In May 1864, Mrs Ruth Vincent was shocked – shocked enough to go to the police and tell them how shocked she was.
The wife of a wheel chair-man, William Vincent, she was a 29-year-old mother of three, living a quiet life in Clifton, Bristol. William was originally a mariner, a seaman, a common occupation amongst those in Clifton, close to the Avon and not too far from the Bristol Channel. He had only changed career within the previous three years, and now plied his trade in the nearby city of Bath.
Unfortunately, though, he had fallen out with another local chair man – 28-year-old John Ponting, another man who had changed career, this time from being a stonemason. Perhaps the two men had disagreed over taking each other’s custom, or competing with each other in the same area. But there was, apparently, ‘a great deal of ill-feeling’ between them.
This was despite their apparent similarities – both of the same age, both married with young children, living in the same area, and both married within a year of each other. In 1861, the Pontings had been living in Clifton’s Avon Crescent, with the Vincents at Caroline Place. By 1864, the Vincents had moved to 2 Wellington Place.
The wheel chair men were seen as a bickering sort, anyway; it was believed that cabmen tended to work well together, supporting their colleagues rather than falling out with them. Indeed, this discrepancy in how the two similar occupations worked was highlighted in the court case that eventually occurred.
Ruth Vincent brought the case against James Ponting, accusing him of indecent conduct after exposing himself to her. She was described in the Bristol Police Court as ‘respectable-looking’; John Ponting’s lawyer said his master was present and would give Ponting a good character – but added that the ‘police also knew him very well’, which could be read in two ways.
The details of the charge were deemed too sordid in nature to repeat in the newspapers, but Ponting’s defence appeared to be that it had been dark at the time, and that he had not exposed himself ‘with the slightest intention of insult’! Surprisingly, perhaps, the magistrates discharged him, believing that any act he had engaged in had been a result of the animosity he had towards Ruth’s husband. This was, apparently, a valid defence, despite the fact that Ruth had not done anything towards the Pontings.
Instead, the magistrates called William Vincent and John Ponting to them, and cautioned them both to behave better in future. (Western Daily Press, 11 May 1864) Ponting appears to have managed this only by moving away from Clifton and back to his native Wiltshire.