Women’s rights and rape; a breakthrough in 1811.

Two hundred years ago, rape was a capital crime and dealt with very severely. However, convictions were rare because of the nature of the questions that the women could be asked and the likelihood, as in other cases, that witnesses would be paid to defame those giving evidence.

There was a case in 1811. William Hodgson was found guilty of the “ravishment” of nineteen year old Harriet Halliday. Her evidence was strong; witnesses had seen her dragged into a stable by Hodgson; a local surgeon had heard her screams, rescued her afterwards and financed the prosecution against Hodgson. Halliday was a servant, and would not have the money to prosecute Hodgson herself; another weakness of  the regency justice system.

After Harriet had given her evidence in support of the prosecution she was cross examined by the prisoner’s counsel. In the face of such strong evidence, Hodgson’s defence became aggressive. They called Halliday’s former employer and were about to ask why she had discharged the servant after a mere two weeks work, they were stopped by Baron Wood. The judge ruled this and told it was not relevant to the case. Then the defence asked her whether she had had any “connection” with any boy in the past. Judge Baron Wood then made a novel and important ruling;

The learned judge allowed the objection on the ground that witness was not bound to answer these questions as they to criminate and disgrace herself and said that he there was not any exception to the rule in the case  of  rape.

The prisoner’s counsel called witnesses and among others a witness to prove that the girl had been caught in bed a year before this charge with a young man
This second piece of evidence was ruled inadmissible and Harriet’s evidence stood. The new rule (called Hodgson) was extended in 1817 to attempted rape and although it did not ban general questions about the women’s lifestyle, it did rule inadmissible specific ones, such as were asked in this case.

The court was utterly aghast at these comments. One lawyer commented that his main method of attack in these cases had been taken away from him. It turned out to be a turning point in women’s legal rights in cases of sexual assault.

More about the poor and powerless of Regency Britain in this book.  All new material

A failed sexual assault prosecution, 1818.

‘On trial at the Middlesex Sessions, Gilbert Kerr; on the charges of 1) Intention to rape with violence 2) Common Assault’  


Clarissa Acton was a fourteen year old charity student at the St John’s charity school in Wapping. Having no home to go to at Christmas, she lodged at the school, sleeping in the same bed as the school servant Ann Thomas.

On 26th December, Ann got up at 7.15 to start work and left Clarissa sleeping. Clarissa was wakened by a voice next to her bed, asking if he could get into bed with her. It was Gilbert Kerr, the master of the school and he was wearing his shirt and nothing else.  He  said   “Acton, can I get into bed with you?” and she replied with a loud NO!. However, he pulled back the bedclothes and put one arm around her neck and another round her arm and tried to turn her over. She screamed so loudly that Kerr took fright and left the room; Clarissa locked the room behind him and he shouted out   “ For God’s sake Acton, don’t tell anybody, it will be the ruin of me!”. At first she threatened to tell the mistress of the house, Mr Kerr’s wife, although she was away for the holidays. She had to promise to tell nobody to stop Kerr knocking on her door, but she ignored this by telling her roommate Ann Thomas later the same evening.

Later that day, Kerr took hold of Ann Thomas’s hand and asked her if Clarissa had said anything to her about what happened, and she replied that she had not. Kerr claimed that he had only come into the room to give them both a Christmas kiss; Ann was surprised at this as Kerr would have heard her moving noisily around the house and was clearly not in her room; and for the servant, it was no longer Christmas. Ann also stated that the master knew they the door was looked if both girls were asleep in it, and would only be open if one of them had left.

Mr Alley, Kerr’s expensive   lawyer, pointed out that no force had been applied at the time when Kerr left the room. He had sworn that he was wearing what he normally did in the morning, merely a long shirt that covered his top half which fell down onto his legs. This could not be rape; Kerr was guilty of no more than “toying” with Clarissa- somewhat reprehensible given the position of trust he was in, but what would happen in the court if all men who did this were prosecuted for a kiss? Surely, if this prosecution was allowed, every woman who had been toyed with would cry “ rape” and blackmail a good man into marriage?  If he had come into her room completely naked, that would have been, of course, a completely different matter! He had his shoes on….

Clarissa then repeated her story that Kerr had pulled back the covers of the bed and held her by the neck and waist wearing nothing but a shirt; later on the same day he had given her a shilling, something that had never happened before or since. However, there were many character references for Gilbert Kerr, who commented on the humane way that he ran the school. This included some women

The jury must have been in some doubt, as they conferred for an hour; it was common for juries to discuss among themselves in the box and not adjourn at all.

Kerr was found guilty of common assault. Men were now “safe”