Every so often, whilst reading newspaper accounts from the 19th century, you come across a “character” whom the Victorian press seem to have taken to heart and whose antics were, therefore, reported in newspapers the length and breadth of the country on a regular basis.
The last such character that I reported on was William “Spring” Onions, universally known to the gentlemen of the press as “The East End Poet.”
MISS TOTTIE FAY
Today, I bring you another similar character, whose drink fuelled antics turned her into something of a Victorian celebrity and, as a consequence, the newspapers of the late 1880’s and early 1890’s delighted in reporting on her latest drunken outrages.
Her name, or at least the name that the press most frequently referred to her as, was “Tottie Fay,” and she made frequent appearances in the Police-courts around London, where her outbursts often brought forth roars of laughter from the courtroom.
FUNNY THEN SAD
I must confess that, at first, I did find the stories about her somewhat amusing.
But, reading between the lines, you start to see a tragic side to the life she lived, and you end up feeling rather sad for Tottie, whose excesses were, quite evidently, killing her.
THE WICKEDEST WOMAN IN LONDON
One of the earliest references to her that I have been able to locate appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on the 7th of March 1887.
Evidently, from what the article has to say about her, she was already a familiar face in the London police courts.
The article read:-
“Mr. Mansfield, the magistrate of Marlborough-street, whose experience of fallen womanhood in his judicial capacity is almost as extensive as that of any man in London, always excepting Mr. Merrick, chaplain of Millbank, has discovered the London Rosiere of Vice.
He sent her to gaol on Saturday for a month, declaring that to his knowledge she was the worst and wickedest woman in London.
Her names, for she has many, are Lily Cohen, Tottie Fay, Lilian Rothschild, Violet St. John, Mabel Gray, Maud Legrand, Lily Levant.
She is just thirty years of age.
It would be interesting to have an accurate biographical and scientific diagnosis of this superlative specimen of human depravity.”
THE IRREPRESSIBLE TOTTIE FAY
However, the press at large appear to have really started taking notice of her antics in 1889, and, throughout that year, regular stories about her began appearing in the newspapers, such as this one in the Portsmouth Evening News on the 9th of April 1889:-
A SPECIAL BOOK IS KEPT FOR HER.
“Violet St. John, better known as Maud Rothschild or Tot (otherwise Tottie) Fay, and whose record of appearances at Marlborough-street Police-court is so large that a special book is kept for it, was again charged, yesterday, with being drunk and disorderly.
She wore a cream-coloured bodice, trimmed with lace, a black skirt, and large dress-improver (which became much disarranged by the narrowness of the dock), and a pair of dirty sand shoes.
On her fingers, over her glove, there were five rings.
When put into the dock, she made most extravagant signs of grief, tears streaming down her face.
MISBEHAVING IN ST JAMES’S SQUARE
A police-constable said that about half-past twelve o’clock on Sunday morning a gentleman came to him and complained that a “lady” was misbehaving herself in St. James’s-square.
On going to that place, he found the prisoner leaning against the railings with a crowd round her.
He asked her to go away, but she said she should do no such thing, and in an indignant manner demanded how a “low fellow like him dared to address a lady.”
He told her she would have to move as the crowd was blocking the roadway.
She, however, positively refused to budge an inch for him, so he had to take her to the police-station.
HER LANDLADY HAD DIED
When asked what she had to say, the woman, between her sobs, explained that, while she was away from home, news was sent her that her landlady, a woman who was a perfect lady, and just like her dear mamma in every respect, was dead.
On hearing the terrible news, she felt almost paralysed, but, nevertheless, determined to go and see the last of her friend, and to steady her nerves she had some drink; but not more than any other lady would have taken under the circumstances.
In St. James’s-square she was taken ill, and while resting against the railings the constable took her into custody.
She finished by assuring the magistrate that she would go straight front the Court to home if she were let off.
Mr. Hannay ordered her to pay a fine of 40s. or to go to prison for one month.”
SENT FOR TRIAL
On the 26th of April 1889 Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported on another appearance at Marlborough Street Police Court, this time before the notorious magistrate Mr Newton who, two years previously, had caused a huge amount of controversy and furore with his judgement on the Miss Cass case:-
“Lily St. John, otherwise known as Amy Anderson, Tot Fay, Maude Rothschild, Mabel Grey, and by a score of other aliases, described as an “actress,” was charged on remand with having obtained food and lodging from Mr. Magnus Heierlei, the proprietor of Fischer’s hotel, Clifford-street, St. James’s, and from Mr. Franco, of the Cavendish hotel, Jermyn-street, by false and fraudulent pretences.
In each instance “Tottie” presented herself at the doors, about three in the morning, with a large, dirty white “cloud” thrown over her head instead of a bonnet, and carrying a fan.
She assured the porters that she had just left a ball at St. James’s, and had been compelled to walk owing to her coachman having neglected to bring round her carriage, and so she induced them to give her lodgings for the night.
HER SOFT, MELODIOUS VOICE
At Fischer’s hotel she said that her parents had occupied No. 5 bed-room during the previous week, which statement, together with the cloud, the fan, and her soft melodious voice, put the man off his guard.
The next morning her real character became known.
Having been served with breakfast late in the day, she called for a bottle of beer, and presently two more; and then, from what happened, she was ordered to clear out, 20 minutes being given her by the landlord to do so; but, as she did not respond quickly, the police were sent for, and out she went.
At the Cavendish the same tactics were pursued, and at night she was bundled outside.
Mrs. Reeve’s, the female searcher at the Vine-street police-station, said she did not find anything in Tottie’s pockets except a pawn ticket and an empty purse.
TOO MUCH TO DRINK
Mr. Newton inquired if she had anything to say before she was committed for trial on the two charges of having obtained food and lodging by fraud.
Tottie: I had too much to drink.
Mr. Newton: Then your defence is that you had too much to drink?
Tottie: (crying) Yes, monsheer, or otherwise I should not have done it.
Mr. Newton: And on the other case the proprietor said that he would forgive you?
Tottie: (with more tears): Yes, sir.
Mr Newton: Then you are committed to take your trial. You are a troublesome, mischievous woman.
Tottie acknowledged the compliment by bowing politely, and then, escorted by gaolers Brewer and Marlow, she left with a majestic walk for the cells, whence she was conveyed to the prison at Holloway.”
UPWARDS OF TWENTY ALIASES
She appears to have been kept quite busy with court appearances around this time since, on the 11th May 1889, The Western Times reported that:-
“A young woman, who is better known at the various police-courts as Tottie Fay and upwards of 20 other aliases, but who now gave the name of Violet Howard, was charged before Sir James Ingham, at the Bow-street Police-court on Thursday with being drunk and disorderly.
The defendant, it will be remembered, was similarly charged two or three weeks ago, when she denied that she was drunk, but said she was only grieving at the death of her landlady.
Police-constable Begge, 261 E, deposed that at about quarter-past two that morning his attention was called to the prisoner at the top of Villiers-street.
A crowd had assembled, and upwards of 40 cabmen had drawn up in consequence of her disorderly conduct.
She was drunk, and was shouting at the top of her voice.
She refused to go away, and was takn into custody.
Sir James Ingham (to the defendant): What have you to say?
Defendant: Oh, kind gentleman, would you allow me to speak? I had just left a young lady friend, and had a lot of trouble owing to the sudden death of one of my landladies. I had two or three glasses of wine in consequence, and was coming up Villiers-street from Charing Cross Station, when two or three flower-girls asked me to buy flowers.
I had had two or three glasses of wine, but was not really elevated, but one of the flower-girls kept following me.
Then the policeman came and took hold of my arm.
It is really a long time since I was here, and I am an orphan young lady – (laughter).
The Constable: She only came out of prison on Wednesday morning, your worship.
Defendant: Really and truly now, kind gentleman, give me one more chance. The policeman knows I have been in trouble, and really and truly I am as innocent as a babe unborn. If you will only give me one more chance.
The Constable: She would not pay a cabman, Sir James.
Defendant: Oh, you wicked man.
(To Sir James): He is really telling a story, kind gentleman. Give me one chance.
Sir James Ingham (to the constable): Was she more eloquent last night, in the street than she is now? (laughter)
The Constable: Much more your worship.
Defendant: No, really kind gentleman, I was excited and had on my evening cloud.
Serjeant White (the gaoler): She is well known, Sir James, at every police court in London, and is one of the worst of women.
Sir James Ingham: Fined 40s, or seven days.”
BLANCHE DE VERE
In August she was back in court again, this time appearing at Marylebone Police Court before the magistrate Mr. De Rutzen, where she assumed the alias of Blanche De Vere.
The Gloucester Citizen reported on the proceedings in its issue of the 5th of August 1889:-
“On Saturday, at Marylebone, London, Blanche De Vere, 30, living at Talbot-grove, Notting-hill, and who is known at this and other courts by the names of Lilian Rothschild, Tottie Fay, Violet Legrand, Lottie De Terry, Maud Sinclair, Florence St. John, &c., was charged with being drunk and disorderly in Edgware road.
When the prisoner was placed in the dock she was wearing a very large mushroom straw hat trimmed with tulle, and a light-shaded terra-cotta dust cloak. On her arm hung a white-and-pink cloud, and in one hand she carried a fancy basket and in the other a huge scent-bottle.
She dramatically feigned being in deep grief, and tears rolled freely down her cheeks.
The evidence was that the prisoner arrived at Edgware road on top of an omnibus late on Friday night, and on alighting refused to pay her fare. She was drunk, abused, and generally behaved in a disorderly manner.
At last Constable Stone told her that if she did not pay he should take her into custody, and then she paid.
She still behaved in a very disorderly manner, and when he arrested her she said, “Don’t you touch such a lady as I am.” (Laughter)
She was very violent all the way to the station.
The Prisoner (pitifully): Will you allow me to speak, sir?
The Magistrate: Ask what question you like.
The Prisoner (weeping): Gentlemen, will you let me speak ? I’m a young orphan lady. I had just come from my hotel. Unfortunately, I took a little to drink. Oh, dear, I wasn’t drunk – no, I wasn’t. My landlord will speak for me. I’ve left my luggage at the hotel, and I shall lose it. I’m a young orphan lady in deep trouble. (Loud laughter) I gave the ‘busman a penny and he wanted twopence. Then the policeman caught hold of my arm and pinched it. Oh dear me (weeping hysterically). If you punish me I shall lose all my things.
The Magistrate: That crying will have no effect on me. Have you any questions to ask?
Prisoner (pathetically): Policeman, sir, gentleman, wasn’t I sober?
Constable Stone (sternly): No. (Laughter.)
Prisoner: Oh, yes, I was excited. I hope, sir, you will give me a chance. I was not drunk.
The Magistrate: Then I’ll call the inspector who took the charge.
Inspector Collins (D Division) said the prisoner was drunk and very disorderly.
The Prisoner (excitedly and crying): Sir, gentlemen, do speak true. I’m a lone orphan young lady. Did I not behave in a ladylike manner?
Inspector Collins: No; decidedly not. (Laughter)
Prisoner: I was only excited, and called out.
The Magistrate: What is known of this person?
Barrett (assistant gaoler): She was here in June, sir, and you fined her 3s. only, because she had not been here so often latterly. She’s been here no end of times, and has been a source of great trouble to this and other West End courts for years past.
Mr. De Rutzen: What have you to say to the charge?
The Prisoner: My dear sir, I was only excited. If you let me go I’ll join the pledge. I’m an orphan young lady (laughter). My sister’s a real lady, but they won’t speak to me. (Weeping and sobbing). Please let me off.
Mr. De Rutzen said that if it had been within measurable distance of being her first offence, he might have let her off; but she had been charged so often, and always behaved as she had today. He fined her 5s.
The prisoner (dropping her handkerchief from her eyes) What, sir?
Barrett: Five shillings; come this way.
The prisoner (as she left the court): May I speak to the magistrate; oh, can I speak to the magistrate? (laughter)
AT MARLBOROUGH STREET AGAIN
Tottie Fay made several other similar court appearances and then, in September 1889, she was sentenced to six months in prison.
No sooner had she been released than, in May, 1890, she appeared once more before Mr. Newton at Marlborough Street Police Court where, this time, a little of her background was revealed.
On Sunday 11th May 1890 Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper carried the following report about this fresh court appearance:-
“Tottie Fay, who is also known by many other names, made another appearance at Marlborough-street police-court on Friday.
The charge was that of being drunk and disorderly.
A constable said he had made some inquiries since, and had discovered that, for some time past, the prisoner had been going from one place to another taking apartments and then decamping with anything she could steal.
A LADY OF POSITION
Her custom was to represent that she was a lady of position, and that she had just come from the Continent.
Serjeant Brewer, the gaoler, said that since the year 1883 the woman had been charged 45 times.
Mr. Newton: The impression seems to have got abroad that she is a lady by birth. Just let us know what you can about her parentage.
Serjeant Brewer: Her father was a costermonger, and for many years he resided in the Seven Dials, and was a member of the gang known as “The Forty Thieves.”
The Prisoner: Oh, how can you say so? If I am a gay woman, you have no right to say that I am not a lady.
Mr. Newton: Let her be remanded again, and a plain-clothes officer see what he can find out about the charges of theft.”
A DEPRESSING FAMILIAR PATTERN
Throughout 1890 and 1891, she appeared at various police courts around London charged with a variety of offences which included fraud, but which mostly related to her drunk and disorderly behaviour.
In June 1892, it became apparent that, for all her shows of bravado and her ability to delight the press with her courtroom antics, Tottie Fay was ill, both physically and mentally.
On Friday 10th June 1892, The Bridport Times reported on her latest court appearance, and you can almost hear the despair in the magistrate’s voice sounding from the page:-
A SORT OF OPHELIA
“TOTTIE FAY – This is the name of a street celebrity known in the London Police Courts. She has been arrested once more and sent to gaol. She was found dancing in Oxford Street in the small hours of the morning for the delectation of a crowd of cabmen, and the constable was obliged to take her into custody.
She appeared in the dock at Marlborough Street as a sort of Ophelia in preparation for the footlights – hat crowned with flowers, flowing cloak, and dancing shoes.
She had just come out of prison, but Mr Hannay [The magistrate] said it would be the truest mercy to send her back for a longer period to what he evidently regarded as merely prevented detention.
THE DESPAIR OF THE BENCH
Such cases, he observed, were the despair of the Bench.
This poor creature had been known to him for no more than two years, but she had visibly grown weaker in that time, and he could see that she was killing herself. She no sooner comes out of gaol, it seems, than she immediately begins qualifying for a fresh term.
As she was led away on Wednesday, she fervently prayed God to bless the magistrate.
No more will be heard of her again for a time and then it will all come over again.
Her eccentricities are innumerable.
She talks of a mythical woman who is just coming to fetch her in a carriage; but the vehicle is as purely imaginary as the chariot of the sun.
No one minds her, no one care for her, and, as she is without money, it is not even worth anybody’s while to inquire into her sanity.
Is there none to step between her and her fighting soul?
There ought to be something better to do with even this poor moral castaway than to send her to gaol again and again…”
TOTTIE FAY OUT OF SPIRITS
On 24th September 1892, The Illustrated Police News, featured the following article:-
“The notorious “Tottie Fay,” whose exploits as a disorderly women have often been published, was before Mr. Hopkins, at Marylebone Police-court, charged with attempting to commit suicide in the Regent’s Canal.
On this occasion she gave the name of Lilian Vivian, and described herself as thirty-seven years of age, a governess, residing at Kentish-town-road.
She is also known by the aliases of Mabel Carlton, Lilly St. Leon, Dolly Le Blanc, Lilly de Herbert, Violet St. John, May Lilley, Maud Rothschild, Amy Violet, Florence Lamb, Tilly St, Clair, Mabel Grey, etc. etc.
She was dressed in the same attire as she was wearing prior to her retirement to Wormwood Scrubbs Prison for a month, now some five weeks ago.
It consisted of a large plaid waterproof and an extensive white straw hat, looped up at the sides, and trimmed with dirty white lace and a few faded flowers. Some “Brummagem” jewellery adorned her neck and wrists, and on her right hand, outside of some dirty biscuit-coloured gloves, she was wearing three rings of similar quality.
AN ATTEMPT AT SUICIDE
Police-constable 548 S said he was on duty at Gloucester-gate-bridge, Camden-town, at two o’clock that morning, and saw the prisoner standing there looking into the water.
After a few minutes she threw a fancy basket she was carrying on to the roadway and then climbed on to the parapet of the bridge.
Witness caught hold of her.
She said, “Oh, do let me alone, I’m in low spirits.”
He took her into custody, and on the way to the police station she expressed regret that she had not been quicker in her movement, for then she would have got into the canal beneath before he arrived.
SHE WAS DRUNK
In reply to the charge at the station, she said she only stooped to fasten her bootlace. She was drunk.
The Prisoner: Good gracious me, how can you say such a thing. Will you let me speak? I had come out of an omnibus just before, and it’s true I had had two glasses of ale, not more. Well, I’m a young lady that’s seen a deal of trouble. I simply stooped down to tie up my bootlace. The bridge was quiet, and I suppose the policeman thought I meant suicide by jumping from the bridge. I said to him, “You wicked fellow, I’m a young lady that’s had a deal of trouble, but I never had such an idea as that.”
The Magistsate: When did she come out of prison last?
The Assistant Gaoler: On Friday week, sir, after doing a month.
The Prisoner: Yes, but that’s no reason why an orphan young lady should be here for nothing.
Mr. Hopkins: I discharge you this time,
The prisoner (jubilantly): Oh, thank you sir. God bless you; God bless you. You’re a gentleman. (Laughter).”
SERIOUS CHARGE AGAINST TOTTIE-FAY
However, Tottie didn’t learn any lessons from the leniency shown her by the magistrate and, on the 16th October 1892, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported that her antics had got her into extremely serious trouble:-
” Tottie Fay” was charged with stealing £31. 10s. in gold from a room in Queen-square, Bloomsbury, the money of John Hetherington.
The prosecutor, a traveller, said that he was up on a visit to London, and was staying at a temperance hotel in Queen’s-square.
A LOUD KNOCK ON HIS DOOR
He retired to rest on Wednesday night, and was awoken next morning early by a loud knocking at the door.
He called out, “Who’s there? ” and some one replied, ” I want to speak to you for a minute.”
Witness opened the door, and saw prisoner standing outside with a lighted candle in her hand.
She was dressed and had a shawl over her head, and on seeing witness she drew back, saying, “I beg your pardon; I thought this was the waitress’s room. I feel so ill, and want a drop of brandy. I have a room on the drawing-room floor, and would be glad if you could get me a little stimulant. Say it is for yourself as I should not like them to think that I wanted it.”
Witness went down and asked for the brandy, and then returned to his room.
SHE’D STOLEN HIS MONEY
Prisoner had, however, disappeared, and witness then found that £31. 10s. in gold was missing from his purse.
Witness saw the prisoner at Hunter-street police-station and charged her with the offence.
She at first threatened him with five years, but afterwards asked him to withdraw the charge, and she would give him the money back.
She subsequently said that he had invited her to his room, and they smoked cigarettes and drank brandy together.
THE PORTER’S TESTIMONY
Charles Fisher, porter of the Temperance hotel, Queen-square, said that at 2.30 on Thursday morning he was awoken by the ringing of the night bell.
The cook got up first, and when witness reached the hall he found prisoner there.
She asked if she could have a room, saying she had been sent there by Mrs. Smith, of the West Central hotel, Southampton-row.
She added that she had just come from a ball, and had dismissed her coachman, who had gone home with the carriage.
She was in evening dress, and complained of the cold.
Witness gave her a room on the first floor.
Warder Humphreys proved that prisoner had been charged and convicted of larceny at the sessions, and Mr. Horace Smith committed her for trial.”
THREE YEARS IN PRISON
The result of Tottie’s subsequent trial was that Tottie was sentenced to three years in prison.
This led to a great outcry in the press and appeals were sent to the Home Secretary, but to no avail – he upheld the sentence that had been passed on her.
But then, in December 1892, the following article appeared in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper:-
FADES FROM THE LIMELIGHT
And so, Tottie Fay, and her numerous alter egos, faded from the media glare.
As I mentioned earlier, I began the article thinking that it would be a fun article about the antics of a Victorian character and her courtroom experiences and appearances.
But, as the article progressed, I began feeling really sorry for Tottie Fay; and it began to dawn on me that she was just another woman – not unlike the victims of Jack the Ripper – whose life was blighted by an addiction to alcohol that forced her to exist on the periphery of 19th century society.
Indeed, in her drunken antics – such as he ones before the cabmen in which she dance and sang for their delectation – I saw shades of Catherine Eddowes’s drunken appearance on Aldgate High Street on the night before her murder.
A LAST MENTION
A last poignant mention of Tottie was featured in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on the 21st of June 1896:-
“The St. Giles’ Board of Guardians have made no application for “Tottie” Fay’s basket of clothes, left by that young lady some three years ago at the booking-office of the Great Western railway.
It seems that she drove up there in a hansom cab some three years ago about 10 o’clock one evening, and left the basket in question, containing some much-worn articles of faded finery, a parcel wrapped in newspaper, and six pots of flowers.
She particularly asked that the flowers might be watered, as she was sure to come back for them in a day or two.
Her celebrated costume of a large white hat and pale blue dress, however, attracted attention, quickly causing a crowd to assemble. She was persuaded to leave the station, but was taken in charge by the police a little later, with the result that she has never been released to redeem her belongings.”
A TRAGIC FIGURE OF FUN
To the newspapers Tottie was, initially at least, nothing more than a source of fun – although you can detect that they too are beginning to feel sorry for her by the middle of 1892.
To the police and magistrates with whom she came into contact she was simply an annoyance; and was often treated as such. Only Mr, Hannay, as far as I can tell, expressed any compassion for the plight that her alcoholism had foisted on her.
To society at large – the cabmen who watched her dance in the streets, the people who she conned, defrauded and stole from, she was a figure to be laughed at, mistrusted, punished and despised.
Personally, I hope she finally found peace of mind when she was taken to the asylum and that she ended her days comfortably.