Jen Baker

Records from the Old Bailey proceedings (the Central Criminal Court for England and Wales) indicate that the acknowledgement and subsequent punishment of sexual offences against children are not modern phenomena.  Between 1674 and 1913 – when online public records cease – there are at least 570 documented cases, predominantly from the City of London and Middlesex, involving adults accused of sexual relations with children.

The Old Bailey, London (Wikimedia Commons)

Punishments were neither consistent, nor did they appear more logical and “just” (by modern standards) as time progressed. The limited and selective information recorded tended to caricature those involved, and rarely involved a full transcription of evidence given or dialogue encountered. In one of the earliest cases, from 1678, an apprentice described as “a lusty Lad of About 17 or 18 years” was “Condemn’d to Dye” for “a filthy bruitish offence […] for having the Carnal knowledge of a Maiden Child, under the Age of Ten years”. The sentence leading into the particulars makes clear that the record will not discuss any information that was too distressing or uncivilised; “The case was thus, (as far as ’tis necessary or fit with modesty to be related).”   

Such cases suggest that any form of forceful and sexual interaction with a child was considered an abhorrent act, and yet a number of cases also show that the child was not always  believed unreservedly. In the case of Mr Valenciens in 1679, for example, the court felt that “the 2 Girls pretended abundance of modesty in giving their evidence, yet in fine, each of them down right swore the matter of Fact but the same was attended with many improbable and suspicious circumstances”. The court further believed their mother had deliberately attempted to ruin the defendants reputation in order to gain money and he was subsequently acquitted.

The argument concerning “consent” and a child’s right to engage in such activity was as relevant in the earliest of these documented cases as today. For instance Stephen Arrowsmith was condemned to death for the rape of a girl aged nine years old, despite the girl testifying that she had concealed the crime because “she took Pleasure in it”. The court, however, was not swayed in the defendant’s favour, finding “that [the girl’s] consent would not save him, for the Statute provides, that a Child under 10 years of age, should not be abused with, or without her Consent.”

A few cases can be found in the Old Bailey in which the court was not always sure whether the defendant had actually been sexually involved with the child. One particularly interesting case is that of Samuel Eales (1694) found irrefutably “not guilty”, for the defence had proven that the nine-year-old girl “was of Evil Repute”. Such remarks were not followed up upon, nor can I find public reaction to this, but offer an interesting parallel to a recent case.

In 2008, British newspapers reported on an incident in which an eleven-year-old girl accused a twenty-year-old man of sexually assaulting her. Much was made of the judge’s remarks. Although the man had admitted to engaging in sexual relations with her, the girl expressed herself, according to the judge, “in relation to sexual matters with an awareness which would make many twice her age blush and one hopes would be rare for an 11-year-old to experience.” When the case resurfaced this year, a range of newspapers, and subsequently child protection groups, expressed outrage at what was described as an allusion to the “asking for it” attitude that has been at the centre of the rape narrative debate and a resurgence of “Lolita-syndrome” – a position that children can be precocious and predatory.

When compared to the 1694 Eales case, the judge in 2008 may seem positively antiquated, and the road to justice stilted and contradictory. And yet, these are both complicated instances in which the supposed “purity” of childhood, and the militant belief that adults are the only ones to hold the power in adult-child relationships, is questioned. It is interesting too to link back to the Stephen Arrowsmith case of 1678. The Chaplain’s record (known as the Ordinary’s account) noted that despite “willingness” being the defence in a few cases, consent “from those so young is reasonably presum’d to proceed from an innocent Indiscretion and Ignorance of what they are tempted to.”  The law therefore acquiesced that children had sexuality, but, unlike the judge in the 2008 case, differentiated between possessing sexuality and understanding the implications, leaving the question of which period appears more progressive, balancing precariously.

Jen Baker is a postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol. Her thesis Strange and Bitter Fruit: The Monstrous Child in Fiction and Culture, attempts to create a cultural genealogy of the origins and evolution of ‘the child’ as dark and queer cross-culturally. She is also Co Chief Editor of HARTS & Minds, an interdisciplinary journal for postgraduates of the Humanities and Arts.

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  1. Thanks for sharing some of this fascinating, but also gut-wrenching, material. The Eales case of 1694 is indeed very interesting. As you say, statute made any sex with a girl under ten a capital crime, so why was he acquitted, given that the girl was definitely raped (according to several medical witnesses)? Perhaps the defence’s use of ‘Evil Repute’ in this case was actually an attempt to say that she had (possibly maliciously) accused the wrong man rather than that she had consented. Do you think that’s possible?

    Martin Ingram has also discussed some similar issues in his chapter on ‘Child sexual abuse in early modern England’ (2001), at . I think Garthine Walker might also talk about this in her work on rape in early modern England.

    PS: The Old Bailey proceedings only cover London, so the 570 cases would only be a fraction of the total if all the provincial assize circuit trials were included.

  2. Hi Brodie, thanks for your comment! The Old Bailey Proceedings covered both London and most of rural Middlesex until 1834, as you can see here But as you say even then it is still a fragment, and the 570 is based on me using the most obvious search terms, which did present the majority of cases in the C17th and C18th but I hope to uncover more distinct and unusual cases upon further research.

    It is difficult with say the Eales case, which on the one hand, could be a case that she was misused by someone else, and blamed Eales because they felt they could get the money from him. On the other hand, there are suggestions that perhaps his influence and social standing may have aided him in this case.

    Thank you for the referral to the Ingram chapter, at a glance it looks to have uncovered the same overt emotions recorded in certain cases that I found in my records – whilst some had no emotional input at all. I watched the Danish film “The Hunt” last night, with Mads Mikkelsen – it’s contemporary but it discussed the consequences for a man falsely accused by a child of sexually harassing her – heartbreaking – and made me think about both the children who were confused and cajoled by parents, and the poor falsely accused. Thank goodness in many of these cases that the same “witch hunt” mentality was not put in to practice.

    • Thanks, Jen. Yes, it’s nice that OBO includes a bit of the rural south-east too as that can turn up some interesting cases. I just wanted make sure your readers didn’t misunderstand and think that the 570 referred to all such cases in England.

      I think you’re completely right about Eales. Given that the girl was the only actual witness, it seems (like many 17th-century trials) to revolve entirely around reputation, and Eales was clearly more ‘credible’ (rich, well-connected) than the girl and her family.

      • Oh right yes, thanks Brodie! I think somewhere in the editing process the wording has changed (originally I had said that the OB only covered that area and I have moved it around). Still i found that 570 seemed a very low number to cover almost 400 years in a major city, which makes me wonder how many didn’t get to court, or were settled by paying a fine, or just were not discovered.
        As much as we talk about class issues today, certainly that was a danger for “lower class” women/girls (as evident to the reader of Richardson’s, Hardy’s novels etc if nothing else) that they would be overlooked or merely paid off if their attacker was of a higher social standing – but thankfully these cases show that wasn’t always the situation.

  3. Are all the complainers female and all the accused male?

  4. Hi Brian, interesting question! Predominantly the accusers are female, (I hesitate to refer to them in terms of “complainers” because in many instances it was parents or guardians who raised the issue with the law) and within this district and time period I am yet to find an example in which the accused was female. It would be interesting to see if this differed across the country.

    The main case (one of the few) I found in which the child accusers were male was in the case of Isaac Broderick, a temporary teacher/master in a London school who was found guilty of “sodomical intent” on a number of boys in a London school – this was in 1730 – (so due to both the date and content I was going to discuss in a different post). Questions were raised about the validity of the first two boys’ statements due to their “tender years” and character statements for Broderick by friends, but because of the other witnesses the court found the evidence against him too strong.

    There is no suggestion that there weren’t more cases of boys being abused, nor that women were never the perpetrator, but some early laws only outlined the punishments for rape committed by men on women, or men on boys, with no reference to women/boys or women/girls – which will undoubtedly be linked to the idea of rape as “penetrative”. Of course not all of the children were raped, some were molested, and perhaps less boys would come forward to complain of a woman touching them, or it was considered a right of passage, or as in Medieval and Early Modern England (before the Old Bailey records), young boys and teenagers would have spent the majority of their time with men being educated in languages, fighting etc, many boys went into monastery’s to be educated or work as well as to take the cloth – and their records for such accusations would be held separately.

    • Interesting. It may also be that some instances were prosecuted at local courts under titles such as “indecency”. I certainly think that is the case in Scotland – I looked at all 20 sodomy investigations in C19th Scotland and it was interesting that latterly there was a greater proportion of what were simply unmitigated attacks on boys rather than (possibly) consenting activity. But the tendency in Scotland was to cover it all up rather than prosecute – only 20 cases in C19th and before that just two, one in 1570 and one in 1630. But as I say, I suspect there will be cases in the lower courts under the heading of “indecency” or “outrage” or the like.

      • That’s really intriguing, and certainly as you say away from the big cities communities were probably less willing to go through the whole process. The case I mentioned involves a lot of testimony from the actual boys which shows how seriously they took the case.
        Of course the punishment for molestation, and even rape, at times being “to pay a fine”, also caused problems. What I found from the cases I looked at, was a lack of consistency that was almost reassuring (in that most cases were taken individually). However there were some instances where the use of the child “victim” as witness was questioned, and the defense exclaims that in another similar case the child’s testimony was thrown out for being unreliable.

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