was soon going to return to the sea he said he would deal with them today and sentenced both women to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

I think this demonstrates the problem facing petty thieves in court in the period: arguably they had committed the crime anyway but there was no hard evidence to convict them. Any lawyer worth his salt would have got them off but they hadn’t the funds to employ one and must have thought they’d been clever enough to avoid being convicted.

Mr Selfe could have dismissed the case but he knew them, as did the police. There was a good chance that a jury might have acquitted them for lack of evidence and because it was hardly likely that Thomas would have stuck around to press charges and appear in court; his occupation meant he would at sea for months at a time.

So this was a case of risk assessment and brinkmanship. In this case the women blinked first and chose a short spell in prison as a better alternative to the longer one they might have suffered had a jury found them guilty. As to the missing sovereigns, well, everything passes eventually…

[from The Morning Chronicle , Wednesday, October 26, 1859]

An insurance man ignores the risks to his child and earns the condemnation of the Hampstead bench

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an anti-vaccination pamphlet from the USA (c.1894)

Thomas Williamson was clearly frustrated at finding himself before the magistrate at the Hampstead Police Court. As a member of London’s growing middle-class the insurance agent (who must have known a thing or to about risk) was summoned by the local vaccination officer for not allowing his daughter to be inoculated against small pox.

The officer, Charles Weekley, stated that Louise Elizabeth Williamson, who had be born a year earlier in October 1882, had still not be vaccinated as the law required. The family had been sent several notices but all of them had been ignored, moreover Weekley had himself visited the Williamsons only to be told that they refused to vaccinate Louise because they ‘did not approve of it’.

Weekley had informed the local Board of Guardians and they applied for the summons; Williamson had then been given a further six weeks grace to comply with the injunction to have his child vaccinated but had still steadfastly refused. The result was this very public appearance before Major-General Agnew and Mr Gotto, the presiding magistrates at Hampstead.

In his defence Mr Williamson said that it was not him who objected but his wife. He argued that until the child reached the age of seven she was Mrs Williamson’s responsibility and he was unable to persuade his spouse to agree to something she so was  set against.

It should not come as a surprise that parents were occasionally (or even frequently) reluctant to have their children vaccinated in the late 1800s. There had been widespread resistance earlier in the century when Edward Jenner had first proposed infecting people with ‘cowpox’ to prevent smallpox. The treatment itself may have deterred some while others thought it ‘unchristian’ and abhorrent to introduce animal germs into a human child. We should remember that many Victorians distrusted doctors and had much less faith in science than we do today.

But it was also a question of personal liberty and many people felt it was simply not the business of the state to interfere in family life. Today we are well-used to politicians bemoaning the so-called ‘nanny state’ and for calls for greater freedom from regulations  even if this is not now generally applied to healthcare.

That said there has been a long running campaign against the MMR vaccination which was based on false rumours that the injection was linked to colitis and autism. The campaign was founded on a fraudulent science paper (published in the Lancet in 1998) which was later retracted. It has been described as “perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years” and since the retraction the government have been trying to reboot the vaccination programme.  Sadly, it appears not everyone has got the message: Donald Trump (that well-known authority on all things medical) has linked back to the the now discredited research to make links between vaccination and autism.

Back at Hampstead Police Court poor Mr Williamson was rebuked by one of the magistrates for his inability to rule his own roost. ‘You are the father of the child, and master in your own house’, Major-General Agnew told him.

‘I can’t take the child out of her arms, or use force. No act of parliament will allow me to do that.’ protested the insurance man.

‘That argument, I’m afraid will not hold water’ replied the Major-General.

Mr Gotto was a little more conciliatory: ‘Surely your wife would prefer it [the vaccination] being done to you being fined, or sent to prison?’ he asked.

Mr Williamson agreed that he had already had his elder children vaccinated in compliance with the law but both ‘had suffered from it’. The bench ignored this last plea and fined him 10s including costs, warning him that he must comply or be summoned again. The man left court to bring the unhappy news back to his wife, I wonder how that conversation went.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Thursday, October 25, 1883]

for other blogs on this subject see:

A parent is unconvinced by the theory of vaccination

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court