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A Commission on the Sale of Flesh and Blood2
In June 1868, a solitary teenage girl sailing from Antwerp to London was found onboard with a letter directing her to Number 22, Somerset Street, Portman Square, London. The address in question was that of a well-known, ‘quality’ brothel, filled with a large number of young “foreign ladies”. This particular joyhouse was run by a Madame Durant, who enjoyed a profitable arrangement with procurers of young prostitutes across the Channel. Madame Durant took great offence when the hapless Belgian teenager was intercepted by the authorities, and conveyed to Mansion House, which at the time was the seat of the Mayor of London, before being sent back to Antwerp. Madame Durant went to Mansion House in person, threatening legal proceedings, and demanded the release of the girl, whom she took to be her property. Durant’s concerns were, of course, purely fiscal. The non-delivery of her Belgian girl meant she “would sustain a very serious loss”.
Shamefully, this expose into the Victorian traffic in human flesh did not result in multiple arrests, the foreign girls being released from their enslavement, or the closing of the brothel. Ironically, proceedings against the Somerset Street vice-ring was refused on the grounds of cost: £100 was a price the Marylebone Borough could ill-afford to initiate the action. Instead, a letter was written to 22 Somerset Street, requesting that they “abate the nuisance”. I’m sure the missive was very successful.
The import and export of girls for the purposes of prostitution is one of the more unsavoury aspects of Victorian society, and was unfortunately more rife than was once thought. For example, Mary Kelly, believed to be the final victim of Jack the Ripper, is thought to have spent some part of the 1880s in France, as a prostitute, held against her will3.
The ambivalence of the authorities to this practice was sometimes reflected in the media, which expressed outrage that such dens of iniquity might “ruin a fashionable street”4, implying, of course, that running brothels and kidnapping girls for the purposes of vice was acceptable in less well-to-do districts. However, many of the public also felt that “unprotected” girls faced “social degradation” from traffickers utterly lacking in “virtue and morality”5.
Some members of the public actively campaigned to heighten social awareness of, and stamp out the practice of, the activities outlined above.
The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society
The Victorian age was the great era of philanthropic societies, each with their own particular agenda. By 1869 there were over 200 such organisations in London alone, it being a middle-class trend to be seen to be helping the less-fortunate. There were countless temperance societies, a Labourers’ Friend Society, and the brilliantly named Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association7. Every group sought to improve an aspect of society its members believed to be in some way inadequate, unhealthy, or immoral.
The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society was just such a body. Claiming to have been in existence for over a decade, it was charitably run out of a house in Brompton as a haven for any unfortunate continental young lady rescued from a life of sexual exploitation. The events centred around Somerset Street’s house of ill-fame prompted the Society’s secretary, Henry Bedwell, to publish the following plea:
Bedwell served a committee comprising the following gentlemen: Major Thomas Ross, of Kilravock House, Norwood; William Hicks, Solicitor, of 18a Orchard Street, Portman Square; Henry Weston, of the same address; J. L. O’Doherty, an ecclesiastical agent living on the notorious Somerset Street; John Woolams, of Cavendish Square; a Mr Mills, of New Broad Street; John Davies and Henry Wills, a mining secretary, both of New Broad Street; and Mr Barber, of Baker Street, Portman Square. The girls themselves were cared for by a “Superioress”, Eliza Evans8.
If this series of posts has taught us one thing, it might be this: never take a Victorian gentleman’s good intentions at face-value. The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society was a fraudulent sham.
There is no reference to it before June 1868; the claims to its being in existence for ten years is totally spurious. The society’s name and supposed worthy intent was used to extort various goods and services from several London businesses and tradespeople. Bedwell, ostensibly the secretary, had in fact “carried on a system of swindling”9 for over two years previously. Now, under the guise of an active member of an honourable society, he procured for himself a horse and brougham, and a set of brushes for the girls – there were never any girls, and Bedwell simply pawned the brushes. He also tried to procure goods from the Blind Institution of Oxford Street, again to be pawned for ready cash10.
Thankfully, Bedwell was caught before he could milk his con any further. In court, it was proven that both Hicks and Weston had never lived at the Orchard Street address. Eliza Evans, the erstwhile ‘Superioress’, was in fact merely Bedwell’s servant. Nearly all the gentlemen on the Society’s ‘committee’ “emphatically” denied having any connection whatsoever with Bedwell, or to his Society, in “any way”11.
Indeed, Messrs Woolams, Mills, and Davies all came forward at Bedwell’s trial to denounce him and his use of their good names. Major Ross put a notice in The Times to the same effect12. Henry Weston might have done the same, but he was already dead at the time of Bedwell’s trial, and Bedwell took this opportunity to implicate Weston in his scam13.
Bedwell was sentenced to five years14.
The Fall Guy?
Although the mining secretary Henry Wills stated that he knew Henry Weston15, it was never made clear at Bedwell’s trial that the other gentlemen knew each other, as much as they all claimed to have never known Henry Bedwell. Was Bedwell acting on his own, and merely drew up a list of respectable names to lend his scheme some front? Or were all the members of The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society on the take, and callously let Bedwell take the fall, which was easy enough, given his reputation as a rogue? The authorities believed the former version of events, but, perhaps, given the close proximity of their addresses, these men were in some way connected.
In fact, there is a link between some of the reluctant members of The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society: Major Thomas Ross, William Hicks, Henry Weston and John Davies. They all knew each other before the advent of The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society, at least by April 1868.
We can prove this because they all knew, or were aware of the activities of, another man.
And that man, was Paul Rabey, the Younger.
The Kilravock House Con
Major Thomas Ross, of Kilravock House, Norwood, had, states his biographer, been
…in business since he was a young man, and had dealt successfully in the ownership and management of property.Eric Kings, Major Thomas Ross of Kilravock House: His Life and Times, 2006, p57
Now in his seventies, and it being known in London’s polite society that he was keen to invest in mining stock, Ross allowed himself to be taken in by Rabey, who was by now residing at Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury17.
Ross, believing the Cornishman “to be a gentleman”19, befriended Mr and Mrs Rabey20, often having them call at his home. On one of these visits, Rabey told Ross that he was the owner, or very shortly to become the owner, of the Wheal Emily Silver Mine, near Callington21. All he needed to secure the lease was a loan of £100, which Ross, somewhat obligingly, handed over. Rabey also convinced Ross to buy a number of shares in Wheal Emily; the mine was, Rabey said,
…such a good thing.Royal Cornwall Gazette, May 13, 1868, p6
On the morning of April 1st, 1868, Rabey visited Ross, tapped the breast-pocket of his coat and told Ross that
…my mind is easy now, as I have got the lease here all right.Royal Cornwall Gazette, May 14, 1868, p6
Rabey, banking on Ross and a female friend who was present, Ann Lloyd, to implicitly trust a gentleman, then brazenly offered to show them his lease for Wheal Emily. They declined. His word was enough.
Rabey, of course, never owned Wheal Emily, and there was no lease in his pocket. But this didn’t stop him from selling Ross 150 shares in the mine for £337, and then a further 2,000 shares at £1 each. Rabey also prised £75 worth of shares out of Ann Lloyd22. Today, that’s a total of over £290,000.
Ross might have been old, but he still had teeth, and made inquiries about Wheal Emily in the City. It must have caused him some consternation to discover that the mine was owned by a Mr Langford, who had in fact granted no lease to Rabey, or anybody else.
Ross’s digging told him that, originally, John Davies had filed a suit in Chancery to obtain the lease of Wheal Emily from Langford. Henry Weston had filed the suit for Davies, and received 40 shares at £1 each in the mine as payment. Weston had then sold these shares on, but had to take them back and return the money once it was discovered that, whoever had originally given him the shares had no authority to do so. Weston complied, and was left out of pocket23.
Ross, Davies, Weston: three members of The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society.
Was Rabey’s bill, or suit, for Wheal Emily, the same one Davies had filed via Weston? Had Rabey somehow got Davies to file the suit on his behalf? Was Rabey not only playing Ross, but Davies and Weston also? The fact that Weston was paid for his efforts with worthless shares rather suggests it.
Maybe, maybe not. But Thomas Ross still had enough business sense to realise he was being ripped off.
Shortly after Rabey’s visit to Ross and Ann Lloyd, the following notice could be read in the ‘papers:
The Thomas Evans mentioned here was Rabey’s brother-in-law, who authorised the sale of the shares on Rabey’s behalf – needless to say, he lacked the authority to do so24. In the same way that, as in Bristol, J. K. Thomas was Rabey’s front man, so Evans was here25.
However, the solicitor whose name appended this notice was William Hicks, of Orchard Street, Portman Square. The same William Hicks implicated, along with Ross, Davies, and Weston, in The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society scandal. The same William Hicks whose clerk was, in fact, Henry Weston26. The same William Hicks who, when the story about The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society broke, was not present at Orchard Street, Portman Square. Nor, for that matter, was Weston27. The notice regarding Rabey, however, proves that Orchard Street was Hicks’ normal place of business.
Perhaps, in this instance, Rabey was attempting to punch above his weight. In the same way that the association with The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society was not to stick to Ross, Hicks, Weston or Davies, these men also washed their hands of Paul Rabey the Younger. It seemed that way to the media:
They Died With Their Shoes On
As Paul Rabey and, a few weeks later, Henry Bedwell discovered, it didn’t pay to cross Messrs. Ross, Hicks, Weston and Davies.
Events happened fast. There was to be no delaying of the trial by claiming illness, counter-charges, or last-minute back-handers to the plaintiffs28. On May 6, 1868, at the Surrey Sessions, Paul Rabey the Younger was sentenced to five years for defrauding Thomas Ross. His previous conviction at York in 1861 counted against him, as did his “questionable” dealings in Bristol29.
He was held at the Woking Male Invalid Convict Prison, and appears there on the 1871 census.
A previous inmate had been William Strahan, another white-collar criminal who had embezzled his clients’ funds in the 1850s31. Even behind bars, Rabey shamelessly hounded Ross’s estate, with he and his wife issuing suits to recover the money he claimed he was still owed for the spurious Wheal Emily shares32.
Rabey had also vowed revenge.
On his conviction, he is supposed to have bitterly cried out,
They will die in their shoes!qtd in Cornubian and Redruth Times, October 16, 1868, p4
It was an unfortunate characteristic of Rabey that, when he vowed to take a man down, he pursued his quarry with a certain ruthlessness. Witness the experiences of William Harvey and William Brunt33.
This facet of Rabey’s personality was recognised by a malicious letter-writer to a Cornish newspaper:
It is a remarkable fact that the chief instigator of the proceedings against Mr Rabey was three months afterwards found dead in Plymouth under awful circumstances, and another person concerned died suddenly at his dinner table a few days ago.“One who was present at the trial”, Cornubian and Redruth Times, October 16, 1868, p2
Henry Weston, at the time of The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society scandal, was
…found dead in a water-closet at Plymouth.London Morning Herald, August 10, 1868, p234
Major Thomas Ross was also dead by September 186835. His biographer doesn’t state whether he died whilst eating dinner. Indeed, whilst a whole chapter is dedicated to Ross’s involvement with Rabey, the matter of The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society is accorded a brief paragraph36. We can now see that Ross had rather more involvement with other ‘members’ of the Society than he was perhaps given credit for.
It’s also unknown whether either Ross or Weston died with their shoes on, and whether Rabey’s alleged outburst as he was sent down turned out to be a horrible coincidence, or something much darker.
Others believed Rabey to have been “ruined” by The Foreign Girls’ Protection Society. In the same way that Henry Bedwell had been forsaken by the other members of the Society, so it was argued that “poor” Rabey had been made a “pack horse” to “hide their dishonest acts”37. Which, when you consider his career, is rather ironic.
No one listened to these claims that Rabey had been the “victim of foul play”38. He was the victim of his own greed. No proof of foul play has ever been uncovered in the deaths of Weston and Ross, and the reputations of Ross, Weston, Hicks and Davies survived 1868 unblemished.
Paul Rabey the Younger was to die in Woking Prison in June, 1872. He was 5439. Again, it’s also unknown if he actually died with his shoes on.
Many thanks for reading