In the 1850s, two people became synonymous with the street sellers of Victorian London.
The first was the reporter and social historian Henry Mayhew, whose 1851 study London Labour And the London Poor – in which he observed, documented, and described, in great detail, the state of the working people of the Victorian Metropolis, made him a titan of 19th-century journalism.
The second was an Irish girl by the name of Mary Ann Donovan.
She was eighteen years old when, for a brief period in 1859, she blazed into the pubic spotlight following her appearance at the Mansion House court charged with obstructing the public footway.
MARY DONOVAN THE COMB SELLER
Mary Ann Donovan’s story began on Cornhill, a busy City thoroughfare, that was, and still is, lined by the offices of major banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions.
Mary was an itinerant street trader. She sold combs on the streets of the City of London, and, one day in March 1859, she set out to hawk her wares on Cornhill.
It wasn’t long before she attracted the attention of a City of London Police Constable who told her to move on, warning her, in no uncertain terms, that she must “keep away from the City.”
THE ARREST OF MARY ANN DONOVAN
According to the policeman’s later testimony, she ignored his order, and, when he repeated it, she threatened to “smash him” if he meddled with her.
He told her that he must take her to the police station, whereupon she proceeded to lie down on the road and refused to move. He, therefore, summoned the assistance of another constable, and the two of them manhandled the girl to the station, their prisoner abusing them both in “the vilest language” as they went along.
At the station, she was charged with obstructing the roadway on Cornhill by offering combs for sale, and she was put in the cells to await her appearance before the Chief Magistrate of the City of London.
DAVID WILLIAMS WIRE
On the morning of Saturday the 19th of March, the Right Honourable David William Wire, Lord Mayor and Chief Magistrate of the City of London, took his place on the bench in the Justice Room at the Mansion House, the home and office of the Lord Mayor, and readied himself to preside over the cases of those who had been arrested in the City of London over the previous few days.
David Williams Wire had begun his year as Lord Mayor the previous November.
He was a portly, fifty-eight-year-old, and, at just over five feet tall, he held the distinction of being one of the shortest Lord Mayors in the history of the office.
To quote The Congleton and Macclesfield Mercury in a biographical sketch of him, which it published on the 13th of November 1858:-
“The new Lord Mayor is a little fat lawyer. In his robes, he looks as ridiculous as it is possible to imagine.”
However, when on that Saturday morning, Mary Ann Donovan, described by the newspapers as, “a poorly clad, but clean and good looking eighteen-year-old Irish girl” stood before him, he was, no doubt, confident that she would be overawed by his obvious and undoubted importance.
Little did The Right Honourable David William Wire realise that he had come face to face with his nemesis.
MARY ANN DONOVAN IN COURT
The first witness against the accused was the police officer who had arrested her.
He informed the court that he had observed her obstructing the footway on Cornhill, by offering combs for sale, and he had warned her to keep away from the place in consequence of complaints made of the annoyance caused by her and other girls.
He had, he testified, asked her to move on, but she had persisted in keeping upon the footway, and she had threatened to “smash him” if he meddled with her.
He recounted how he and a fellow officer had carried her off to the police station, and how she had abused them both in the vilest language as they went along.
“IT’S ALL FALSE”
At this point, Mary Ann Donovan, stiffened, and interrupted the officer’s testimony:-
“It’s all false that he says, my lord. I never caused any obstruction, and never annoyed anybody.”
“But he says you abused him shamefully, and that you lay down in the roadway,” The Right Honourble David Williams Wire responded.
“Yes, I did lie down,”, retorted Mary Ann Donovan, “for why should I go to the station to be locked up only for walking in the streets? And, as for abuse, my lord, that officer abuses me every time he sees me, in language such as I dare not take upon my lips; and, besides, he has kicked me so that my leg is covered with bruises, and, if you knew all he has said and done, I’m sure you would give him six months.”
QUIT WHILE YOU’RE AHEAD!
No doubt Lord Mayor Wire later wished that he had quit there and then, whilst he was slightly ahead.
But hindsight is a valuable gift, and, at the time, he probably thought that a poorly clad eighteen-year-old Irish girl, would be no match for the Lord Mayor and Chief Magistrate of the City of London, splendidly attired in all the robes and regalia of his office, no matter how ridiculous he looked in them.
And so The Right Honourable David Williams Wire ploughed on, and proceeded to chide the prisoner before him:-
“Well, you must not come into the City to sell your combs. That is often only a cover for immodest purposes; and, besides, you are liable to a fine of forty shillings, or one month’s imprisonment, for hawking your things in this way.”
“Then, what can a poor girl do?” came the prisoner’s impassioned response.
THINGS BEGIN TO UNRAVEL
Sensing that he very much had the upper hand, the Lord Mayor assumed a grave air of superiority and censured the girl:-
“Why, you must try to get an honest living.”
But then, as can often happen when one becomes overconfident about one’s own infallibility and self-importance, things began to unravel for the Lord Mayor and Chief Magistrate of the City of London, as he realised, too late, that his adversary might be poor, but she was more than a match for the fat little Lord Mayor:-
“Why, I do try, and you stop me,” replied the girl. “I often stay about the streets all day to do so by selling my combs, and only gain a few halfpence; but I suppose you think I might go upon the streets, but that I’ll never do.”
According to the journalist who was busily taking down the exchange, these last words were uttered:- “vehemently and with great natural eloquence.”
“There’s no occasion for that,“ snapped the Lord Mayor, trying to mask his indignation at the girl’s impudence, “there are many means of getting an honest living.”
HER FAMOUS REPLY
Mary Ann Donovan’s response would turn an everyday court case into a cause célèbre, and would, for a short time at least, transform this eigteen-year-old Irish street trader into a national celebrity:-
“Then, sir, tell me how. I can’t take a shop, and if I sell in the streets you say l am liable to a forty shilling fine, or a month. If I beg, you’ll give me three months, perhaps; and if I steal I don’t know what will become of me. So tell me, if you can, what a poor girl can do?”
FOURTEEN DAYS IN PRISON
Infuriated by her audacity, the Right Honourable David Williams Wire, bristled, stiffened himself, puffed out his chest, and told her:-
“At all events, you must keep out of the City, and, as you have been here before, I must send you to prison for 14 days.”
And so, Mary Ann Donovan was removed from the dock and was taken to Holloway Prison to serve her sentence.
THINGS WERE ABOUT TO GET UNCOMFORTABLE
The Lord Mayor returned to his official residence within the Mansion House, where he put all thoughts of the poorly-clad, but clean, Irish girl out of his mind.
Meanwhile, the journalist who had been taking down the cases at the Mansion House Court for a press agency returned to his office and filed his copy for the Monday newspapers.
Unbeknownst to the unsuspecting Right Honourable David Williams Wire, that brief Saturday morning courtroom exchange was about to turn him into a national pariah and figure a fun.