800px-Tramp_smoking_cigar_with_cane_over_arm_-_restorationJohn Brown had a bit of a predilection. The white-haired Londoner, who was around 70 years old, had a disconcerting habit of exposing himself in public places.

John Brown would get his John Thomas out at every opportunity, in any public place in the vicinity of Whitefriars.

Whitefriars, between Fleet Street and the river Thames, had once been a salubrious place, but was now acquiring a reputation as “a debtors’ sanctuary and thieves’ paradise”, a dingy area where people fought and cheated their way through life.

It was in this darkening part of London that John Brown operated, targeting not not only women, but children, horrifying them. It was in this small, grim network of alleys and wharves that Brown had been able to carry on with his anti-social, sexual behaviour for a considerable amount of time.

But in 1824, a new vagrancy act was passed, that suddenly curtailed Brown’s activities.

The interior of the Guildhall, 1820

The interior of the Guildhall, 1820

Although the vagrancy acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century have been regarded as categorising a huge range of activities and behaviour as disorderly, or as examples of vagrancy, for the purposes of prosecution and punishment, this act showed itself to have a useful purpose.

Its predecessor had already regarded exposing oneself as an act of vagrancy, referring to “all persons openly and indecently exposing their persons in any street, public place, or highway”, but 5 Geo IV, c.83 made this clearer.

It stated that “very person wilfully, openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person, in any street, road, or public highway, or in the view therefore, or in any place of public resort, with intent to insult any female” would be classed as a rogue and vagabond, and be punished by being imprisoned in the common gaol for up to three months.

This was part of a concerted effort to clamp down on activities perceived as immoral – a moral crusade, if you will, as a reaction to economic and social problems following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, that continued over the course of the 19th century.

The local residents of Whitefriars took the first opportunity to bring John Brown to the sitting magistrate of the Guildhall, Alderman Thompson. He was charged under the new act with having “for several nights successively” exposing himself to his neighbours.

Two of his victims, both women, gave evidence against him, and it was established that the case was both fully proved and came within the remit of the new statute.

Alderman Thompson regarded it as a “very aggravated” case, because Thomas repeatedly carried on his activities, night after night, and therefore sentenced him to the maximum penalty the 1824 Vagrancy Act allowed – three months of hard labour in the House of Correction.

Source: The Times, 30 June 1834, page 3; “Old and New London: Volume 1” (Cassell, Petter and Galpin, London: 1878), pp.182-199, via British History Online.