The late Victorian magistracy knew how to deal with sexual assault when they saw it


Dalston Junction station c.1905 (about 8 years after the events recounted below took place) 

Our society is quite rightly agitated about sexual assault and misconduct. There has been a well documented campaign about sexual harassment and worse which as touched the television and film industry, politics, professional sports, and even charities. I suspect we have not heard the end of this and that the empowerment of women (and men) via the sharing of stories of abuse will result in many more industries and ares of public and private life being exposed to accusations of bad behaviour, sexual misconduct and rape.

It seems to me that the abuse of women, men and vulnerable children by those having positions of power and influence is endemic in modern society and until some prominent people are very publicly made to pay the consequences of this we are unlikely to see things improve. Sadly, of course, none of this is very ‘new’ and men (and it is usually men) have been getting away with sexual harassment for centuries.

However, not everyone got away with it and in some circumstances – notably when the abuser was a member of a lower social class than his victim – the Victorian courts were prepared to act to defend the defenceless. Even when these distinctions were not obvious the Police Court magistrates could often be relied upon to make a stand.

Florence Day was a domestic servant. On Tuesday 17 March 1897 she was travelling on the North London Railway between Dalston Junction and Broad Street in a third class carriage. It was the day before St Patrick’s Day  and the carriage was also being used by three Irishmen, one of whom took it upon himself to impose himself upon the young servant girl.

As soon as the train moved off Morris Deerey, a cattleman, began to speak to her. Florence was not interested and move her seat to get away from him. He’d been drinking and he and his friends were probably quite drunk. Undeterred Morris rose and follow her, sitting down opposite the girl.

Again he tried to engage her in conversation and when she ignored him he moved his muddy boot across and lifted her skirt. This was not only an invasion of space it was a sexual assault in the context of Victorian attitudes towards the female gender. Even today it would be considered as such.

When the train pulled in to Broad Street Florence, with the help of a fellow passenger who had seen everything that occurred, had Deerey taken into custody. She went to Moorgate Station and was examined by a female ‘searcher’ (who  I imagine was employed by the railways to search women brought in accused of picking pockets).  She confirmed that there was mud on the servant’s stockings and the whole case sent before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

Deerey denied the accusation against him and produced his two fellow cattlemen to back him up. Both admitted to being drunk and claimed that Deerey’s foot had got accidentally entangled with the girl’s dress. William Holloway had acted to support Florence and had been watching the men warily since they’d boarded the train at Chalk Farm. He confirmed Florence’s story and dismissed the friends’ version of events.

Alderman Newton had heard enough. Bad behaviour from the working classes was meat and drink to him; drunken and loutish conduct by the Irish was particularly to be condemned. He told the listening press and public that:

‘the traveling public must be protected, especially unprotected females’.

He sent Deerey to prison for 14 days hard labour meaning that he missed the St Patrick’s Day celebrations that year. ‘Poor Paddy’, as the Dubliners (and the Pogues) once sung.

[from The Standard , Thursday, March 18, 1897]


Libel and crim.con as the ‘better sort’ are dragged through the Police Courts


Sir Albert de Rutzen

Most of those appearing before the police magistrates of London were members of the working class. The vast majority were being prosecuted for all manner of petty and not so petty forms of crime and violence. When the more ‘respectable’ middle classes appeared it was usually as witnesses or victims (although there were plenty of these from the lower order as well – especially women) and the very wealthy rarely feature in the newspapers reports. T

here were exceptions however.

Crime was big news in the Victorian press and the daily ‘doings’ of the police courts are testament to the popularity of this amongst the reading public, of all classes it should be said. Alongside the police court news and the more sensational ‘murder news’ were the reports of adultery served up as scandal for public consumption. ‘Criminal conservation (or ‘crim. con’) cases offered readers a peep into the bedrooms of the rich and famous. This was where the ‘better sorts’ made the pages of the newspapers for reasons they would rather have kept to themselves.

Often linked eventually to divorce, crim.con proceedings were a legal procedure  whereby one man sued another for having an affair with his wife (on the basis that he could claim financial damages, as his wife was his property).

In February 1886 two wealthy individuals appeared at Marylebone Police court represented by their lawyers. Mr St. John Wontner was there to defend his client, Robert Bailey, against a charge of libelling the elaborately entitled Charles V. J. Frieden de Friedland and for assaulting him at the theatre.

The reporter is fairly careful to skirt around the issue at the centre of this case; namely that both men appear to have been having a relationship with the same woman, a woman that neither of them was married to. Her name was Mrs Astay and it isn’t clear whether she was married or a widow.

The magistrate, Sir Albert De Rutzen, was at pains to try and keep any of the details behind the libel accusation  out of his courtroom but, since some evidence had to be offered (so a formal committal could be made),  this was fairly difficult and ultimately impossible.

Prosecuting, Mr Lickfold explained that his client was a member of the Supper Club which had a premises in Paris and at Langham Place in London. Mr de Friedland was staying in London and had been receiving ‘communications’ from Mr Bailey.

These were quite unpleasant and contained ‘threats , and were written in a language quite unfit for publication’. Bailey and de Friedland had then met at the Alhambra in Leicester Square where they had argued.

Bailey had, he alleged:

‘knocked the Complainant’s hat of and abused him. In fact the conduct of the Defendant had been so bad that, unless restrained, the Complainant’s life would be insufferable’.

Wontner now cross-examined and this is where some of the detail that the magistrate presumably wished to keep hidden began to seep out. The readers would be able (as you will be) to fill in the gaps and make a judgement on what de Friedland had been up to and what sort of a man he really was.

De Friesland said he was a director of the Supper Club which was a respectable establishment and not a gaming club (as the lawyer must have suggested). He admitted that ‘baccarat was played there’ but refuted allegations of gambling. He admitted as well to being married, and that his wife lived in Paris but he wasn’t (as was suggested) in the middle of divorce proceedings with her. He also admitted knowing and visiting a ‘Mrs Astay’, but ‘refused to say whether he had been intimate with her’. He added that Bailey had been intimate with the woman, a libel itself if not true.

Mr Lickfold objected to his opposite number’s line of questioning but Wontner contended that his client’s defence in court would be that he was provoked and that he would counter sue de Friedland for libelling him. As such it was necessary to set his stall out at this stage.

The magistrate was not happy with this and told the defence lawyer to keep his defence for the senior court trial. He heard from several witnesses who confirmed seeing the trail of letters and cards sent to the complainant and fully committed Bailey for trial. He then bailed him on his own recognisances of £100 – a considerable sum – demonstrating the wealth associated with these two protagonists.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 25, 1886]

Sir Albert de Rutzen died in 1913 at the age of 84. An obituary noted ‘his patience and gentleness alike with the highest of criminals and the Suffragettes, with whom he had to deal of late, were remarkable’. 

The ‘artful urchin’ and the 8th Baronet; a contrast in mid Victorian fortunes


Sir Alexander Grant had a long lineage. In 1852 he was 69 years of age and would die two years later. Grant had served as an MP for various constituencies until the early 1830s and had acceded to his family baronetcy in 1825. Grant had made his money in the West Indies, as a plantation owner. Whether he was an advocate of slavery or a campaigner for its abolition is unknown to me, but either way he profited from the trade and had a smart address in London at Portman Square.

Thomas Dwyer, by contrast, has no known lineage. In 1852 he was just 12 years of age but already had a criminal record for picking pockets. We don’t know where he lived or who his father or mother was; he may have had none and probably slept where he could on the street, in doorways, or any form of rough shelter. Thomas had no stated trade (and clearly no inherited wealth) and we don’t know what happened to him after he briefly made the pages of the newspapers in February 1852.

Sir Alexander was walking on Duke Street, by Manchester Square (in the wealthy West End) when a man tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see a man holding a young boy firmly by the hand and preferring him a handkerchief.

‘This boy’, the man declared, ‘has stolen your handkerchief’. He handed the lad and the hankie over and then walked off.

Sir Alexander seized the boy (Thomas Dwyer) and marched him off to find the nearest policeman, and gave him into custody. A day or so later the pair were reunited in the Marylebone Police Court.

PC Steel (33C) testified to receiving the prisoner and stated that the boy had pleaded for leniency and begged ‘that he might be forgiven’. He added that the ‘young delinquent’ had previously been prosecuted for a similar offence and, when caught, was found to wearing a black silk ‘kerchief (‘nearly new’) around his neck.

Sir Alexander complained that he lost at least six handkerchiefs to thieves like Thomas while walking the streets of the capital. There was no inclination to leniency from the bench that day and Thomas Dwyer was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment at hard labour, and to be privately whipped on one occasion.

These were the very different fates that resulted from the accident of birth. Alexander Grant had his life mapped out for him; from birth to his education (at Cambridge), then a successful business enterprise from his inherited money, to a position of power and influence in parliament, to a quite retirement in a fashionable quarter of London. Thomas Dwyer was born into poverty and stayed there; even his attempts to survive (by stealing small items of value from those way above his social status) were thwarted and ultimately ‘rewarded’ by punishment which would have made it more difficult to survive in any other way in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 19, 1852]

‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that boy!’


Our class of boys was told repeatedly at school about the dangers of throwing paper darts or flicking elastic bands at each other. ‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that , boy!’ thundered our Latin master. We ignored him of course, as most small boys do, and, to my knowledge, no one at Christ’s College Finchley did lose an eye to a small missile hurled in jest.

Sadly, but equally predictably, there were handful of pupils in our year who were always the butt of yokes and more serious bullying. Often this was because of the way they looked, some minor disability they had, or some other personal characteristic. Being overweight, wearing glasses, having red hair, very short (or very tall), less intellectually gifted, or indeed, cleverer, could single you out for abuse. Children and teenagers (and some teachers) can be cruel and some people must have had a horrible and traumatic time at our school.

None of this is new of course and despite the best efforts of several generations of school teachers it continues.

On  weekday in February 1870 a young woman was working at a stall in Crawford Street, Marylebone to earn a few pennies. We don’t know her age but it was probably early teens. We don;t know her name either but she had suffered an injury as a child and had loss an eye. The one eyed girl was most likely a source of conversation and ridicule amongst the children of the district, who would have seen her standing by her stall most days of the week.

One can only imagine what she had to put up with hearing the whispers of the adults and being pointed at by younger passers-by. The mixture of pity, ridicule, and fear that she engendered in others must have left her feeling isolated and victimised unless she had very strong support from her family and friends.

One young lad, Charles West aged 10, wasn’t content with staring or pointing. He owned a catapult and in early February 1870 thought it would be a good jape to see if he could knock out her remaining good eye.

Taking aim he released a stone which struck the girl plumb in the face, injuring her eye as he’d intended. She was rushed to get medical help and Charles ran away. Enquiries were made and the boy was eventually traced and locked up in prison while the girl’s injuries were assessed.

After five days in custody Charles was brought up before Mr Mansfield at Marylebone Police Court. The case was briefly confused by the appearance of a butler who produced another lad who said he’d committed the awful crime. The child was lying however, presumably encouraged by the butler to do so. Was the butler in the employ of Charles West’s family? That would suggest that Charles was no street urchin but the son of respectable parents.

Mr Mansfield reprimanded the butler, dismissed the other boy and turned to Charles. The girl was in recovery and, thankfully, no lasting damage had been done to her sight the doctor had assured him. Charles had spent the best part of a week locked up and the magistrate decided that was sufficient punishment.

Hopefully he was punished by his parents and his catapult taken away. If he did come from a middle class family of means one  also hopes that they made a generous donation to the girl with one eye and, more importantly, reminded their offspring of the need to be kind to those less fortunate than ourselves.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, February 12, 1870]

Two ‘inveterate readers of juvenile literature’ caught short at Lambeth


The Union Jack, juvenile reading matter from 1880

Thomas and Roger Casement were avid readers, or so their father believed. The pair of adolescents (Thomas was 13, his brother 11) were arrested in January 1876 in possession of three books they had allegedly stolen from a Lambeth bookshop. Mr William Polder, the shop owner, appeared in court at Southwark to press his prosecution against them while the boys’ father was there to defend his sons.

Polder said the lads came into his shop on York Road around lunchtime and asked to look at some of his 3d editions. Having perused these for a while they thanked him but said nothing interested them, and left. Soon afterwards however, Polder realised that three copies of more expensive texts (which he described as being ‘of greater value with showy covers’) were missing and he suspected the boys.

He soon caught up with them and, with the assistance of a police constable (PC 97L) they were arrested. The books were discovered and the constable asked them why they had taken them.

‘To make money of, as they had none’, the juvenile thieves reportedly replied.

Having ascertained that their father was a respectable man, a captain in the local militia no less,  a message was sent to fetch him. In court the officer spoke up for his offspring:

He ‘could not account for the lads taking the books unless it was to pay for the loan of them some other day. They were inveterate readers of juvenile literature, and were in the habit of borrowing books and paying for the loan of them’.

The justice, Mr Benson, pointed out that they had made no claim to borrowing anything, or offering to pay – this seemed like theft but the captain insisted it must have been a mistake. The magistrate gave him (if not the lads) the benefit of the doubt and released them into their father’s care on him agreeing to enter into a recognizance against their future good behaviour. If they stayed out of trouble all would be well, if they repeated the thefts then a reformatory possibly beckoned.

I imagine the journey home was an uncomfortable one for Thomas and Roger, but perhaps not as uncomfortable as the thrashing they were very likely to have received later.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, January 26, 1876]

‘Half a loaf better than none’: a little local difficulty at Thames


Jewish immigrants on Petticoat lane, by George Eastman House

The newspaper reports of the late Victorian police courts offer us a window into a past society. They throw up all sorts of things that can seem strange, or familiar to the modern reader. London is revealed as a busy and bustling city with all sorts of opportunities for conflict between its denizens. We get an idea of how people lived, where they worked, and how they moved around. We can also see that the capital was, as it is today, one of the world’s most multicultural and vibrant cities.

The East End of London had a large and well established Jewish community. Many of London’s Jews were fairly recent arrivals; coming over during the late 1870s and 1880s to escape persecution in eastern central Europe. Jews living in the Russian Pale (modern day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and some parts of Latvia and Russia) were oppressed by laws which prescribed where they could live, how and when they could work, and that forced them to serve in the armies of Tsarist Russia.

Life was extremely hard in the Pale of Settlement and communities were subject to periodic violent outbreaks of anti-semitic pogroms. Not surprisingly tens of thousands chose to leave their homes and travel across Europe in a search for a better and safer life. Many settled in London, particularly around Whitechapel where they established a community, while others tried to find the money to pay their passage to the ‘golden medina’, the United States of America.

London was no paradise however. Prejudice here was rife and periodic instances of anti-semitism continued to plague the Jewish community. But it was not as lethal as the oppression they had suffered in the Russian Empire, nor was the poverty as grinding. Hard work and persistence meant that the Ashkenazi people of the East End set down strong routes in the capital of Empire and gradually moved out of the East to the North and West of London as their prosperity grew.

In 1897 we get a glimpse of this community and, at the same time, a contemporary English view of them and their traditions. I wouldn’t say the report is racist or ‘anti-alien’ (to use a late Victorian expression) but it does perhaps reflect a contemporary curiosity about the ‘other’ in society.

In January 1897 Joseph Moseley, a Jewish sponge maker, appeared at Thames Police Court to prosecute a summons against Evelina Cohen. The pair had met in January 1896 a year earlier and after a brief courtship Joseph had proposed marriage. He gave Evelina a valuable  diamond engagement  ring and another ‘buckle’ ring as a symbol of their friendship. They agreed to marry in March of that year.

However, something must have gone wrong or Evelina changed her mind because instead of marrying the sponge maker, she married someone else in March 1896 leaving poor Joseph high and dry, and missing two rings. This was why he took her to court.

Mr Dickenson presided at Thames in early 1897 and he was less than pleased that this case had come before him. It did no credit to either of them, he said, to be dragging each other through the courts in this way. He understood that it was the ‘custom among most people, especially ladies, to return rings when an engagement was broken off’.

‘It would be a graceful act on the part of the young lady’ he said, ‘to say “Take back the ring thou gavest,” and give the complainant [Joseph] the diamond hoop, keeping the buckle ring as a trophy of her conquest’.

Moseley was represented by a lawyer, Mr Deakin, who explained that the matter had now been settled. The magistrate was pleased to hear it: ‘half a loaf was better than no bread’ he added referring to the return of one of the rings. Deakin wasn’t convinced that the sponge maker had recovered much from the encounter. ”In this case’, he grumbled, ‘it is only a fifth of a loaf’. After all he had hoped to marry and benefit from Evelina’s dowry, which was reported to be £500 plus a property.

The whole report smacks then of a business deal reneged upon rather than a man jilted ‘at the altar’. The fact that this had to go to law would seem to reflect contemporary negative views of the Jewish community as being built around trade and money, with this being seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Joseph had missed out of a ‘good deal’  and was now trying to get his investment back and I suspect many middle-class English readers reading this had some of their prejudices affirmed by the whole episode.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 16, 1897]

‘When I come out I’ll have fifteen years for her.’


Today living with someone you are not married to is almost as normal as being wed. There is no stigma attached to unmarried cohabitation and similarly little, if any, to having children outside of wedlock. This state of affairs (sometimes bemoaned by traditionalists) is often compared unfavourably to past societies, where marriage is presumed to have been universally accepted as the only way for couples to show commitment to each other.

Yet even a casual study of Victorian society reveals that amongst the working classes (by far the largest social group) the bonds of marriage were much more fluid. Men and women cohabited without being married, and had children, and no one (of their class at least) seemed to bat an eyelid about it. Perhaps we are not as ‘modern’ as we think we are.

Marriage can be expensive and divorce, in the 1800s, for most men and and women, was pretty much impossible. So I suspect many came together as lovers and stayed together as partnership being married in all but name.

Edward Chatfield and Elizabeth Wardle were an example of this type of ‘common law’ marriage. They had lived together at their home in Kent Street in the Borough, south London, for some time but their relationship was far from rosy.

Edward allegedly forced Elizabeth to prostitute herself when they had no money and beat her when she came home without any money. Their quarrels finally made it to the inside of the Southwark Police Court and the pages of the newspapers when, in 1863, Elizabeth took her ‘husband’ to law for an assault upon her.

She told the magistrate, Mr Coombe, that Chatfield had come home late and had attacked her. As she stood in court everyone could see the results of the assault:- she had ‘a cut on her under lip, and several marks on the arms’. Her man had beaten her and knocked her to the floor. He started kicking her and if a policeman hadn’t heard her cries and come to her rescue she feared for her life.

It was not the first time the couple had come before the magistrates. Three months earlier the very same justice had sent him down for two months for beating Elizabeth. He’d only been out for six weeks and he’d done it again.

No lesson learned there then.

Edward objected and offered this defence:

‘It is false’, he declared. ‘I should not have touched you this time, had you come home properly. Your worship, she did not come home till six this morning, and then she was half drunk and would keep the door open’.

When Elizabeth refused to shut the door and keep quiet he had pushed her out of the bed. This was the point at which Elizabeth accused her partner of pimping her out as a prostitute, something Chatfield vehemently denied. ‘Now, that’s a lie’ he said, ‘you know I go out a thieving to support you’. This admission caused a sensation in the courtroom provably at the self-declaration of offending and the very public disintegration of their relationship.

Mr Coombe was told that Elizabeth’s body was ‘covered in cuts and bruises’ and he sent Edward to prison for six months this time, at hard labour. The prisoner’s reaction was contemptuous, both of the court and his common law wife.

‘When I come out I’ll have fifteen years for her, as I want to get out of this ________ country’.

He may have been hoping to be transported to Australia but I doubt he got his wish. The numbers of convicts deported had slowed from the 1850s and the last ship sailed from England in 1867. Still possible but I can’t see him in the records of those sent so I suspect he minded his behaviour. Mr Coombe added a codicil to his six months, a requirement that he found bail against his good behaviour towards Elizabeth for a further six months on release.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 15, 1863]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at