When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

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A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]

The battle of the sexes claims another victim

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Victorian society is often described as one in which the sexes existed in ‘separate spheres’, with men occupying a ‘public’ space and women restricted to the home, or ‘private’ one. While this thesis works quite well for the women of the middle and upper classes it is less obviously true of the vast majority of the working class. Many working-class women worked and looked after the domestic environment. They were housewives, mothers and significant contributors to the family economy, and this often resulted in tensions at home.

Julia Bagot was one such women. She was married to Martin and they had several children. While Julia worked hard every day Martin Bagot had ‘done no work for 18 months’ and liked a drink with his mates. At home the domestic duties fell to Julia who was expected to undertake to keep her husband happy and fed while also performing the role of the family’s main breadwinner.

One evening in May 1884 she came home from work at 9 o’clock, tired and hungry. Her husband followed her through the door a few minutes later, drunk and belligerent. As he demanded tea she put a saucepan of water on the stove to boil and looked to the children.

One of her daughters had no clean clothes to wear for school the next day and when she pressed Martin about this he told her he had pawned them (presumably to get the money he needed for beer). An argument ensued, a ‘few high words were exchanged’, before the affair escalated and Martin seized the pan of water and threw the contents at his wife.

Julia’s face was scalded by the almost boiling liquid and she was temporarily blinded in one eye. Mrs Bagot was taken to the hospital where her wounds were dressed but the doctors feared that she might permanently lose the sight in her eye. The next morning the pair were in the Clerkenwell Police court with Martin facing a charge of assault and wounding. One of his children gave evidence against him and the injuries she had suffered were all too apparent, her head and face being largely wrapped up in bandages.

The magistrate remanded Martin Bagot in custody to see how his wife’s condition developed over the next few days. The papers don’t tell us whether Julia recovered or what punishment the Clerkenwell justice decided to meet out to Bagot. However, while he might have faced a fine or a spell of weeks or months in prison neither would have helped Julia much. Nursing a serious injury and potential crippled for life a women in her forties or fifties (Martin was 54) as she was would find it hard to continue working. With her husband unemployed and with several mouths to feed the outlook for the Bagot family was bleak, if not desperate.

The workhouse loomed large in the lives of the working poor of Victorian London and sadly, it was probably the family’s next destination. There they would be compelled to live in ‘separate spheres’, him on the male side, her on the female.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 15, 1884]

‘Disagreeable’ but not quite mad enough to be locked up: a violent husband at Marlborough Street

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Joseph Jesnoski was one of thousands of Polish immigrants living in  London in the 1800s. The fact that Joseph seemed to speak good English (or at least to understand) it suggests he was part of the well-established Jewish community that existed well before the huge waves of immigration that followed after 1880. Tens of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews fled the Russian Empire during the nineteenth century to escape persecution and forcible conscription in the Tsar’s army.

The Ashkenazim were restricted to one part of Russia known as the Pale of Settlement, which covers the modern countries of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine. Many Jews left their villages as refugees and economic migrants hoping to make a better life in England and the USA. A quick scan of the genealogy site Ancestry reveals Jesnoskis serving in the Union army during the American Civil War and living in Montana in the 1870s; so at least some of Joseph’s extended family traveled a very long way from the Shtetlekh of Eastern Europe.

For Joseph however, life in London was hard, and even harder for his poor wife. Jesnoski was, like so many of his fellow migrants, a boot maker by trade. In the nineteenth century cobblers and shoemakers had a fearsome reputation for independence, radical politics and – less positively – domestic violence. Anna Clark’s study of working-class relationship revealed the commonality of spousal violence that formed part of the ‘struggle for the breeches’ in the long nineteenth century.

The Police Courts of London (and elsewhere) were dealing with accusations of wife beating and abuse on a daily basis, but in many cases the magistrates were unable to do much more than broker settlements between man and wife, given that the consequences of sending an abusive husband to prison were often catastrophic for the family economy. Many wives were seemingly prepared to accept a considerable amount of ‘unacceptable’ behavior before they resorted to the law and even then most were prepared to forgive their partner’s often drink inspired abuse.

Some on the other hand were looking for a working-class version of divorce. Divorce was beyond almost every woman in Victoria society; it was hard to prove grounds against your spouse and prohibitively expensive. The best a working-class wife could hope for was a separation ordered by a magistrate with a maintenance order to help keep herself and her children housed and fed. The alternative if one had no support network, was often the workhouse, and no one went inside those walls if they could help it.

So Mrs Jesnoski took her husband to Marlborough Street Police Court in April 1862 because she probably ‘wanted rid of the burden of him’, as Mr Selfe (the magistrate) put it. She charged him with ‘threatening to cut her throat and his own afterwards’, and added that he had ‘beaten her and her children black and blue , and struck her in the eye’.

She also handed the justice a certificate from Thomas Young, a government medical officer at the Polish Emigration Society (which looked after the interests of Poles in Britain and the US). This stated that her husband had been admitted to the St Giles Workhouse as a lunatic who was ‘dangerous to others’ but that he had been discharged because the workhouse master there did not believe he ‘was sufficiently insane’ to be detained.

Mr Selfe was not sure that his police court was the proper place for him either, but he was loath to lock him up unnecessarily. A police constable testified that Jesnoski had often been seen behaving strangely – ‘dancing and kicking about’ in the early hours of the morning – and added that the other tenants in his lodging house were scared of him. Mrs Jesnoski told the magistrate that her husband had not worked for months and was ‘spiteful and dangerous’.

Still the magistrate was unconvinced or unsympathetic. ‘It is a very strong measure to deprive a man of his liberty because he is a little queer’, he said, and instead ordered him to be bailed for £10 (a large amount in 1862) but warned him that any repetition of his violent behavior would not be tolerated. If he ‘behaves unruly again’ Selfe concluded, ‘he will go to prison for three months’.

Given the high levels of spousal abuse in Victorian society and the number of homicides that occurred in domestic settings I hope that Mrs Jesnoski was not let down by the inaction of the Marlborough Street court and the reticence of Mr Selfe to apply the law.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 28, 1861]

 

‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London

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The marriage between Thomas and Lucretia Gates was not a happy one. The relationship had soured over time and Thomas’ poor treatment of his wife had provoked her to move out of the marital home in Bethnal Green. Thomas, who was described in the press as a ‘tradesman’, then employed a female servant to look after him. This seems to have been a bone of contention for his estranged wife.

On the 14 April 1852 the broken marriage reached the Worship Street Police Court as Thomas summoned Lucretia to answer a charge that she had assaulted him. This was rare; whilst many men might have been attacked by their wives and partners, very few were prepared to risk the damage to the reputations by admitting so in public.

Thomas Gates arrived with a police escort. He had so stirred up the community that a ‘great crowd, chiefly of women,  followed him to court’. This probably reflected both a show of solidarity with Lucretia by the ‘sisterhood’ and a degree of contempt for Thomas for running to the authorities instead of asserting his patriarchal rights and position.

The scene certainly enlivened the court reporter’s morning, however, and he must have regarded it as a welcome, if unexpected, bonus.

Thomas started by declaring that: ‘this woman is my wife, but we live apart, she in fact, having run away with another man’.

Lucretia was not having this; having vehemently denied this version of events she ‘reproached her husband with having taken a  young hussy home to supply her place’.

Thomas rejected this accusation and described how the assault he had accused her of had happened. He was at his home in Turk Street when Lucretia had called on him. She took him by surprise and rushed in, shouting abuse at him and the young serving girl, Sarah Hartlett. Both were assaulted by the angry wife before Lucretia turned her rage on the room.

She ‘swept all the china and glass from the shelves and cupboards, and having smashed them to pieces, set two work to demolish the furniture and everything she could lay her hands on’.

But she didn’t stop there, he said.

‘She tore the shirt entirely to pieces from his back, and tore the dress of the other woman also, exclaiming, “I’ll teach you to have a ____ here while I’m away,” and accusation which he assured the magistrate was quite unfounded’.

It was quite a display of anger and Lucretia did not deny it. Instead she explained that her husband had driven her away with his abuse and violent threats. On one occasion, she said, he ‘had stood over her with a knife, threatening to kill her’. He also repeated her accusation that Hartlett was his mistress.

It was now the servant’s turn to be questioned by the justice (Mr Ingham)  and she denied any impropriety on her part. She only worked there during the day and always left him alone  in the night. Thomas may have been having an affair but Sarah claimed it was not with her.

Several of the woman that had accompanied the couple to court testified to seeing or hearing Thomas’ abuse of his wife. One recalled her being thrown out of a window, while another said she had seen Thomas Gates chase his wife down the street brandishing an iron poker. Mr Ingham turned to the pair and told them that it was clear their relationship was in tatters but that did not give either of them to right to turn to violence or to disturb the public peace. He cautioned them both and dismissed Thomas’ charge against his wife. They then presumably left the court and returned to their, separate, lives.

Divorce was not really available to the majority of people in the 1850s. The government (through  a Royal Commission established in 1850) were looking at a reform of the law to allow the upper middle class to gain a full divorce, whilst at the same time making the cost of judicial separations prohibitively expensive to everyone else. In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act which removed divorce from the church (ecclesiastical) courts to the civil. The new law, not surprisingly (since it was created by men) favoured men over women. A man could sue for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery whereas a woman would have to show an additional cause (such as as incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion) or prove cruelty on its own.

Thomas and Lucretia could not hope to get divorced, they simply could not have afforded it. Instead the best they could aim for was either to patch up their broken marriage or live apart and agree to ignore each other’s infidelities. Given Lucretia’s passion and temper, I think this might have been unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 15, 1852]

Late Victorian humour in the Police Courts

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The London Police Courts were the equivalent of today’s magistrates’ courts although they dealt with considerable more ‘civil’ and non-criminal business than the modern courtrooms do. In London Police magistrates (not members of the Police it should be said) sat alone not as  bench of three, and had considerable power to punish offenders. This was quick and faulty rough justice but it had its amusing moments and so the newspapers despatched their reporters daily to record the goings on in these summary courts.

The Illustrated Police News (which was not an official ‘police’ paper) was ‘one of Britain’s very first tabloids and one of the first periodicals to tap into the British public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation’.* It had dramatic printed covers and carried news from all over Britain about murders, robberies, accidents and disasters.

When the infamous Whitechapel murderer struck in the late summer of 1888 the IPL was on hand to provide a gruesome commentary on the horrors and alert its readers to possible sightings of the suspect.

It was a sensational newspaper in a period in which ‘sensation’ came to the fore in popular culture; the papers began life in the 1840s and benefitted from the rise in newspaper consumption, the development of ‘New Journalism’, as well as the Music hall, melodrama and much faster communications (with railways and the telegraph).

In February 1897 the IPN reported on the daily round of cases at the Police Courts as usual. There was a case of domestic  violence at Guildhall in the City, one of child neglect at Marylebone; violence between neighbours in the Borough was dealt with at Southwark; and a jealous lover was jailed for a week for beating up a young woman who spurned his attention.

All of this was fairly typical of the sorts of hearings magistrates conducted during the 1800s and, as again was normal, the press were careful to place some light relief amongst all these tales of human misery.

On 20 February 1897 there were two cases that served this purpose.

Patrick Sweeney was a 27 year-old comedian who was of ‘no fixed abode’. He had been charged with stealing a ‘safety bicycle’ belonging to an actor named George Power. Sweeney had taken the bike and then tried to sell it to a cycle manufacturer in Battersea for £5.

He was arrested by Detective Stephens and when asked his name he handed over his calling card. On this was printed: Patrick Sweeney: The Champion Clog and Jog Dancer’. In the South West London Police court Power testified to being the owner of the bicycle but when it was pointed out that Sweeney was a fellow entertainer he said: ‘Really? I don’t know him’, drawing considerable laughter from the public gallery. Poor Patrick clearly wasn’t as famous as Dan Leno.

The clog dancing comedian was committed for trial for the theft despite his protests that he had bought the bike in Scotland and knew nothing of what he was accused of.

Meanwhile over at Thames another case tickled the editor of the Illustrated Police News.

A man (unnamed) was summoned for an unspecified offence (probably domestic violence). The defendant (who was the husband of the complainant), told the magistrate – Mr Mead – that his stepfather had married his wife’s mother and that they had had a family.

‘Then you are married to your sister?’observed the magistrate.

‘Well I suppose its something like that; its a kind of dual relationship’ the man replied.

‘And you sister is your wife?’ Mr Mead continued, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and so playing to his audience. ‘It seems so’ came the ‘despairing’ response.

‘And you married your father’s daughter?’ Mr Mead continued, ‘I suppose I did – in law’.

‘Then your stepfather’s daughter is your sister, and she is also  your wife?’ concluded the justice.

‘Oh I don’t know. It beats me’ declared the defendant to raucous laughter.

We all need some cheering up from time to time and, as the Victorians knew, nothing beats laughing at the discomfort of others.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc,  Saturday, February 20, 1897]

*’The Illustrated Police News: “The worst newspaper in England”’, by BNA (http://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/author/violetmacdonald/) [accessed 20/2/2017]

Of unrequited love and the pledging of china, not troths.

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We are about to enter the week of valentines, and so all the shops are fun of heart themed gifts, chocolates and cards. If you try to buy a bunch of red roses this week you can guarantee that they will be double what you’d pay at any other time of the year, and if you choose to eat out on Tuesday night the menus will be ‘special’ and the tables set up for couples.

Valentine’s Day is now a commercial opportunity, just like Mother’s Day, Christmas and Easter but has it always been thus?

It is likely that Valentine’s Day celebrates the martyrdom of one or more individuals in ancient Christianity who were associated in some way with romance. The positioning of the holiday in February however has much more to do with the early Church’s campaign to eradicate paganism.

In Roman pagan tradition mid February was a time to celebrate fertility and the god Faunus. During the festival of Lupercalia the unmarried young women of Rome would place their names in a  large urn  to be drawn out by the city’s bachelors. The couples were paired for a year but often (it is said) married their ‘chosen’ partners. There were other more bawdy elements to the festival, supposedly including nudity and the spanking of bottoms!

The romantic element (as opposed to the more overtly sexual one) of Valentine’s can be traced back to the 14th century when courtly love was very much in vogue amongst European nobility. By the early modern period the practice of sending love tokens on the 14 February seems to have been well established; Shakespeare references it in Hamlet for example. The late eighteenth century saw pamphlets published to help individuals write their own messages and the introduction of the penny post in 1840 opened up the possibly for the masses to exchange anonymous love letters.

The Victorians soon became hooked on the practice and card manufactures began to mass produce valentine cards in the 1840s. In 1847 the first commercial cards appeared in the United States and we can probably date the modern obsession with Valentine’s Day from then.

Of course the 14 February is just another day for many, and can quite a lonely place if you are on your own. There are hundreds of hits for a Google search of ‘Valentine’s Blues’ and the overhyping of this one day as a ‘time for lovers’ can be very challenging for those without a partner. There is also considerable pressure on those who are in relationships to make the day ‘special’, to spend lots of money, or simply to be ‘romantic’. Ir would probably be better to encourage a loving supportive relationship for 365 days of the year rather than just one.

Meanwhile back in 1847 in London one young woman was certainly not about to enjoy her Valentine’s Day, and her reaction to this ended up in a court case at one of London’s Police Magistrate Courts.

Thomas Frisk was a young saddler living in Fore Street in the City of London. For several months he had been courting a young lady named Mary. Mary (whose full name was Mary Martha Mills) lived in Somers Place West, St Pancras and for the past nine months Thomas had sent her his ‘addresses’ and had showered her with gifts and money.

He did so in the hope that they would be married and Mary had given him some encouragement. So confident (or hopeful) was he that they would be wed that Thomas sent her money to buy a fine china dinner service. The magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court was told that Thomas did this in anticipation of the ‘happy day’ …when they would ‘be made one’.

Sadly for Mary Thomas was not a very patient young man and soon became keen on ‘another charmer’ and broke off the relationship with Mary. He then rather ungallantly  heaped scorn on her unhappiness by demanding the return of the china she had bought to grace their marital home.

Mary reacted as many might and refused to return his gifts. Instead she pawned the dinner service and send him back the ‘duplicate’ (the  pawn ticket). I’m sure Bridget Jones would empathise with Mary Martha Mills.

We all act differently when we are unlucky in love, or rejected by the object of our affections. Few of us will be so lucky to go through life without this happening.

Thomas was upset but his reaction was extreme. Instead of taking the hit to his pocket he chose instead to take his former amour to court. Not surprisingly the magistrate was less than sympathetic; the reporter in the paper noted that ‘Mr Wakeling [the magistrate] questioned the compliant, who cut a very sorry figure in court’, and dismissed the case without costs.

Love and marriage was one of several themes the court reporters of the Victorian press liked to cover for the ‘human interest’ nature of the stories. I’ve found a handful of stories in the past year that detail cases of eloping lovers, angered fathers, and broken relationships – all of which that end badly in the summary courts of the capital. They go to show us that our Victorian ancestors are much more closely linked to our modern lives than the passage of 150 or more years might suggest.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, February 12, 1847]

Eloping lovers are caught up in the justice system

In the past few years we have rightly been exercised by child abuse and while most of the dreadful stories in circulation have concerned individuals such as Jimmy Saville or the grooming gangs of Rotherham, we have also had examples of older men running away with much younger girls (like the case of Jeremy Forrest in 2015). The question I’m always interested in is whether any of this is new or a product of our modern society? The answer is often, no.

In December 1883 John Carter was presented at the Marylebone Police Court, charged with abducting a girl of 14 from the care and protection of her father.

However, the case here was far from clear cut. Carter was just 19 years old himself and he and the girl, Sarah Ann Terrell, had been ‘walking out’ together for eight months. In other words, they were sweethearts.

Sarah Ann (or Mary Ann as her father gave her name in court), had not been abducted at all she said. Instead she had gone willingly with John Carter, leaving her father’s house in Munster Square at 5 in the morning while he slept. The first William Tyrrell knew of it was when he woke and found her gone. He went to police immediately.

Sarah had tried to go to John straight away but couldn’t find him it seems. She walked the streets all night and was afraid to return home, knowing her father would be angry with her. Eventually she found John at 6 the following evening, ‘quite by accident’. He was on his way to his sisters so the pair went to stay there.

The next day they took a room where they stayed together until the Wednesday  morning. She told the court that John had promised to marry her and that she went to him of her own free will. Her flight was not arranged and John knew nothing about any of it she told the magistrate.

John Carter left her at the room they had rented and went back to see his sister on the Wednesday afternoon. When he got to her house two police officers were there, and they took him into custody. Sarah was again adamant that John had done nothing wrong. Indeed he had urged her to go home to her father but she was afraid of his anger. He offered to get her a room but it was her determination that he stayed in it, not his she said.

The case she presented in court was one that suggested John was innocent of the charge levelled against him; instead it was Sarah, as a young woman of 15 (not 14 and a half as he father alleged) who had been been the instigator of her own actions. In 1883 the legal age of consent was 14, it wasn’t raised to 16 until 1885 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act (passed in the wake of the Maiden Tribute scandal).

So it is unclear what law had been broken here. The magistrate was clearly moved by the girl’s testimony and did not seem to see the young man as a threat to her. Nevertheless while he was fairly sure there was no case to answer regarding abduction, he bound John over on his own recognisances (of £10) for a few days to consider the evidence and allow further witnesses to come forward.

This was not child abuse or abduction in the 1880s but what would we have made of it today? I think John Carter would have had questions to answer, particularly if it had been proved that the couple had been intimate with each other. Sarah Anne was under age (for 2016 if not for 1883) and I imagine he would find himself on the Register of Violent and Sex Offenders.  Clearly this represents an important step forward in the protection of young people even if, in this case, there were two young people who needed to be considered.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 30, 1883]