The history of child sex abuse

Historic child sex abuse is a phrase rarely out of the news in 2016.  This blog post is being written in a week when unprecedented numbers of football players are coming forward to identify abusers, and in a year when a troubled government inquiry into the issue is on its fourth Chair.  The topic has been given historical as well as contemporary-historic focus by the book Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England by Louise Jackson, a difficult and important read.  The Staffordshire overseers’ vouchers reveal that, if evidence of such wrong-doing came to light in the early nineteenth century, it was feasible that it would be prosecuted even at heavy public cost.

In 1826 Catherine Chawner aged 9 was abused by William Rogers alias Adin aged 57. Rogers met the child frequently, perhaps on her walking to and from school since the attack took place near to school house bridge.  He habitually gave her treats such as apples and halfpennies, encouraging her to trust him, until in October he started abusing her (and threatening her with flogging if she told her parents).  Rogers was tried at the Stafford Assizes in 1827 and was convicted on the evidence of Catherine’s mother, a surgeon John Allport, and another child Sarah Jump.  In summing up the judge lamented that he could not impose a more severe sentence, the offence being in his view diabolical and as heinous as some then incurring the death penalty.

In March 1827 the parish of Uttoxeter paid at least £34 16s towards costs associated with prosecuting the case, including securing counsel, horse hire between Uttoxeter and Stafford, and to compensate witnesses for loss of time when attending the trial.  This was a very substantial sum to spend out of funds officially designated for the poor, particularly given that the Chawner family’s poverty is not proven.  Very little can be learned of Catherine, since her mother is referred to in reports of the trial but not named.  The absence of her father from proceedings faintly indicates that he was already dead or otherwise absent.  Similarly no baptism can be found for her in 1817-1818.  Other members of the extended Chawner family (which was prominent in Staffordshire and neighbouring counties) were rather prosperous.  Issues of the Derby Mercury in the 1830s reveal at least four family members who were medical practitioners, namely William Chawner surgeon of Cheadle, Rupert Chawner MD of Burton, Thomas Chawner surgeon of Lichfield and the suggestively named Darwin Chawner MD of Newark.  The only additional information retrieved from the vouchers about Catherine is similarly inconclusive.  The parish paid 12s to buy her some clothes in April 1831, when she might have been around 14 years old and so the right age for apprenticeship, but no formal parish apprenticeship indenture for Catherine survives for this date.

We will continue to search for Catherine in the hope that we might be able to write a biography for her, but our interim conclusion must be that parish authorities were willing to devote extensive community resources to the prosecution of grotesque crime, even where the money was technically intended for other purposes.

Sources: SRO D3891/6/31/4, D3891/6/37/1/18.

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