Poor Women and the Police

The Miss Cass case of 1887, and the subsequent trial of the police officer who had arrested her on suspicion of soliciting for purposes of prostitution on Regent Street, on the evening of the 28th of June 1887, had led to many questions being asked about the judgement of individual police constables when it came to judging whether or not a woman, out on the streets of London, or any other major city for that matter, was, or was not, out for immoral purposes.

It is often stated that it was the Jack the Ripper murders that exposed many of the flaws in the way in which the Metropolitan Police attempted to bring some semblance of law and order to the streets of Victorian London; and, whereas the failure to solve the Whitechapel murders certainly didn’t enhance the overall reputation of the force in the eyes of the press and public, it is safe to say that, thanks to cases such as the Miss Cass incident, the reputation of the Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, and the force that he was in charge of, was, to put it mildly, severely tarnished by the early months of 1888.

An illustration showing PC Endacott arresting Miss Cass.
Police Constable Endacott Arrests Miss Cass. From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright, The British Library Board.


In November 1887, letters began appearing in several newspapers questioning whether the judgement of individual police officers when making arrests could be relied upon to ensure that justice was actually done.


Under the above headline, the following letter appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette, on November 4th, 1887:-

“A Missionary writes to us as follows:-

We shall never know the full extent of the suffering and misery caused by the over-officiousness and evil imagination of the police.

There are scores – maybe hundreds – of women and girls who judge it more expedient to suffer in silence than to have it published in the papers that they have been taken before a magistrate charged with soliciting prostitution.

It is not in London alone that these things occur. It is the same in all large towns.

The character of any poor woman or girl who has to be out late at night is quite at the mercy of any evil-disposed policeman.


Take one or two instances known to me.

A sempstress – a widow – earning her own living and that of her fatherless children by shirtmaking for a respectable firm is seated at her machine one Saturday evening in her own home when a drunken man forces his way in and begins to annoy her.

She tries to put him out, but, on the doorstep, he manages to swing her into the street.

Up marches a policeman, who takes her to the station and charges her with being “drunk and disorderly.”

It is Saturday, so she stays in prison till Monday.


The policeman’s tale is not very satisfactory and the magistrate lets her off with a fine of five shillings and costs, or seven days’ imprisonment.

She has no money, so is taken to gaol with other female prisoners. There she is ordered to strip, and is kept waiting, nude as she was born, for several minutes to be weighed, among a number of women and girls all nude.

I believe all female prisoners are treated thus, however slight or whatever the nature of their offence.


Now for the worst part of this “over-true” story.

Among the group of our country women who were thus kept waiting stark naked for their turn at the scales, their bath, and change of clothes (their own clothes are taken from them immediately they undress), was a poor girl charged with the same offence as Miss Cass, perhaps as innocently.


The girl’s own story was as follows:-

“I have no parents, and live with my brother.

He did not come home on Saturday night.

When it got late I grew uneasy, and went out to look for him.

I saw coming towards me a young man who looked like one of my brother’s work-mates, and I went up towards him to ask if he had seen my brother, or if they were working late.

I found I was mistaken.


Just as I turned away, a policeman put his hand on me and charged me with soliciting.

I was so frightened I could not tell what to do or say: I scarcely knew what he meant, but he made me go along with him to the station, where he said I was a prostitute. I felt crushed.

Of course, I denied what he said, but I was put in a cell and kept there till Monday.”


When brought out of the passage below the dock and made to stand behind an iron rail surrounded by policemen, stared at by a number of people, and charged with such a dreadful crime, she was beside herself.

She only remembered the magistrate asking her what she had to say, and her reply that the policeman’s statement was not true.


Then the magistrate asked the policeman what was known of her, and the policeman replied, in one word, “Unfortunate!” She thought it very true: she was most unfortunate. But the policeman meant it in a very different sense.

That was her first appearance in a court of justice, Heaven save the mark! Possibly it would be her last.


The justice (?) sentenced her to three months’ imprisonment.

She had a dreadful cough, refused all food, and told the widow she did not want, and did not intend, to come out alive.

The widow’s workmates (my own daughter was one) made up the amount of the fine and costs, and she was released on the Wednesday, after four days’ imprisonment for defending her castle.


I can supply other cases, taken verbatim from the lips of the victims.

Is it not time something were done?”


However, as can be seen from the following article, which appeared in Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper on the 12th of February, 1888, the judgement of the police officers who patrolled the streets of London was being shown to be at fault in several spheres of policing, and questions were being asked as to the wisdom of magistrates relying on evidence that was laid before them by arresting officers who, as the cases detailed demonstrated, were most certainly not beyond reproach when it came to the reliability of the evidence that they provided:-


“In the Metropolitan police district – and especially at the West-end – magistrates rely too absolutely on the evidence given by the police.

It rarely seems to occur to the magisterial mind that a constable may blunder, either wilfully or by mistake.

Two cases which came before Sir Reginald Hanson, in the Lord Mayor’s court, yesterday, show how liable policemen are to make stupid mistakes.


In the first instance, Mr. W. D. Sexton, a cab proprietor and driver, was summoned for leaving his vehicle unattended.

The number of the badge was stated by the constable to be 11,513, but Mr. Sexton’s number was 10,500.

The case stood adjourned, and the owner of badge 11,513 was ordered to attend; but the constable could not recognise him as the offender.

Sir Reginald Hanson very properly ordered the authorities to pay Sexton five shillings for expenses, but, at the same time, it does not appear that the unfortunate owner of badge 11,513 received any compensation at all.


In the other case, an omnibus driver was summoned for setting down passengers away from the kerb, but a gentleman who was riding inside attended and swore the defendant stopped as near the kerb as he possibly could.

This witness’s evidence was interrupted several times by the policeman, who was sharply called to account by the magistrate.

The summons was necessarily dismissed.

These cases point their own moral.”