London in the first decades of the nineteenth century had literally been enlightened; gas now helped illuminate even some of the dark streets south of the river. It was on the edge of the glow of one of the new lamps on the Southwark side of Waterloo Bridge that on Friday 5th September 1823, about half past ten in the evening, a watchman, William Bollom, spotted a couple in a dark recess. The woman was ‘in a state of indecent exposure, from which he inferred an improper intercourse to have taken place.’ He promptly arrested the pair and locked them up in the Surrey watchhouse.
The following morning they were brought before Maurice Swabey, the magistrate at the court at Union Hall. Despite their night’s incarceration it was clear from their demeanour and appearance that they were ‘perfectly respectable’ individuals. Both were aged around forty, the man in good quality clothes, the woman in a white muslin gown, silk spencer, bonnet and veil.
Bollom’s charge of indecent exposure was fiercely denied by the man, who claimed he had come across the woman by chance as he was walking home from work. ‘He protested that he had not taken the slightest liberty with the woman, nor, but from her dress and appearance, had he knowledge of her sex . . . The female, who was drowned in tears, corroborated the man’s statement, and protested that what the watchman had stated was an absolute fiction.’ A disbelieving Swabey sentenced both to Brixton for a month.
The unfortunate pair had fallen foul of the new Vagrancy Act, a measure designed to address the growing number of rogues and vagabonds which plagued the streets of London. But it had been seized on by the magistrates of Surrey, who were concerned at what they perceived as a deterioration in society’s behaviour.
England was undergoing a moral reformation, one which would reach its apotheosis during Victoria’s reign but had begun well before she’d even been born. In the late seventeen hundreds the English were notorious for their drunkenness and revelry. Since then the country had stumbled through the Napoleonic wars and a subsequent economic depression. In those difficult few years when people struggled to come to terms with peace, many had predicted the complete collapse of religion and morality.
By asserting a strict moral code, the ruling classes were attempting to establish order in a world of huge change – one in which they felt the breath of revolution on their necks. The new Vagrancy Act was an unexpected but welcome weapon for this newly puritanical elite, while unfortunate for canoodling couples, now too often betrayed by the new gas lamps and the parish watchmen who could make up to five shillings a time for each ‘vagrant’ they brought before the court.