Artists models raise an old lady’s hackles in 19th-century Fitzrovia


Sarah Gibbons was an elderly resident of Charlotte Street, in what is known as Fitzrovia. Today it would be a smart London address, in the 1880s it was less genteel, but an area much frequented by artists. and Bohemians.

Sarah was in dispute with her neighbours across the road who she saw as noisy and disreputable. On the 8th May 1885 things had reached a point where she could stand it no longer and she left her house and crossed the road to number 98. There she was conformed by her nemesis, the much younger Maggie Jennings.

When she saw Sarah the younger woman called inside to her ‘creatures’ (as Sarah later described them in the Marlborough Street Police Court), who came running out into the hallway.

According to Sarah they then assaulted her violently:

Maggie ‘and another woman, rushed out of the room and struck her, scratched her, and tore her bonnet, and it was with difficulty that she stopped herself from going headlong into the the kitchen below’. Sarah told the sitting justice that Jennings and orchestrated the attack, calling on her friends to join in.

Where was the landlord in all this, she was asked. He was present but Sarah had no immediate blame for him in this instance, however she clearly held him responsible for  keeping the sort of house he did. She declared that she would happily have ”jumped him’ if she had been able, drawing laughter from the court.

Miss Jennings’ solicitor denied the facts as presented and said his client had been the victim not the aggressor. The court was told that Miss Jennings was an artist’s model with a ‘good connection’. Indeed, ‘ladies’ went there to have drawing classes and several artists regally called on the women who lived there, in a professional capacity. It may have been the noise these men made that caused Mrs Gibbons such consternation he suggested, but it wasn’t his client or her friends that were to blame.

The landlord also appeared and spoke up for his tenants, describing them as ‘respectable’ models and adding that it was indeed Sarah Gibbons who had landed the first blow in this fight, not Maggie.

This infuriated the old lady even further and throwing up her hands she made to leave the courtroom. ‘Models indeed!’ she exclaimed. ‘Do they take models in the dark?’, suggesting perhaps that while the men did have  professional relationship with the women, it wasn’t one based on the pure practice of ‘art’, but prostitution. This would have opened the landlord up to a possible charge of running a brothel or at least an unruly house and so the magistrate adjourned the hearing to wait for the report of the policeman that had attended to the assault incident.

A couple of days later the court reconvened the case and a police inspector reported that he had visited the property. He, and PC French who had responded to the disturbance on the 8th, both testified that ‘all the inmates were respectable persons’.

Mr Cooke, the magistrate, now turned his attention to Sarah Gibbons. He told that he was going to dismiss the charge because she had no right to have entered the property in the first place. If she wished to bring a complaint then she should have proceeded through the proper channels, and not taken the law into her own hands.

As she opened her mouth to say something the justice shut her up, and said ‘he would not hear any more’. Maggie Jennings was free to go, without a stain on her character and this verdict was met ‘with loud applause’ from those in court.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 25, 1885; The Morning Post , Wednesday, May 27, 1885]

A policeman brought to book – for assaulting an ‘unfortunate’


Springtime in St James’ Park, London, c.1849

By the end of the 19th century most of the cases brought before the Police magistrates of the capital were initiated by the police themselves. This seems to have developed gradually from the 1830s as the ‘new police’ grew into their role after 1829. In the 1700s prosecution had been victim-led and, while this persisted throughout the 1800s, the presence of the ‘boys in the blue’ on the streets inevitably led to them prosecuting in court those they had arrested on their beats.

Maria Fenton was one of those arrested and charged in court on the word of a policeman. But in her case there was some doubt and it led to the copper himself having to answer some awkward questions about his professional conduct.

In March 1849 Maria was walking in St James’ Park, near Buckingham Palace when she was stopped by two policemen. In was very early in the morning, ‘before day break’ she told the sitting justice at Bow Street; she’d had a drink but swore she wasn’t drunk.

The press reporter described as an ‘unfortunate girl’ – Victorian code for a young prostitute. The police would have assumed that Maria was a prostitute, for what other reason would a working-class woman have to be wandering around the park in the early hours of a cold March morning?

One of the policemen, PC Pike (A224), told the court that he had arrested her because she was ‘creating a disturbance and [was] using disgusting language’. When he had given his testimony however, his inspector came forward to say that another officer, PC Whitty (A210) wished to speak on behalf of the defendant. Whitty told the Bow Street court that it was Pike who was in wrong, not the girl and so the magistrate turned the case on its head. Pike left the court and returned some short time afterwards, dressed in civilian clothes and was placed in the dock accused of assaulting  Maria and falsely arresting her.

Maria now gave her account. She accused Pike of swearing at her; called her a ‘b___h’ and pushing her over onto the ground in the park. When he pulled herself to her feet he sent her tumbling gain, but she got a good look at him and took a note of his number. Pike then called her ‘a hag’ and threatened to ‘lock her up’. When she continued to argue with him he took her into custody and ‘dragged her to the station’.

Back at the police station Whitty told Pike that if this came to court he would speak the truth, in favour of the girl. Pike replied that he ‘was a bl___y fool, and that if the sergeant got to hear of it they should all get into a row’. He corroborated Maria’s evidence in front of the magistrate and added that she had said nothing at all until his colleague had picked on her.

Not surprisingly Pike defended himself and said he would never have arrested the girl if she hadn’t been making such a noise, ‘screaming and making a disturbance’. Yes, he admitted, he had called her ‘a drunken beast’ but that was the extent of his ‘abuse’ of her. He called two other policemen, A226 and A229, both of whom backed his account, not Whitty’s. They said they had heard ‘the woman creating a great disturbance, using awful language, and attempting to escape from Pike, who was taking her to the station-house’.

The magistrate had now heard both sides, with supporting evidence from police officers and he had a hard decision to make. Should he believe PC Pike and the two other policemen, or should he listen to PC Whitty and the word of a young woman who by her own testimony was clearly not ‘respectable’?

In the end he did what we might not have expected him to do; he sided with PC Whitty and the girl. However, he chose to apply some leniency to Pike who had been with A Division for six months. He told Pike that legislation (unspecified here) allowed him to impose a prison sentence, but he had no need to take such drastic action. He could instead impose a fine of up to £10 and he set this at £5 (or a month’s imprisonment). The report doesn’t state which option Pike (whom I imagine was unlikely to have been able to continue in the force – at least not at A Division) chose.

I suspect this was a very rare example of police misconduct (as the justice described it) being dealt with publicly. But in 1849 the ‘new’ police were still very new and were the subject of debate and no little criticism. Perhaps the capital’s most senior magistrate (at Bow Street) was minded to take account of this prevailing attitude and nip bad police behaviour in the bud whenever he could.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1849]

Casual violence: an everyday occupational hazard for London’s ‘unfortunates’



In late February 1865 Elizabeth Smith and Emma Harrington were standing at the corner of Gardener’s Lane at one in the morning. Clearly the two women were prostitutes although they were later referred to in court as ‘unfortunates’. Smith was particularly ‘unfortunate’ that night because she was about to become the victim of a nasty attack by a soldier.

Corporal Cornelius Ford, of the 1st battalion Scots Fusilier Guards, approached the girls and demanded to know if Smith knew the address of a woman he was looking for. When Elizabeth replied that she couldn’t help him he flew into a rage.

He said ‘You lie you _____’ and struck her, knocking her to the floor. Then he drew his bayonet and stabbed her just above the eye, causing her to ‘become insensible’. This was according to the evidence given to the policeman that attended and arrested the corporal; the wounded woman was taken to hospital.

Police constable Aitchison (PC A1) had already encountered Ford and the two street girls, they had been arguing and he had told the soldier to be on his way quietly. He ran back to the scene when he had heard Emma shout ‘murder!’ – the standard alarm for any attack in Victorian London it seems.

He removed the bayonet from the soldier’s hand and returned it to the scabbard at his belt before calling a colleague to take the woman to hospital and conveying his charge to the police station.

At Bow Street Police Court Ford was charged with assault and denied drawing his weapon or attacking Smith. Instead he accused her of trying to steal his watch. He suggested she was the aggressor and that she had run into a nearby pub, grabbed a pint pot, and came out and tried to hit him with it. As she did so she fell and that was how she cut her head.

His sergeant appeared in court to back him up by giving him and excellent character reference. Sergeant Parsons added that corporals were entitled to carry their bayonets when off duty, something that the magistrate felt was a mistake. Mr Henry noted that this ‘was one of the dangers of letting men wear their bayonets’. There ‘is no doubt that he used’ it and because of that, he added, he had to ‘go before a jury’.

In 1888 another street walker, this time in Whitechapel, was stabbed multiple times by a person or persons unknown. She was Martha Tabram (or Turner) and at the time two off duty guardsmen were suspected. It is quite likely (but hard to prove) that Martha was an early victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

‘Jack’ wasn’t around in 1865 however, when this case was heard. Corporal Ford would have been sent to the Middlesex Sessions that year, for a jury to decide if he was guilty of the assault on Elizabeth. I doubt he would have been convicted; it is more likely the ‘respectable’ men of the jury would have sided with a servant of the Queen than with a common ‘unfortunate’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, February 23, 1861]

A case of mistaken ‘respectability’

Green Park and St. James's Park c. 1833


In the early nineteenth century character was often assumed through appearance and context. So a woman that was on the streets at at night alone was often assumed to be a prostitute; a working-class man walking in the dark would arouse suspicions that he was a thief; and a group of individuals associating together for no obvious legitimate reason, would be consider to be up to no good.

In 1830 the New Police were newly established and their role was very much to keep order as they patrolled the streets. Station Houses had not yet been built and Peel’s officers used the old watch houses that had existed since the late 1700s. The early Met was soon open to criticism that it was fun of men (often from the old watch) that were unfit to serve and too ready to fraternise with local women or accept a drink from publicans keen to get them ‘on side’.

They also faced questions that they were not worth the money ratepayers were now having to fork out for them and so, in many ways, they needed to justify their existence and quell this mounting tide of criticism.

In November 1830 an unnamed lady was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street. There was no clear charge levelled but it was certainly suspected that she had been up  to something.

The circumstances were, as the report describes, that she had come in a coach to meet some friends after their visit to a theatre. The coach had set them down on St James Street, so she could walk through the park to her home in Vauxhall. As she walked however, she was approached by the ‘driver of a cabriolet, and another low individual’ who called out insults to her.

Afraid and alone she called for a policeman but just at the same time a group of gentlemen came along, followed by a small group of ‘loose women’  (contemporary code for prostitutes). Prostitutes frequently used the London parks as places to pick up clients and the old watch and the ‘New Police’ were well aware of this.

The police arrived and, responding to the complaints of the gentlemen, moved to arrest the women. They nearly all ran off however, but one woman was captured and taken to the watch house. This was the lady who had called the police in the first place but her protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears and the policeman charged her as disorderly.

The circumstances were against her; she was a single woman walking in the park late at night, and other disorderly women were discovered with her.

When she came before Mr Conant, the magistrate at Marlborough Street, the copper confirmed she was amongst the crowd that had scattered when he approached them. The justice was about to hand down a summary punishment (a  fine or a short prison term) when he paused.

She told him (again) that she was innocent and respectable and gave him the names of the friends she had been meeting and her address, so her facts could be checked. He agreed to suspend judgment until this had been done. He then sent a messenger to see if her story could be confirmed.

When he returned the messenger had good news: ‘the prisoner’s friends were of the first respectability, her father having formal been governor of one of the islands, and at present held a high military station in this country, and that they were greatly alarmed at her absence’.

The policeman declared himself now satisfied that she was innocent and the lady was called back into court where Mr Conant told her she was free to go without ‘the slightest stain on her character’. She might have thought twice about walking across St James’ Park alone in future though. The policeman was perhaps been too eager to catch someone, and with a more open mind or more careful questioning he might have avoided causing the unnamed young woman such an unpleasant experience. One imagines his sergeant conveyed this to him, in less polite term.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 24, 1830]

A ungentlemanly young man refuses to pay his fare or give his name

The young man who appeared in Marylebone Police Court in August 1844 refused to give the magistrate his real name. When pressed he said it was ‘John Jones’.  The knowing justice asked ‘where do you live?’ ‘I’d rather not give that information, unless you insist on me doing so’ came the reply.

Why was he so embarrassed and reluctant to be identified? His crime was assaulting a cabbie and refusing to pay his fare. However, he had also been out  with a young lady when the incident occurred. The cab driver, Edward Pheby, testified that he had picked up ‘John Jones’ (a ‘tall gentlemanly looking young man’) and the young lady in Covent Garden and had been instructed to drive to Westbourne Park.

At several points he had heard the woman cry out for him to stop the cab only for ‘Jones’ to countermand her order. When he got to the Bayswater Road the young man got out and told the driver to take the woman back to Covent Garden. When Pheby asked him for his fare he was met by a refusal (‘No, I never pay my cab fare’, he said) and was assaulted, being struck on the head with a stick.

He took the unnamed woman back but she too refused to pay him and so he had summoned Jones to court. The young man continued to refuse to give his real name or his address but did admit to being ashamed at his conduct. The magistrate fined him £3 for the assault and made him pay the fare (of £5s 4d) plus an extra 3s for the cabman’s trouble.

I wonder who the ‘lady’ was but knowing that Covent Garden and Seven Dials was synonymous with prostitution in the 19th century perhaps that explains his reluctance to say who he was.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 20, 1844]

Business as usual at Bow Street while the Red Barn murder mystery unfolds elsewhere


In  1828 crime news in England was dominated by one story: the trial and execution of William Corder in Bury St Edmunds. Corder shot his lover, Maria Marten, after they had arranged to meet and then elope together. They met at the Red Barn in Polstead, Suffolk, having decided to run away because of fears that the parish officers were going to prosecute Maria for bearing at least two bastard children (one by Corder).

Corder was a fraudster and a Don Juan character and after murdering and burying Maria he fled to London, marrying  a woman who answered an advertisement he placed in the papers, and setting up home with her in Brentford. This is where he was when he was eventually tracked down by the police in 1828. He was brought back to Suffolk and his trial began on the 7 August.

The murder story became a sensation, it filled the newspapers and was copied widely into murder broadsides and cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’. Corder’s skull went on display in Suffolk and a play and melodrama was written about the tragedy. The Red Barn murder had become a murder mystery with a number of twists and sub plots.

Meanwhile at London’s police courts the more everyday business of law or order were given less coverage by the papers as a result. The entry for ‘Police Intelligence’ in The Morning Post is almost cursory. It mentions a counterfeiter at Hatton Garden who was remanded while two men at Marlborough Street were prosecuted for ‘furious driving’ and an assault on another road user (‘road rage’ in the 1820s?).

Finally from Bow Street, several women were brought in and charged by the proprietor of the English Opera House in Covent Garden. He complained to the Bow Street magistrate, Sir Richard Birnie, about the ‘disgraceful conduct of the depraved characters of both sexes who frequent the avenues of this theatre’. Covent Garden was synonymous with prostitution in the  period and this was a constant problem for the bench. Mr Birnie and his colleague, Mr Minshull sent the parcel of females to prison for a few days or weeks to ‘prevent their reappearance in that quarter for some time'(but not for ever).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 09, 1828]

The theft of a canary bandana

If his description in the papers was anything to go by William Wake (a ‘young gentleman’) was new to London. Dressed in a fine outfit of ‘very green waistcoat, high collar shirt and tout ensemble’ had visited a saloon in the Haymarket, central London.

William entered the saloon on the invitation of Mrs Harris, the proprietress, and enjoyed a bottle of champagne with some ‘girls’ in the bar and followed it up with a fine cigar. Suitably refreshed he then called for tea and sat there till 3, or 4, or 5 o’clock (he wasn’t exactly sure). He was sure that when he rose to leave the only other occupants of the saloon were himself, a waiter and one woman. Reaching for his handkerchief he realised it was missing and immediately concluded that only one of those two could have taken it. He called Mrs Harris and complained.

She made a search and found the missing silk in the kitchen in a drawer. Wakes accused the girl of taking it, suggesting that she must have concealed it as she had been one of the women sat with him enjoying his fizz.

When the case came to Mr Maltby’s court at Marlborough Street the girl, Caroline Field, denied the charge and the waiter doubted she could have taken it as he alleged. Now Wake attempted to play the lawyer and asked the waiter: ‘on your oath, tell me do you think I am made of glass?’

The waiter said he did not. ‘Then as you were on one side of me and the girl on the other, it’s impossible you could have seen her “bone” my handkerchief if I ain’t made of glass.’

The magistrate intervened telling Wake that ‘I don’t think you make out your case’. ‘There’s an evident attempt to crush the evidence’ the young gentleman retorted, ‘there’s a plot to muggle up the fact, but I know you’ll deal with the charge in a proper manner’.

The justice did; given the lack of evidence and the attitude of the young beau he dismissed the case and released Caroline. William left the court ‘looking very much of a piece with his waistcoat’.

The Haymarket was notorious in the 1840s for prostitution and I suspect the magistrate had little sympathy for this brash young buck who sauntered up to London to spend his no-doubt inherited wealth in such a dissolute manner. He probably hoped it had taught him a valuable lesson in life.


[from The Morning Post , Friday, June 21, 1844]