What Can A Poor Girl Do

On Monday the 21st of March, the story of the courtroom exchange between Mary Ann Donovan and David Williams Wire, Lord Mayor and Chief Magistrate of the City of London, was given prominence in newspapers all over the country, and things began to get decidedly uncomfortable for the Lord Mayor, as journalists, lawyers and outraged members of the public took up the cause of Mary Ann Donovan, and her simple but powerful entreaty, “what can a poor girl do?”, had soon achieved the mid-19th century equivalent of trending.


On Tuesday the 22nd of March, a reader, who signed himself, “A Working Man”, fired off an angry missive to The London Daily News:-

“Sir Permit me to refer you to the case of Mary Ann Donovan, a poor Irish girl, who was committed to prison for fourteen days, on Saturday last, by the Lord Mayor, for trying to sell combs in Cornhill.

Can it be right in a Christian country to punish anyone for attempting to obtain an honest living, particularly a poor girl (perhaps without parents or friends), and, at all events, without the slightest sympathy or protection from the chief magistrate, whose privilege it was to have helped and protected her, instead of doing her the monstrous injustice of sending her to prison, for no crime?

Surely, sir, the free press of England will vindicate this palpable piece of oppression.

The working classes look to the powerful advocacy of the press for the support of their rights and liberties, and if the case of poor Mary Ann Donovan be not taken up, then the cause of the industrious classes is hopeless from any other channel.

I am, &c., A WORKING MAN.

March 22.”


Over the next few days, newspapers countrywide were almost universal in their condemnation of Wire’s having sent a young girl to prison for trying to earn an honest living on the streets of the City.

According to The Lincolnshire Chronicle, the Lord Mayor had:-

“…committed himself by committing to prison a poor Irish girl for attempting to sell combs within the sacred bounds of his jurisdiction.

The delinquent displayed total absence of the sense of awe which should overwhelm a poor hawker in the presence of the great city dignitary.

Unabashed by the graceful robes, or the glittering gold chain, or the live Lord Mayor himself, when called upon to answer the accusation of interrupting the traffic by attempting to sell combs in the city, she asked what was a poor girl to do?

The audacity of putting such a question to the Lord Mayor!

The sword-bearer was astonished, the cap of maintenance was horrified, the city beadle nearly swooned.

Had she never heard tell of the numberless tea meetings and chapel anniversaries at which he had presided, nor of his having taken the chair at no end of branch Bible Societies and Missionary meetings?

No no, she never could have heard of half the greatness of the great Wire, or she, an ill-dressed girl of eighteen, would not have dared to put such a question.

She must have been ignorant, very ignorant, or she would have known that ill-dressed people have no business in the City.

She had broken the city law. Poor and poorly clad, she had attempted to gain an honest living, and she had dared to ask the Lord Mayor, “What was a poor girl to do?” and this pious Lord Mayor replied, “go to prison for fourteen days.”

A photograph of David Williams Wire.
David Williams Wire.


The Illustrated Times went so far as to question the actual legality of the Lord Mayor’s having sent Mary Ann Donovan to prison, pointing out that, according to the Police Act under which she had been prosecuted:-

“The punishment is expressly limited to a fine not exceeding forty shillings, and imprisonment is only authorised in the event of nonpayment of the fine.

It does not appear that Mary Donovan was fined at all.

If not, her imprisonment is utterly illegal.

At the same time, we can only regret that it should be necessary to direct attention to the fact of the mere illegality of a commitment under such circumstances.

The illegality sinks into insignificance, in comparison with the injustice and the moral wrong of sentencing a girl to prison for attempting to sell combs in the street.”

A sketch of a Victorian comb seller.
A Victorian Comb Seller.


Reynold’s Newspaper, meanwhile, was incandescent at the treatment meted out to the girl:- “Shame – shame upon the laws that sanction such an infamy; and shame upon the magistrate who administered the

m with a cold-blooded heartlessness worthy of the Old Bailey hangman.

Because Mary Donovan was poor, helpless, and friendless, the rude and insolent chief magistrate of London thought he could gratuitously and unfeelingly insult her.

What right had he to infer that comb-selling was a mask for prostitution?

How dare he sneer at, and libel, the humble vocation of the poor creature, who is, probably, more virtuous than half the crinolined, jewel-bedizened dames that dine and dance at Mansion House festivities?”


As newspaper condemnation of the Lord Mayor gathered momentum, readers began sending money to the Mansion House, insisting that it be given to Mary Ann Donovan on her release from prison.


Stung by the barrage of criticism, Wire attempted to justify his action at the conclusion of court business on Wednesday 23rd March by publicly trashing the reputation of the girl whose good name he had impugned just a few days before:-

“I do not know whether I am right in what I am going to say,” he told the court, “because I think a magistrate is not bound to enter upon a defence of anything which he may do in his judicial capacity; but in the case of Mary Donovan, I have received a great many letters, some of them containing small contributions for her use, and others filled with the most violent and scurrilous abuse.

Of the latter, I shall take no notice, but as to the contributions, I can, if the parties desire it, apply them as requested for her use and benefit when she comes out of prison, but I think it right to say that if the case had been put into the papers in its integrity there would have been no sympathy and no contributions.


It is well known that the girl had been here before and that she and those with whom she associates have long been in the habit of assembling together and annoying the passers-by with the most disgusting language, and, in fact, she showed how vile was the language she could use while in this house, awaiting her examination; and altogether her conduct has not been such as to excite sympathy, for she is not quite so pure as she wanted to appear.

If she had gone away from the place when the officer requested her to do so, she would not have been brought before me; but instead of doing so, she resisted the officer and tried to excite public sympathy, and collected a great crowd around her, to the public inconvenience.


I know it is quite impossible, in a police report, condensed as it necessarily is, to give all the facts of such a case, and, therefore, I have no fault at all to find with the accuracy of the report, and am willing to take upon myself all the responsibility of the case; but it is, I must say, something new to me, after thirty years of devotion to the principles of justice and humanity, and of a desire to rescue such girls as Mary Donovan from a life of misery and vice, to be accused of all sorts of crimes against justice, and even, I may say, against common humanity; and if it had not been for the contributions, I should have thought it altogether unnecessary to offer any remarks upon the case.

If, after this, it is still the desire of those who have sent these contributions that they should be applied to the use of Mary Donovan, I will place the money in the hands of one of the most humane clergymen in the city for him to apply as he pleases.


But, I must again say, that, in my opinion, the case is not one which ought to excite public sympathy.

Some years ago this girl was placed in King Edward’s School of Industry and Refuge for Girls, in Albert-street, Spitalfields, and extraordinary results were anticipated from her evident natural abilities; but after two years of training for a pupil teacher, with a view of opening up to her a respectable and useful mode of livelihood, they were compelled to dismiss her for disorderly conduct, and since then she has been living in Flower and Dean-street, Spitalfields, a locality chosen rather by those of most irregular habits than by girls who desire to get an honourable and an honest living.

An illustration of Flower and Dean Street.
32 Flower And Dean Street, One Of Many Common Lodging Houses In The Street.


I must add that the contributions usually sent to this court are for the benefit generally of the poor and deserving, and not for the criminal.

This girl has been to prison before – she had been long under the notice of the police, and was the ringleader of a gang of girls who have long been complained of by the inhabitants for their habit of collecting around the Royal Exchange, and the Fenchurch-street railway station, for the purpose of importuning gentlemen for money, and abusing those who gave them nothing, and there is strong reason for suspicion that the combs and other articles which these girls carry, and ostensibly for sale, are carried about not to sell, but merely as a cover to enable them to address gentlemen, and induce them to comply with their desires.


I must add that on the very day when she was brought before me, and after the case was concluded, a gentleman came forward to complain about her conduct; but said he did not dare to do it in open court, because he felt well assured that if he did so his windows would be broken next morning by her companions.”


The next day James Cohen, the Chaplain at Holloway Prison, attempted to defend the Lord Mayor by further blackening the reputation of Mary Ann Donovan.

Writing to the Lord Mayor, he stated that:-

“My Lord Mayor.

So much feeling has been excited by the report of Mary Ann Donovan’s case, that I may be allowed to state some circumstances in her previous history.

She was committed to prison in June last for 21 days for an attempt to steal a watch from a gentleman.

Great efforts were made here by the female officers and by myself, as well as by some ladies visiting the prison, to persuade her to go into an institution with a view to obtaining a situation, but she pertinaciously refused every offer.

In the October following, she was again committed for creating a disturbance in the street, and sent here for 14 days.

Again we used every endeavour to induce her to abandon her life in the streets, but in vain.


I observe that, in the report of the case, much stress was laid upon her indignant denial that she had ever been “on the streets.”

Giving every credit to her statement, it is only right to inform your lordship that the officers of this prison have observed that she is evidently well acquainted with some of the worst characters in the prison, who are undeniably street walkers of the lowest class.

There can be no doubt, I think, that the combs and other articles for sale are but a pretext to cover designs of quite a different kind, and such that no young woman with such a horror of vice as Mary Donovan professes, and who had the option of respectable employment, would be willing to expose herself to.

The offer of asylum has again been made to her since she has been here on this occasion and again declined.


I rejoice very much in the sympathy which has been elicited by this case, because I trust it will encourage the self-denying efforts of those ladies and others who have been so long labouring on behalf of the poor creatures who throng our streets.

There are, I doubt not, hundreds of poor girls who are really deserving of all the support which Mary Ann Donovan has called forth.

I hope that support will not be withdrawn from the cause itself because in this instance the young woman is, I believe, quite undeserving of it.”