Friday, November 1, 2019

History’s Blind Spots: The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux


Women’s history is, broadly speaking, about putting women back into history by, for example, telling the story of forgotten and marginalised women or reassessing women’s contribution to history. I think there’s another important aspect to women’s history, and that’s how we approach the sources we have. We have to learn how to be critical, how to assess the material before us, how to “read against the grain”. This was recently brought home to me (yet again) while I was reading the introduction to The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux edited by Noel McLachlan and published in 1964. Written over fifty years ago, the introduction itself is now effectively a historical document.   

 
A view of Sydney


Vaux (1772–?) was an English pickpocket and swindler who operated under a number of aliases. Vaux himself uses the words “pickpocket and swindler” in the title of the first edition of the Memoirs published in 1819, although McLachlan’s edition omits them. He was transported to Australia on three separate occasions, and as far as is known ended his days there.

In 1839, the fifty-seven year old Vaux was once again on trial, this time in Sydney, Australia, and for a much more serious offence. He had, said the prosecution, lured an eight year old girl to his room with sweets, placed her on his bed, given her a penny, and indecently assaulted her. At his trial, Vaux admitted having the girl in his room but denied assaulting her. He also admitted that he had offered the girl’s mother money to ignore what had happened, saying that this was so he could avoid being accused of such a revolting crime. He called a number of character witnesses. In spite of all this, the jury found him guilty.

McLachlan, however, does not. His feeling, he writes, is that “this may well have been one crime of which Vaux was really innocent”. His reason is that “the scope for false accusation and blackmail in such cases is obvious, and the only eyewitness in this one was the girl herself, who had probably been too terrified by the dark stairs on the way up to Vaux’s room to give a reliable account of what took place”.

So far as the suggestion of blackmail goes, apparently Vaux made no mention of this in court. Given that this would have strengthened his defence, I can only conclude that there was none. The evidence for the darkness on the stairs is not cited, and it is possible that this detail is mentioned in the depositions. But even if the stairs were dark, I am baffled by the suggestion that this in itself was sufficient to terrify the girl, or that once terrified she was unable to accurately recall what had happened to her. But that isn’t what McLachlan is implying. It is not that the girl was confused, it is that her accusation was “false”.

Now, I am not concerned here with proving or disproving the case against Vaux. What I am concerned with is McLachlan’s account of the case. It is an account based on a concoction of “probably”, generalisations (“such cases”), and insinuation through language that discredits the girl’s testimony: false accusation, blackmail, the doubt cast on the reliability of her account. It is founded on the assumption that if one of the parties is at fault, it is the girl.

But how differently things appear if I rewrite the account with the opposite bias!

“My own feeling is that this may well have been one crime of which Vaux was really guilty. The scope for falsehood and bribery in such cases is obvious, and the only other witness in this one was the defendant himself, who had probably terrorised his victim by taking her up the dark stairs on the way to his room in the hope that she would be unable to remember what took place.”

Well, that doesn’t quite work either. It relies on assumptions just as much as the original version. We don’t know, for example, what the girl could or couldn’t remember or what Vaux hoped. McLachlan does go on to comment that the evidence against Vaux was not “wholly consistent”, but he doesn’t expand upon that. It may well be that the records support this interpretation. On the other hand, given that the jury found Vaux guilty, the documents may also support their interpretation of the evidence. 

Whatever the records do or do not reveal, it is of course possible that Vaux told the truth and that the girl’s evidence was, for some reason, unreliable. It is equally possible that the girl was telling the truth and that Vaux was lying. There are no other witnesses and we will never know the truth of what exactly went on in that room. It is a problem to which we still have no solution: as a Rape Crisis representative recently told the BBC, “gathering strong evidence for rape cases was particularly difficult as there was usually no-third party witness”.[i]  

It’s not that I want to single out McLachlan as a particularly bad offender when it comes to gender bias in historical accounts. His work on Vaux was prompted by his interest in the history of Australia’s convicts: two of his own ancestors had been convicts. Given that they were sent there by a legal system stacked against the poor, marginalised and dispossessed, his studies contribute towards recovering these overlooked histories.  

Nor is there anything unjustified in his questioning of that legal system in Vaux’s case: history is littered with legal injustices. But, like many histories before and since, there’s that dreadful blind spot. The female perspective, if it is acknowledged at all, is immediately discounted in favour of the male. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder why McLachlan felt the need to question the justice of this conviction at all, given that he found no fault with any of Vaux’s other convictions, in spite of the fact that Vaux himself was vociferous in his protestations and self-justifications. Even if there are grounds for doubting the justice of the 1839 trial, they must surely be more convincing than the unsubstantiated suggestion that the girl’s evidence is worthless and the mother a liar.

But it all sounds so objective, so plausible, so reasonable. That’s how “such cases” are. What’s more, having put the suggestion forward, McLachlan immediately qualifies his remarks by acknowledging that the evidence, if not consistent, was circumstantial, and hastily adding, “So the feeling does not amount to conviction, and it is not difficult to understand why the jury were persuaded of his guilt”.

It is magnanimous of McLachlan indeed. However, it does nothing to rehabilitate the plaintiff. The conviction is not based on the evidence of the girl and her mother, but on the circumstances of the case. The decision of the gentlemen of the jury rests on firmer foundations than the (false) evidence of an eight-year old girl and her (blackmailing) mother. When he sentenced Vaux, the judge regretted that the maximum sentence he could impose was two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Property crimes, of course, carried much heavier sentences than crimes against women and children – Vaux had got seven years transportation for stealing a pocket handkerchief – as women’s suffrage campaigners were still pointing out a hundred years later. McLachlan attributes the justice’s comments to his irascibility.

Somewhere in all this an eight-year old girl has got lost, her evidence discounted, and any feelings she might have had about the case ignored. Yet we hear plenty about Vaux’s feelings – how he “reprobated” the offence against which “his own feelings revolted”. And this is what I mean by the need to be critical about how we approach history. Her voice, her experience and her perspective are there, hidden away. It is our job to find them – or at least acknowledge that they existed.

Lest we congratulate ourselves on our own enlightenment, however, it is worth reiterating that McLachlan is not a villain by any means. He’s trapped in the attitudes of his time – as are we all. In another fifty years someone might be reading our work and shaking their heads over our own blind spots – our speciesism, perhaps, or militarism – as we shake our heads over previous generations’ sexism, racism, or homophobia. And we can hardly claim to have eradicated these in our time.


The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux including his Vocabulary of the Flash Language, edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Noel McLachlan (London: Heinemann, 1964)

Image: From The History of New South Wales, including Botany Bay, Port Jackson, Pamaratta [sic], Sydney, and all its dependancies..., George Barrington (London: M Jones, 1802), British Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

[i] ‘Why are rape prosecutions falling?’ BBC News, 12 September 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48095118

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Goo Goo Eyes: Advertising and the Suffragettes


In The Road to Representation: Essays on the Women’s Suffrage Campaign, I wrote a piece about how businesses made money from the suffrage campaign (Making Money From the Suffragettes). In it I mentioned how for some companies, the campaign was a fruitful marketing opportunity. I also referred to an advert produced by The Keeloma Dairy Company.

So I was amused when I recently bought a copy of an advertisement by another dairy company which also used women’s suffrage in its marketing campaign. The company was Aplin & Barrett and the advertisement was for their St Ivel brand. Such was their faith in their product, they claimed it could even win women the vote. 


In this adventure, the knight St Ivel meets a group of suffragettes, who ask him for his support.
"Beshrew me!" he replies, "Ye have the goo-goo eye which likes me well. Right gladly would I wield my trusty blade on behalf of damsels so buxom. But I wot not what ye want." The women explain, "We demand a vote, but the tyrant Man doth scoff at us and casts us into durance vile." St Ivel advises them, "Hie ye to your homes and set before the tyrants a goodly meal of St Ivel Cheese and other St Ivel dainties. Thus will ye so please them that they will grant ye votes galore."

The cartoon was drawn by the commercial artist Alexander (Alick) P F Ritchie (1868–1938), some of whose work is held at the British Cartoons Archive at the University of Kent. Ritchie was born in Dundee, and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Antwerp. You can see some wonderful examples of his work on the National Portrait Gallery website.

You can even see the artist in action in this brilliant 1915 film on the British Film Institute website, where he is doing a version of the music-hall act the “chalk-talk”.

The St Ivel brand was established in 1901 by dairy wholesalers James Shorland Aplin and William Henry Barrett who formed Aplin & Barrett Ltd in 1897 (they had gone into partnership in 1888). The company was based in Yeovil, and amalgamated with Western Counties Creameries in 1898. For more information see The A-to-Zof Yeovil’s History. There are more examples of Aplin & Barrett’s advertising on the website, along with photographs of promotional items such as cups, playing cards and notepads – reminiscent of the WSPU’s own talent for producing Votes for Women merchandise. There are also some examples at The History of Advertising Trust website. Sadly there are no more suffrage adverts!

You can find out more about Alick P F Ritchie at A History of British Animation.

Making Money From the Suffragettes was originally published on my blog in July 2016.

The Road to Representation: Essays on the Women’s Suffrage Campaign is available to new subscribers to my newsletter as a free ebook. You can sign up here.





Note re image: My copy of the image does not include details of the publication it appeared in or the date it appeared, nor do I have any information about the commissioner, which I assume was Aplin & Barrett, or any agreement made concerning copyright. The firm was taken over by Unigate in 1960 and so far as I know no longer exists. Therefore, so far as I can ascertain, based on the date of death of the artist, and assuming copyright remained with the artist, to the best of my knowledge the image is not in copyright.