Thursday 22 February 2024

Social, Cultural and Political climate of Victorian England

How the social, cultural and political climate of Victorian England combined to create a perfect storm of crime, murder and sensationalism.

Kim Donovan, author of The Mysterious Mrs Hood, provides the historical backdrop to her great -great aunt’s murder in 1900.

England 1898 --It has been ten years since Jack the Ripper terrorised the streets of Whitechapel, London. Charles Booth and his team of socialists have been working on a project to map wealth and poverty across the city since 1886, and have recently named Stockwood Street, which was home to Mary Jane and Herbert Bennett, as being one of the ‘lowest class’ streets in Victorian London. It was at this point that Mary Jane and Herbert made a choice: to turn to crime to escape poverty. Mary Jane’s desperate struggle for survival had begun.

Charles Booth’s work would eventually result in a colour-coded map of the city, which carved out and demarcated the poorest streets with thick black lines. Booth classified these areas as being home to the ‘lowest classes.’ The notebooks that accompany Booth’s poverty map add vivid detail about the social character of each street, which helps to give us a sense of the conditions in which people were living at the time. Stockwood Street, a dingy thoroughfare off Plough Street, near Clapham Junction, was described as being awash with ‘drunken, rowdy and troublesome people’. It is easy to imagine the danger that may have lurked on the ‘vicious and semi-criminal’ street after dark. It is no surprise, then, that a heavily pregnant Mary Jane would have urgently sought to liberate herself from these challenging social conditions.

The researchers documenting the conditions on London’s streets would at times be accompanied by the police officer for the district in which they were charting. It was a time when officers walked their beats. Forensic science was in its infancy, and the police still relied heavily on clues to solve crimes. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Scotland Yard had been set up ten years before, and plain clothed police officers, who had originally been thought of as ‘spies’ had made significant strides in winning the trust of the public. Despite this more robust police force, Mary Jane and Herbert would successfully evade the scrutiny of the authorities as they travelled across the country, graduating from fraud to theft, and eventually to arson, while leaving a trail of disgruntled people in their wake.

When relations between the couple eventually began to sour, it is unlikely that they would have considered divorce. Although legal by that time, divorce was expensive and brought with it great shame, especially for women. Mary Jane would have been dependent on her marriage for reasons of reputation, and she would have been reliant on her husband for money.

Despite the great swathes of black on Booth’s map of London, social conditions across the country were being to improve. The Bank holiday Act of 1871 had introduced four regular bank holidays, which gave workers more time for leisure activities, and the development of the railways made it possible to travel longer distances with more ease. Seaside resorts had begun to spring up, and Great Yarmouth in particular became a popular holiday destination. It was here, on a holiday with her infant daughter in September 1900, that Mary Jane would meet her tragic end.

This increase in leisure time coincided with a rise in literacy levels and the development of a more affordable and less regulated press, which, in turn, led to a dramatic rise in newspaper readership. The Victorians had a reputation for being avid consumers of violent entertainments, and a new-fangled form of journalism dubbed ‘Tabloid Journalism’, or ‘Yellow Journalism’ (in North America) had started to develop. Articles in this style had a focus on bold headlines, emotive writing and sensationalist stories. They were, broadly speaking, a development of the Broadside, a type of street literature that had been infamously sold at public executions in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The sensationalist reporting of crime was at odds with a legal system that required impartiality, and there were calls at the turn of the 20th Century to regulate the press through fear that sensationalist reporting would prejudice active cases. It was into this press that the story of Mary Jane’s murder found its way, and it was through a newspaper report that her father would learn of his daughter’s murder. The press whipped up such a frenzy around the case that the ensuing trial attracted attention from across the country and Mary Jane Bennett became a household name. She had escaped poverty, and her desperate struggle for survival had come to an end, but not in the way she would have hoped for.

The Mysterious Mrs Hood by Kim Donovan (Orion Publishing) Out Now

A true Victorian murder mystery... Great Yarmouth, September 1900: A young woman is found dead on the beach, a bootlace tied tightly around her neck. Despite her death attracting national attention in the press, nobody claims her. Detective Inspector Robert Lingwood of the Great Yarmouth police force declares he will not rest until the mystery of the young woman's death is solved. But it's only once the case has been referred to Scotland Yard that the layers of mystery start to peel away... 'Mrs Hood' was in fact Mary Jane Bennett, and this is her story. Following clues and tracking red herrings leads the police to close in on their one and only suspect. With arson, fraud, an affair and a sensation-hungry press, the murder gripped the nation in one of the most eagerly anticipated trials of the early twentieth century.

Kim Donovan can be found on X @Kim_Donovan_

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