Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: March 2016

Was indecent exposure the way to resolve a work dispute?

A Victorian cabman - from the Illustrated Police News, 3 January 1880

A Victorian cabman – from the Illustrated Police News, 3 January 1880

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.

Luttrell_of_Arran_(1873)_(14579918530)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.


Review: The Secret History of my Family

The History of my Family: image via BBC

The History of my Family: image via BBC

Last night, a new documentary series entitled The Secret History of my Family started on BBC Two. What could have been a somewhat clunky programme – mixing animation with actors, real-life descendants of historical characters commenting on events, and a healthy dose of modern day class politics – actually worked surprisingly well.

The premise is that we start with some Victorian characters – from different classes – and are told their story. The key difference to other history series is that here, the descendants of those characters have been traced, and it is they who tell the story of their ancestors, and attempt to explore how those ancestors have made them the people they are today.

So last night, in the first episode, we looked at the three Gadbury sisters – thieving girls from the Shoreditch area, who found that in 1837, their luck  ran out. One was simply jailed; the other two, in their teens, were transported to Australia for seven years (as one participant commented, this was effectively a life sentence, for the girls would not have had the money to return to the UK after their sentences expired).

The programme concentrated primarily on these two transported sisters (perhaps because the descendants of the third had not moved far, still being in the same area of London as their criminal relation, and seeing their success today in terms of ‘she’s never been in court’).

The programme makers clearly wanted to stress the class issue – one set of descendants were deemed to be ‘working class’ and the other high achieving, educated professionals. This was slightly stymied by the Australians’ insistence that they did not live in a class-based society; yet it was the wealthier set of relations who insisted this, more than the ones who had grown up with less.

One interesting point that was made, but perhaps not explored enough, was the impact of where people were transported to on their subsequent lives. One sister was transported to Hobart, where so many were also convicts or former convicts that there was little stigmatism. Individuals therefore had the chance to thrive and make a life for themselves. It was the family of this sister who became particularly successful, one descendant becoming Premier of Tasmania, another becoming a judge, a third being a Labour MP.

The other sister had been sent to work as a servant in Sydney, in an area where there were more free settlers, and therefore greater stigmatism and antagonism shown towards convicts. Under these conditions, individuals may well have felt more stifled and less likely to achieve. I’d love to have heard more about this possibility.

I didn’t particularly like the choice of modern day child actors to read the girls’ words – told to a 19th century social investigator, William Miles – as they looked, well, too modern; I’d have preferred to have heard the words without seeing faces attached to them, and to have imagined what their speakers would have looked like. But the premise of getting their descendants to tell the rest of their stories was a surprisingly effective presentation technique, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

If you’re quick, you can watch the first episode here. For some background on the Gadbury sisters, read this post by Dr Heather Shore, who was an advisor on the programme.

The perceived perils of having female jurors

Charles_Dana_Gibson_(1902)_Studies_in_expression._When_women_are_jurors_(compressed)I love The Guardian‘s use of archival material on its website; one of the many stories from its archive that I’ve enjoyed looks back at the first woman jurors at the Central Criminal Court – formerly the Old Bailey.

Only 30 years prior to The Guardian’s story, a joke made the rounds of the press that mocked women’s ability to be objective jurors:


First Female Juror (some years hence): “There seems to be no doubt that the prisoner, Mr Handlecash, stole 100,000 from the company that employed him. Was he indulgent to his wife?

Second Female Juror: “Yes, indeed. He gave her everything she wanted.”

Third Female Juror: “She had just a lovely time – trips to Europe, Worth’s dresses, opera box, everything.”

Verdict: We, the jury in the case of Mr Handlecash, find that the prisoner was an over-indulgent husband, who should be reprimanded by the court, the company to pay the costs.

(Shields Daily Gazette, 23 January 1892)

Yet within a few years of female jurors appearing in court, the papers were stating that the opposite case was true; that an outcry had previously been raised over women jurors “as they were callous and unsympathetic and especially prone to severity in the case of male offenders”.

In one case at the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions in 1926, it was recorded that “one of the ladies of the jury” had insisted on a male thief being dealt with leniently because he was surely a first offender. She had to be disabused of that by the judge, who pointed out that the thief had a 16 year history of offences, and several prior convictions, before pleading guilty in this particular case. (Western Daily Press, 1 July 1926)

Other contemporaries had argued that women shouldn’t be in the jury box because juries were a place for “calm, cold, analytical reasoning, and not for unfortunate displays of uncontrolled emotion”. (Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 November 1926) The Gloucester woman may have been regarded in this light, looking at a man and believing that he could not have committed any prior offence because of his face, or his looks, or his demeanour.

It was clear that having women on juries prompted a wide range of feelings – women were too emotional or not emotional enough; prone to agree with female testimony and disagree with male. One report about the first female jurors in London noted that out of four women sworn in, two had asked to be excused:

“The first said that she had an aged mother of 83 whom she was unable to leave, and the Judge at once accepted her excuse. The second said she had a tobacconist’s business, and had no assistant to look after it while she was away. She was released.”

The other two women were keen to serve; and perhaps this one case suggests that many women wanted to be a part of the process, and only sought to escape it when they had caring or business responsibilities that had to come first. However, this was not always the case. On the second jury sworn in at the Central Criminal Court was one woman who sought to excuse herself:

“I have not the time, and I am so awfully nervous that I don’t think I am suitable.”

The Common Serjeant: I don’t think I can accept that excuse, or I should get no ladies at all.”

“I am sure there are numbers who would enjoy it,” rejoined the lady quickly.

“Who are more strong-minded than yourself?” asked the Judge.

“Yes,” said the lady. She was excused.

(Western Daily Press, 12 January 1921)

This dialogue shows that some men regarded women as fundamentally unsuited to jury work due to their ‘nervousness’ and emotion; but women themselves recognised that they were all different, and that for every one who was reluctant to serve, another would greatly enjoy the opportunity.




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