‘A gross outrage’ on a young woman reveals the commonplace nature of sexual harassment in London

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Farringdon station under construction in the 1860s

The news feed is still dominated by the Westminster ‘sex pest’ scandal with a growing list of male MPs having to deny, admit or explain their poor behaviour towards female colleagues in the palace or outside. What has emerged is that sexual harassment (from the relatively minor to the extremely serious) is endemic in British politics.

As I discussed last week the Victorians experienced this problem, especially when the new railways began to break down the barriers between the sexes (and classes).  The busy railway carriages of Victorian London provided men with an opportunity to get close to women in ways that were usually denied them. We have seen this replicated in the modern world with attacks on female commuters on the London Underground.

Of course sexual  harassment is not (and was not) confined to the tube or other forms of transport. The Westminster scandal is just the tip of the iceberg; the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations have opened a can of worms in the movie and wider entertainment industry and I fully expect that over the course of the next year or so we are going to see more and more women come forward to complain that they have been assaulted at work or pressured into having unwanted sexual relations by men in positions of power.

This is because we don’t live in an equal society in terms of gender, despite the progress that has been made since the end of the last world war. There needs to be a reckoning and I rather suspect that it is just beginning. But let us return to the nineteenth century and to an incident that was reported, if not in great detail.

Miss Mary Ann Newell was ‘quietly walking along the street’ minding her own business one afternoon in November 1866. Mary Ann was quite close to her lodgings in Northampton Square, Clerkenwell (close to where the London Metropolitan Archives are located today) when a young man came up behind her.

Without warning or introduction he reached around her with his arms and ‘assaulted her in a  very indecent manner’. The newspaper report does not give any more details than this but I think it is quite clear that he must have touched her breasts. Such an action was of course as outrageous then as it would be today. Mary Ann escaped from his grasp and ran home where she told her landlord.

He set off in pursuit of the young man, capturing him a few streets away and taking him to a police station. The next day all three appeared at the Clerkenwell Police Court in front of Mr D’Eyncourt.

The young man, whose name was William Sparrow Cumber was just 16 years of age, and described as a bookbinder. Several of his friends appeared to give him a good character but the offence was proven against him. The magistrate made no comment that was recorded by the reporter but fined him the significant sum of £2 10(about £240 today). Mr D’Eyncourt warned him that if he failed to pay the money he would go to prison in the house of correction for a week at hard labour.

Did this represent ‘justice’ for Mary Ann or an effective deterrent to William and those inclined to behave similarly? I suppose the proof would in what happened next. If this served to let the young bookbinder know that he couldn’t treat women as objects, then a hefty fine (rather than gaol) allowed him to keep his job whilst being effective in protecting women locally. If his mates helped pay his fine and his ruffianism and day in court was considered a ‘badge of honour’ then more young women were likely to fall victim to similar assaults.

Given the deeply gendered nature of Victorian society and the generally subservient position of women in it, and the experience of modern women in a society which is supposedly so much more ‘enlightened’ where equality is concerned, I rather fear Mary Ann was forced to tread much more carefully when she left her home, with more than half an eye on who was behind her from then on.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 07, 1866]

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A furious ostler takes his rage out on the horses

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On Monday morning 3 November 1879 the foreman at a stables in Coburg Row, Westminster, found that one of the stablemen was  much ‘the worse for drink’ and sacked him on the spot. The stakes were owned by Mr W. Ackers Smith, who ran a cab and omnibus company and had dozens of horses.

The stableman, James Cooper, didn’t leave immediately however, but loitered around the premises for for a while. After he had left ‘it was discovered that no less than 12 horses had had the hair cut from their tails to the dock.’ Cooper, in his rage at being dismissed had mutilated his master’s stock. While none of the animals had been hurt by the attacks their value, had Mr Ackers Smith wished to sell them on, was significantly reduced.

The police were called and a detective, DS Church of B Division, was soon on the trail of the disgruntled former employee.

Cooper had been seen leaving the stables with a large bag and his movements led the police to a shop in Vincent Street nearby. The shopkeepers, who bought and sold material by weight (usually metals) had purchased a pound and a half of horsehair from a man matching Cooper’s description. The shopkeeper, Mr Oxford, had no more details than this as he only recorded his metal sales, nothing else. He merely offered the explanation that it was a perk of an ostler’s trade to take home horsehair for his own use, so he hadn’t asked too many questions of Cooper.

Cooper was eventually tracked down and arrested. Brought before the Police Magistrate (Mr D’Eyncourt) at Westminster he was charged with the theft of the horsehair. The idea of ‘perks’ (perquisites) prevailed throughout the nineteenth century even if the practice had been under attack for at least a century. Perks harked back to a time before wages had been as fixed as they were in the 1800s; workers were used to taking home benefits of their trades as part of their wage. So carpenters took ‘chips’, coal heavers ‘sweepings’, weavers ‘thrums’ and so on. Employers did their best to stamp out what they saw as pilferage but we are pretty wedded to our perks even today.

However, Cooper’s action, while described as a theft, was really a act of revenge for losing his job. Mr D’Eyncourt was not impressed with him.

‘it was a very dirty trick to play just for the sake of 10d or a shilling, which only represented a few glasses of ale, and for that he seemed to have disfigured a dozen horses’.

However, despite his anger the justice was hamstrung by the sanctions available to him. Cooper had pleaded guilty and thus opted to be dealt with summarily. Mr D’Eyncourt handed him the maximum sentence allowed, four months in prison with hard labour. He would therefore spend Christmas and New Year in gaol and start the new century unemployed and without a good character. That was probably the real punishment for his crime.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 06, 1879]

A tale of two drunks at Westminster

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The London Police Court magistracy spent most of their time disciplining those brought in as drunk and disorderly by the officers of the Metropolitan police. Most were admonished and fined a small sum, but repeat offenders or those that resisted arrest, and used bad language or violence, were fined more heavily or sent to prison.

The press rarely bothered to report these sort of cases because they were hardly newsworthy but occasionally, perhaps to remind their readership of the dangers of alcohol or because a particular case merited it, they included it. In October 1877 two cases from Westminster Police Court were set out side by side and reflect the ‘usual suspects’ when it came to D&D charges.

Martin Sharp, a ‘carpet planner’ from Chelsea, had just left a club in Radnor Street off the King’s Road with some companions. They had made a bit of noise and this had alerted the attention of the local beat constable, PC Walter Cousins (243B). The policeman politely asked the men to go home quietly and, ‘to give them the opportunity to of doing so, walked on’.

However, while the others dispersed as requested Sharp leaned against a doorway and showed no sign of budging. PC Cousins insisted he leave but was ignored. Then, according to the constable’s report, Sharp ran at him full tilt and grabbed him by his whiskers. The attack was so violent that the carpet man managed to pull clumps of the policeman’s facial hair out; traces of this were later found in his pockets.

With difficulty Sharp was taken to the nearest police station and charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting the officer. In court he denied being drunk and said that he had merely been sheltering in the portico from the rain when PC Cousins had ‘manhandled him very roughly’. Naturally, he added, he had resisted.

Since he could produce no witnesses to support his version of events Mr D’Eyncourt chose to take the constable’s word and fined Sharp 20s or ten days imprisonment. Placing his hat on his head Sharp paid his fine and left court.

According to the headline of the press report Sharp had had a ‘lucky escape’ but Eliza Smith was not so fortunate. She was brought in by another policeman, Isaac Sculpher (260B) who accused her of being drunk and violent. Eliza was well-known to the police and courts as a disorderly prostitute.

In this instance Eliza had apparently been quarrelling with two other street walkers and again, like Sharp and his mates, this had brought them to the attention of the police. When PC Sculpher attempted to ‘remove her’ Eliza resisted arrest and spat in his face. She was described in court as ‘the most violent and foul-mouthed prostitute in the neighbourhood of Knightsbridge’  and Sculpher had to enlist the help of three other officers to drag her to the police station.

In the course of this the policeman alleged that his prisoner had ‘hit him in the hand’ and had injured him. In court Eliza vehemently denied this saying that the reason that the man’s hand was marked was because he had struck her in the mouth, ‘loosening her teeth’. Once again the magistrate opted to believe the policeman not the drunk and sent her down for six weeks. Eliza left the court ‘uttering the most horrible threats and blasphemy to the magistrate, and was with difficulty conveyed to the cells’.

I wonder if her anger was justified on this occasion? It does seem a little odd that the only injury that PC Sculpher sustained was to his hand; that’s a odd place to hit someone. In fact in both cases while the police were evidently ‘doing their duty’ in attempting to clear the streets of late night revellers and unwanted prostitutes, they were both a little heavy handed in the process.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 20, 1877]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Mathew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know? Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

‘An extraordinary story’ of a missing boy in North London

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Mrs Ada Wigg was clearly at her wits end when she presented herself at the North London Police Court in early September 1898. She said she needed the magistrate’s helping in finding her missing son, Frank. The Wiggs lived in Shrubland Grove, Dalston and on Saturday 3 September she had despatched Frank (who was aged 11 and a half) to Sailsbury Square in the City on business.

The boy came home in a hansom cab paid for by a ‘gentleman’ he had met. This man had apparently bought the young boy dinner, given him a shilling and told him that if he came again he would  ‘keep him and make a gentleman of him’.

For a young lad from East London (even one from a family that sounds like they were doing ok) this might have sounded very tempting, to his mother it must have been horrifying. Ada told her son that he was forbidden from ever seeing the man again and hoped that was that. Unfortunately on Sunday Frank went off to church as usual at 10.30 in the morning, but hadn’t been seen since. Mrs Wigg went to the police and they followed up enquiries around the boy’s known haunts, even sending a telegraph to Lichfield where they had friends, but to no avail.

It is hard to look back in time with any degree of certainty but it looks from here as if young Frank was being groomed. Mr D’Eyncourt thought it an ‘extraordinary story’ and hoped that by reporting in the newspapers the boy might be noticed and found. His mother gave a description that was carefully recorded by the court reporter. Frank was:

‘Tall, fair and good looking, with blue eyes. He was wearing a light Harrow suit and patent shoes, and carried a silver lever watch and chain’.

Mrs Wigg had not seen the gentleman concerned but the boy had told he was aged ‘about 50, tall and grey’.

Two days later The Standard carried  brief follow up to the story. The reporter at North London said a telegram had been received at the court which read:

“Frank Gent Wigg found safe at Clapham. Grateful thanks to Magistrate, Police and Press”, Mrs A Wigg.

So the publicity worked on this occasion and whatever the mysterious gentleman had in store for Frank – even if it was simply a benign desire to give him a leg up in life – was averted.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, September 06, 1898; The Standard, Thursday, September 08, 1898]

A burglar nabbed by a quick thinking householder and a brave bobby

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The men that served as Police Court Magistrates in the various summary courts of the capital were not appointed to a single court indefinitely. The policy seems to have been to move them around after a period to time so that they had experience of a variety of locations. This would serve a number of purposes: some courts (notably Bow Street) were more prestigious; others, (like Worship Street) were particularly busy with drunks and petty criminals.

It also meant that no single magistrate could (well not for long at least) establish a sort of fiefdom in any one part of London and so it guarded against corruption in public office. It also served to share they experience of the magistracy around the metropolis and make it that much harder for repeat criminals to avoid being recognised by the bench (something my research has shown they went to great lengths to do, providing a string of aliases to avoid the repercussions of revealing ‘previous convictions’ which would drawn down a heavier sentence.

On Monday 11 August Mr Tennyson D’Eyncourt was beginning his spell at Worship Street in the East End. He had replaced Mr Arnold who was off to the slightly calmer atmosphere of Westminster. D’Eyncourt’s first task to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to commit a burglar for trial by jury.

In the dock at Worship Street stood an ‘athletic middle-aged man’ who refused to give his name. He was charged with breaking into the house of Miss Jane Harriett Burgess, a ‘maiden lady’ living on the City Road at Fountain Place. Miss Burgess herself had played an active role in the arrest of the unarmed intruder and he had finally been apprehended by the determined work of police constable Mattock (G162) who was also in court that day.

Miss Burgess told the magistrate that at 10 o’clock on Saturday night she had retired to bed and as she entered her bedroom she noticed that the window was open. The room had been ‘thoroughly ransacked’ and she quickly determined that a number of her possession were missing including ‘a mahogany writing-desk’ and a carpet bag. She stated, for the record, that they had all been in the room earlier that evening.

Hearing a policeman’s rattle sprung (police were not issued with whistles until the 1880s) she rushed over to the window and looked out. There she saw a man moving carefully along the parapet to the next house along. When he got to the party wall in between the houses he couldn’t go any further though, and stopped.

Miss Burgess now demanded to know what he was doing there and the  man ‘cooly replied that a burglary had been effected, and that he had made his way up there to assist in apprehending the thieves’. He then turned around and tried to retrace his steps back past the lady’s window as quickly as he could. Miss Burgess pounced and grabbed the man’s leg as tried to make his escape. She clung on tight and was almost pulled out of her window and over the parapet, letting go just in time.

Meanwhile PC Matlock, who was walking his beat along Fountain Place, had been alerted to the crime by a gentleman in an adjoining house. He had seen the head and shoulders of a man appear from the window of an unoccupied house next to him. PC Matlock made his way up to the roofs of the buildings via a trap door and soon found Miss Burgess’ property arranged so the thief could retrieve it. He also picked up two (probably stolen) silk handkerchiefs the burglar had dropped.

It seems the thief was making his way along the roof of the properties dropping down and through windows where he could to plunder the rooms below. PC Matlock caught up with him and challenged him. The man gave the same story about being engaged in catching burglars and then again tried to slip past the constable. He was too slow however, and PC Matlock took him into custody and back to his station.

In court the burglar offered no defence and no clue to his identity so D’Eyncourt remanded him in custody so that the paperwork could be completed for the man to take his trial.

The trial was called for the 18 August that year and the man, now revealed as George Andrews (42) pleaded guilty to ‘theft from a specified place’ and was sent to prison for 12 months. It was a lesser charge than burglary and perhaps he was offered (or his brief suggested) owning to that rather than risking being found guilty by a jury of that more serious offence  which carried a punishment of transportation to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 12, 1851]

Finders keepers? A diamond bracelet arouses the suspicions of a pawnbroker

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In 1871 Mr Tomlinson ran a pawnbrokers on the Kentish Town Road. Pawnbrokers served the whole community but mostly acted as a form of money lending for those unable to get credit elsewhere. For most people in Victorian London credit was very limited. Ordinary people didn’t have bank accounts as we routinely do today, and so lived week by week (sometimes day to day) on the small amounts of money they earned in cash paid work.

Rent, food and fuel consumed most of what they brought in and families were particularly at risk if they had children below working age (11-12 or under) and the mother had to stay at home to care for them. Many used pawnbrokers as a way of extending credit and coping with financial hardship. You could take an article of clothing, or some item of jewels (a watch say) to a pawnbrokers and pledge it against cash for a week. So long as you returned the money in the time allowed you would get your possessions back. If you did not then they became the property of the broker and he was allowed to sell them.

Pawnbrokers have not gone away but today they tend to be called something like Cashconverters and are a familiar sight alongside the fried chicken restaurants and betting shops on our depleted and decaying modern high streets.

On Monday 7 August a woman entered Mr Tomlinson’s shop and asked to pledge an expensive looking piece of jewellery. It was a ‘gold bracelet, set with diamonds and rubies’ and he estimated its value at over £40 (£1,800 today). Tomlinson’s foreman, Lewis obviously didn’t think the woman, Catherine Dickinson (a 48 year-old waistcoat maker who lived locally) was the sort of person to own such an item.

He wasn’t satisfied with her explanation of how she came by it so she promised to return later with her daughter, who had told her that her ‘young man’ had found it and had given it to her to pledge. About an hour later Catherine returned with Henry Benson, a 19 year-old cabman, who said he’d picked it up near a cab rank at Cremorne Gardens on the 22 July. The pleasure gardens were a fashionable spot for the wealthy (and not so wealthy) in the mid 1800s and it was entirely possible that a lady might have lost her bracelet there.

It was equally possible that Benson (or another) might have pinched it from her late at night or found it left in his cab,Either way he should have reported it to the police and handed the bracelet in but he hadn’t and the sharp actions of the pawnbroker had stopped him profiting from it. Pawnbrokers didn’t always have a good reputation and for over a century had been accused of facilitating the trade in stolen goods.

Tomlinson and his employee were no doubt aware of this and acted to make sure they weren’t tainted by the association with criminality. Mr Lewis reported the incident to the police and two detectives were despatched to make enquires. Detective constables John Dalton and Charles Miller of Y Division tracked down Benson and Mrs Dickenson and brought them before Mr D’Eyncourt at Marylebone Police Court.

The magistrate decided that both the young cabman Benson and his sweetheart’s mother should be held accountable for the potential theft of the bracelet so he bailed the former and accepted Catherine’s own recognisance to appear in a  week’s time. In the meantime the newspaper alerted its readers that the jewellery was available to view at Kensal Green police station in case anyone had recently lost it.

Presumably if no one claimed it at the very least Benson would be free to carry on as a cab driver, at best the bracelet would be returned to them and perhaps Mr Tomlinson would then be happy to hand over some cash (I doubt as much as £40 though) so the Dickensons could enjoy a bountiful summer for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 09, 1871]