John Brown and his John Thomas: a perversion stopped by the Vagrancy Act

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.

 

 

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The House of Correction for Bad Wives

Joseph Townsend

Joseph Townsend

In 1791, the London Chronicle reported the existence of a “remarkable” house of correction in Barcelona, which had been visited by Joseph Townsend four years earlier.

It had two aims: the reformation of prostitutes and female thieves (the two apparently interlinked or one and the same thing to many); and the second aim was “the correction of women who fail in their obligation to their husbands, and of those who either neglect or disgrace their families”.

The women held in this house of correction were fed bread and meat, paid for mainly through fines, but the women were expected to help fund their own meals by working “as long as they can see”.

They were able to earn five shillings a month, half of which was given to the Governor, and the other half was kept on their behalf until their term of confinement had expired – enabling them to walk out of the House of Correction with some funds behind them.

It was made clear that this punishment was a last resort, for these strong-minded women should ideally be “corrected” by their husbands, fathers, or other relatives. If they were unable to give a “severe” enough chastisement, then they could apply to the magistrate to confine them “for a term proportioned to their offences”.

The relative who sought their confinement would be made to contribute the equivalent of fourpence halfpenny a day for their maintenance, “and with this scanty provision they must be contented.”

The whole building was designed to maintain 500 women, suggesting that Barcelona had (or anticipated) something of a problem with independent women, although at the time of Townsend’s visit, there were only 113 women confined there.

These included, apparently, some rather fashionable ladies, whose families would tell concerned people that they were “visiting some distant friends”. One woman present was a rather well-to-do lady who had been accused both of being drunk and “imprudent in her conduct”.

Such women would receive “bodily correction, when it is judged necessary for their reformation,” a good whipping presumably being just the think for getting rid of any unfeminine thoughts.

This tale was regaled to the English newspaper reader as a strange act carried out by those odd foreigners; one can imagine the Daily Mail salivating over the tales of posh drunks, prostitutes and errant wives, being forced to learn appropriate behaviour from men.

Yet the English press appear to have failed to realise the similarities between this establishment and the gaols of its own land; the willingness of the English law to punish women deemed guilty of unfeminine or immoral acts; and the legality of whipping for women in England at this time.

It wrote about the strangeness of the law in Spain, without recognising the equal strangeness of the law at home.

Source: London Journal, 30 June-2 July 1791; “A Journey Through Spain in the Years 1786 and 1787” by Joseph Townsend (1791).