Mary Ann Donovan Again

The Right Honourable David Williams Wire was, no doubt, getting right honourably sick of the case that had hounded him for over a month now, and he was probably wishing that, for just one day, he could enjoy a respite from the attacks upon him, several of which had become very personal indeed.

As The Illustrated Times, put it on Saturday, 30th April 1859:-

“The Lord Mayor is not, it appears, quickly to hear the last of Mary Ann Donovan, illegally committed to jail for a fortnight for trying to sell combs.

The “horrible shadow” of that miserable victim is still doomed to haunt him at his breakfast table from the columns of his daily journal; applications, donations and correspondence still harass him in the plentitude of the power and pride of mayoralty.”

A photograph of David Williams Wire.
David Williams Wire.


But gradually, the case of Mary Ann Donovan began to fade from the public spotlight, and newspaper attacks on the Lord Mayor decreased, albeit reference to it were still appearing in the press as late as 1862.

In fairness to David Williams Wire, he seems to have been a respected and philanthropically-minded man, who was an enthusiastic supporter of numerous charities, including the Ragged Schools movement, the Licensed Victuallers’ School in Kennington Lane, and their Asylum in the Old Kent Road; the Asylum for Fatherless Children, Stamford Hill; The Royal Hospital for Incurables, Putney, and the National Hospital in Queen’s Square.


It would appear that – initially at least – he had acted out of a genuine desire to help Mary Ann Donovan, and a sincere wish to rescue her from what he perceived as a life of vice on the streets of London.

He almost certainly did not envisage the public outcry that followed his sentencing Mary to fourteen days imprisonment, and his attempts to blacken her character once the media frenzy over the case erupted were, to say the least, reprehensible.


Of course, by this time Mary Ann Donovan had become a cause not a case, and when this happened facts became secondary to opinions, as the opposing proponents on both sides of the argument became entrenched in their views.

Was the Lord Mayor justified in his public denouncements of Mary Ann Donovan?

He almost certainly wasn’t.

But was she, in reality, the virtuous and hard-working poor Irish girl that her champions portrayed her to be?

Probably not.


According to several newspapers, on her release from prison, Mary Ann Donovan was offered a place in a training institution for servants, which she immediately accepted, thus sealing the image of her as a virtuous hard-working girl who had been horribly maligned by the City’s top official.


However, it would appear that she didn’t pursue a career in service for very long.

Indeed, it would appear that, within a year, she was back selling combs on the streets of the City, and had soon fallen foul of the City authorities once more.

Reynolds’s Newspaper, one of her most vociferous champions in the aftermath of her court appearance and imprisonment, published an article on Sunday, 11th March 1860, that cast her in a very different light from the hardworking virtuous Irish girl of the previous year:-


Mary Ann Donovan and Ann West, two girls well known as hawkers of combs about the precincts of the Royal Exchange, were charged with assaulting a little boy, named Thomas Higgins, who had on the previous day been a witness against a “pal” of theirs, charged with pocket picking.

Higgins said:- “Yesterday afternoon I was standing at the Mansion House looking at the van which the prisoners were being taken away in, and a boy I had been witness against, as he was getting in, kicked the policeman who was getting in after him.

I said, “Hallo, there, you are going to have a good ride, and you ought to say nothing;” and, as soon as I had said that, the prisoner Donovan rushed up to me and smacked my face.

I tried to defend myself, and then the other girl came up, and, while Donovan kept on smacking my face, she lugged me about by the hair of my head.

They tried, too, to scratch my face, and hurt my finger very much.

Mr. Alderman Hale:- “Did they make those marks that are on your face now?”

Witness:- “Yes, sir.”


Constable Allen, 448, said he saw Donovan smack the boy’s face several times with great violence. and as he tried to get away, she clutched him by the hair of his head.

West also caught him in the same way, and witness could not loose their hold of his hair, and rescue him from their clutches, without great difficulty.

Then it took three officers to get Donovan to the station, and altogether she was so violent that if the police had not interfered she would no doubt have done the boy some serious injury.

It was one of the most determined assaults he had ever seen.

Another policeman corroborated this statement.


Donovan’s defence was that what the officers had said “was all lies and spite.”

The boy hit her first in the way of a lark, and she hit him in the way of a lark, till he hit her hard, and then she gave him a little bit of her fingers; but as to West, she never touched the boy at all except to separate them.

West also stuck to this tale, but Mr. Alderman Hale said that the case was quite clear against both, and fined them twenty shillings each, with fourteen days’ imprisonment in default.

They had no money, and were accordingly locked up.


Interestingly, there was no press outcry over this latest court appearance and prison sentence.

Indeed, very few newspapers even bothered to cover the story.

Alderman Hale, the presiding magistrate on this occasion, received no criticism, and no champions took up the cudgels to defend the honour of Mary Ann Donovan.


As for David Williams Wire, he suffered a second stroke shortly after leaving office, in November 1859, although he carried on working as a solicitor, and continued to carry out his civic duties in his role as an Alderman.

He died, suddenly, at 10 am on the morning of Friday the 9th of November, 1860, at his house in Lewisham, and he was buried in the family vault at West Norwood Cemetery on Friday the 16th of November.