Monday, June 20, 2011

June 25, 1861 --- "That nasty man is at it again"

Sir John Shelley, MP for Westminster, is cleared of charges of public indecency. He had been accused of exposing himself in the window of his rooms on St. James' Street. On the day of the alleged incident, the street was crowded with people and carriages bound for the Queen's drawing room at St. James's Palace. The landlord opposite, fearing no respectable tenants would countenance such a neighbor, pressed charges.

In Police Court, several women from the flat across the street testify to seeing Sir John "with no trousers on, but loose drawers." To describe Sir John's movements, the ladies are forced to use "gross and indelicate hand gestures." He appeared more than once for one servant recalled telling her mistress, "That nasty man is at it again." He even blew kisses to his admirers.

The charges cause a great stir for the 53-year old Sir John is a respected MP descended both from nobility and the poet, Shelley. He is married though his wife opts to reside in the country. Sir John's valet testifies that the day had been very warm and his master had been in uniform as a Colonel of the Middlesex Volunteers. He had returned to his rooms to change and had been drawn to the window by the commotion outside but, the valet insists, Sir John was clad at all times in light trousers familiar to those who had served in India. Others recall seeing the man in the window and that he behaved "in no respect approaching indecency."

The embarrassing charge may have been part of the continuing feud between Sir John and the American railwayman, G.F. Train. The latter hoped to build a network of horse-trams in London but his first line, along the new Victoria Street, had been a fiasco. The raised rails upset many people, literally. Rival omnibus companies and cabmen also protested and Sir John became their voice. The debate was quite personal and after one slight, Train wrote Sir John vowing, "Make me a written apology or I shall give you publicity you don't like."

After two days of this, the magistrate declares "I must say I do not believe it." Sir John may leave "unstained in character." The Times cheers: "We have seldom been more pleased." Yet questions remain. Even the magistrate admits that the police witnesses seem to be honest women. Sir John was urged to pursue charges against Train, but demurred. The Spectator thought it all "unsatisfactorily explained." Sir John, by the way, quit Parliament at the next General Election.

The sketch, from the Illustrated London News, shows St. James Street, on Drawing Room day, 1853.

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