The Boys in the Bathhouse, 1839

NOTE: The following newspaper reports concern a case involving what might be described today as a "pedophile", but since the older man was 19 years old and the younger men were 14 years old, it might better be described as a case involving sexuality between adolescents. The real abuser in the case was the head of the school, an Episcopal minister, who beat the younger men in order to get their "confessions", and who even tutored them on what to say at the trial (which would probably make their accusations inadmissible in a modern court). Nevertheless the case is interesting in showing how a bathhouse was a site of gay sex in the 1830s.

(Before Mr. Justice COLTMAN.)

Francis John Nichols, aged 19, described as a clerk, was capitally indicted for an unnatural offense on the person of a boy named William John Purdy.
          Mr. Clarkson conducted the prosecution, and Mr. Chambers defended the prisoner.
          Mr. CLARKSON having stated the case to the jury, called the following witnesses:–
          The Rev. F. Mortimer stated, that he was the minister of an episcopal chapel in Gray's-inn-road, in connexion with which he had established a school for the education of boys. In consequence of some circumstances which came to his knowledge connected with the present prosecution, he caused an inquiry to be made among the scholars, and he was obliged to flog six or seven of the boys rather severely, in order to elicit the truth from them, after he had discovered the conduct which the prisoner had pursued towards the boys Purdy, Dones, and others.
          In his cross-examination the witness said that the parents of some of the boys he had flogged expressed their thanks to him for having so chastised their sons, but others had objected to his having had recourse to such a mode of punishment in order to elicit the truth. He took the flogging upon himself, and Mr. Hamilton, the master of the school, did not interfere. His suspicions were first excited in consequence of some inquiries which the prisoner had made relative to the school.
          Ann Clarke stated, that she was pew-opener at the Episcopal chapel, Gray's-inn-road, of which the last witness was the minister. On the 20th of February last the prisoner came to her house and asked her what time the boys left the school. She told him that they came at half-past 12 in the morning, and remained until 3 in the afternoon. He then said he had heard complaints that the boys were kept too long at the school, and that they were treated very severely. Witness then asked the prisoner who he was. He replied, that he was a friend of the boys. Witness then told him that she would acquaint Mr. Hamilton, the master, and asked the prisoner to name the boys who had been ill-treated, but he would not do so, and he then went away. She did not ask the prisoner's name, but the fact of his having called led to the investigation which followed.
          William John Purdy was then sworn, and stated that he was 14 years of age. He knew the prisoner at the bar, and first saw him at the house of Mr. Dones, the father of one of the boys who had been ill-treated by the prisoner. Witness remembered going to the chambers of the prisoner in the month of August last, in company with the boy Dones. The prisoner was writing, when Dones and witness passed the best part of the time in eating fruit and cakes which the prisoner gave them. They then left the chambers with the prisoner, and he told them when they were in the street that he was going to take them to a bath. He then took them to the tepid baths, in the York-road, and when they got there Dones and witness took off their clothes and went in. The bath had boxes round it, and two or three persons were in the water when they went in, but they were not there when they came out. It was a warm bath, and after witness had remained in it for some time he came out, and witness went to one of the boxes to dress himself. The prisoner followed him into the box. (The witness here stated the conduct pursued towards him by the prisoner, which went fully to establish the charge as laid in the indictment.) The prisoner then told him to dress himself, and left him, and after he had put on his clothes he came out of the box and saw the prisoner go into another box with Dones, who was undressed at the time. The witness then stated that the prisoner paid for the baths, and they then went away together. The prisoner treated them to some biscuits on their way home, and then parted from them. witness subsequently saw the prisoner, who told him that he had seen Dones, and that he had been telling him a good many stories, and he asked witness if he had been seconding Dones in what he said. Witness denied it, and said he had not seen Dones, and after some further conversation the prisoner gave him a sixpence, and desired him not to mention to the other boys what he had told him.
          Cross-examined. – Witness was flogged by Mr. Mortimer, who wanted to know what the prisoner had done. He took down his trousers to flog him, and every time he would not confess Mr. Mortimer gave him three stripes, although he was willing to tell all he knew, but he had no time. Mr. Mortimer tried to get the confession out of me by flogging, and he made use of words which witness repeated after him, and after he had confessed all he was flogged still. Mr. Mortimer had flogged him before. There were half-doors to the boxes at the bath, but no curtains, that witness saw. He had no notion that he had done anything wrong until he was told so by Mr. Mortimer, who put questions to him as plain as he could during the flogging. Witness was examined before the magistrates at Hatton-garden, to whom he mentioned what had happened to him.
          The other boy, Christopher Durham Dones, was then called and examined. He stated, that he was not quite 14, and the statement which he gave respecting what took place at the baths confirmed the evidence of the boy Purdy; but he mentioned some circumstances which were at variance with the statement of the latter, and tended to contradict his evidence. He stated, for instance, that other persons were in the bath when Purdy and he came out, and that he saw three men walking about. He heard no screaming or disturbances, although Purdy declared that he cried out for assistance. This witness then went on to state, that the prisoner had made an indecent attempt upon him in one of the rooms at Staple-inn, before they went to the baths.
          The mother of the boy Purdy was called to prove that her son had received 6d. from the prisoner, and another 6d. when he called to see him one evening at her house.
          Duke, an officer of Hatton-garden, proved his having taken the prisoner into custody.
          A letter was then produced, written by the prisoner from Clerkenwell prison, and addressed to the boy Purdy. It was full of Scriptural quotations, enforcing the necessity of speaking the truth, such as – "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," "Thou shalt not bear false witness," &c.; and the latter called upon the boy to confess all he knew to his father and mother, and concluded by stating, "although you have placed me in this situation, yet I bear no malice against you. Your injured but forgiving friend, FRANCIS JOHN NICHOLS."
          This was the case for the prosecution.
          Mr. CHAMBERS then proceeded to address the jury for the prisoner, and took occasion to comment severely upon the conduct of the Rev. Mr. Mortimer, and the mode of torture he adopted for the purpose of wringing a confession from the boys. The learned counsel contended that it was utterly impossible to believe that any man in his senses would have gone to a public swimming bath of all places in the world, for the purpose of perpetrating a crime of such a nature, the commission of which he must have known would subject him to the last penalty of the law. He contended that the statements made by the two boys were wholly at variance with each other, and he was quite sure that the jury, as men of the world, must see the utter impossibility of attaching the slightest credit to the atrocious story.
          Several witnesses of respectability were then called who gave the prisoner an excellent character for morality, general good conduct, and religious feeling.
          Mr. Justice COLTMAN, in summing up the evidence, observed, that the case was one of a most serious description, for if the jury should consider that the guilt of the prisoner was established to their satisfaction, his life would undoubtedly be forfeited. His Lordship then observed that there were circumstances in the case which rendered it one in which great caution should be used in coming to a conclusion. It appeared that the grand jury had expressed some dissatisfaction with respect to the manner in which the boy Dones had given his evidence before them, but, whatever grounds they might have had for coming to that conclusion, he must say that as far as the testimony of the boy Purdy went he could perceive no variation between that testimony and the evidence which he had previously given before the magistrates, although undoubtedly there were some material contradictions between his statement and that of Dones. There was another circumstance which ought to weight in favour of the accused, and that was the fact, that although they were now inquiring into the facts of the case in the month of April, the circumstances on which the charge was grounded took place as far back as the month of August preceding. Now, this imposed a hardship on the prisoner, because if the case had been brought forward sooner, he might have been enabled to bring forward witnesses from the bath – either the parties who were connected with it, or parties who were bathing there at the time, who would have given evidence in his favour. The learned judge then proceeded to comment upon the evidence; and with reference to the conduct of the Rev. Mr. Mortimer he said, that while he was willing to give that gentleman full credit for the purity of his intentions, yet he must observe, that he had misconceived the line of his duty, by endeavouring to force a confession from the boys by flogging them, instead of leaving the inquiry to the ordinary and legitimate mode by which truth would be elicited. The torture of a rod was certainly not the most proper or satisfactory way to obtain evidence, particularly with reference to a charge so serious in its nature as the present, and although, as he had already said, he believed the rev. gentleman meant well, he had evinced a zeal in the matter, which, to say the least of it, lacked discretion, and it was to be hoped that such a course would not be imitated. His Lordship, after a review of the whole evidence, observed, that it was a very important and singular case, and certainly the story told by the boy Purdy was open to observation, for one could hardly believe that an offence of such a nature could possibly be committed in such a place as a public bath. However, the whole facts were now before the jury, and they would have to decide upon them, taking care that, on the one side, public justice should take its course, regardless of consequences; and, on the other, if they saw any reasonable grounds to question the truth of the evidence given, they would in this case, as in all others which might be brought before them, give the prisoner the benefit of any doubt they might entertain.
          The Jury then retired to consider their verdict, and after an absence of about 20 minutes, they returned into court, and found the prisoner Not Guilty
          It was then intimated by the counsel for the prosecution, that it was determined to go on with the other indictments against the prisoner, and Monday was appointed for the trial of the next case.
          We should have mentioned, that immediately after Mr. Chambers had concluded his speech, the Rev. Mr. Mortimer addressed the judge for liberty to repel the accusations which had been cast upon him, and which would tend, he said, to ruin his character, if they were left unexplained.
          Mr. Justice COLTMAN intimated that the rev. gentleman would have an opportunity of making any statement he thought proper.
          The application, however, was not renewed.
                              (Evening Mail, 12–15 April 1839)

(Before Mr. Justice COLTMAN and Mr. Baron MAULE.)

Francis John Nichols aged 19, a clerk, who was tried and acquitted on a capital charge on Friday last, was this morning placed at the bar to answer an indictment charging him with a similar offence committed upon a boy of fifteen years of age. In the second count he was charged with assault, with intent to commit the capital offence.
          The jury found the prisoner guilty on the second count.
          There is another charge against him for a similar offence upon a boy named Hall, which is to be tried this day.
                              (Morning Chronicle), Wednesday 17 April 1839)


Francis John Nichols, a clerk, aged 19, who was tried and acquitted on Friday on the capital charge of committing an unnatural offence with a boy named Purdy, at a public bath, was again indicted for a similar offence with another boy named Frederick Hall.
          It appeared in this case that the boy Hall was invited by the prisoner to accompany him to the baths, in the York-road, under the pretence of teaching him to swim, and according to the evidence of the boy, the offence was committed while the prisoner and he were in the tepid bath together. The facts of this case were nearly similar to those which were proved on the former trial, and it appeared that the same reasons were resorted to in order to extort a confession from the boy Hall as were had recourse to in the instance of the boys Purdy and Dones – namely, the chastisement of the rod, which was inflicted by the Rev. Mr. Mortimer, the founder of the school where the boys were receiving their education. When Hall was brought before the magistrate his statement went to prove that the capital offence had been committed, and it is presumed that he told the same story to the grand jury, by whom a true bill was found for the capital crime. The witness, however, in his evidence to-day, negatived his former statement, and said he did not believe that the offence had been completed, although he was previously of opinion that it had been fully perpetrated. The conduct of the prisoner was discovered in consequence of his having subsequently gone to Mrs. Clarke, the pew-opener of the Rev. Mr. Mortimer's chapel, in Gray's Inn-lane, and made inquiries from her respecting the treatment pursued towards the boys at his school. The circumstance led to an inquiry, and subsequently to the flogging of the boys by the rev. gentleman in order to obtain a confession from them.
          Witnesses were called, who gave the prisoner an excellent character for morality of conduct and religious feeling.
          Mr. Justice Coltman summed up the evidence, and told the jury, that although the capital part of the charge could not be sustained, in consequence of the contradictory evidence given by the principal witness, they might find the prisoner guilty of an assault with intent to commit the offence, the effect of which verdict would subject him to imprisonment, and blast his character for ever. The learned judge said, that the Rev. Mr. Mortimer was no doubt a very worthy man, but he had acted with great indiscretion in resorting to the infliction of the rod to extort a confession from the boys, instead of causing them to appear before the proper constituted authorities as soon as he found that the case had assumed the character of a criminal charge. The consequence of the course pursued by the rev. gentleman was evinced by the fact of the boy Hall having denied to-day the statements he had previously made, and although it would be hard, and perhaps unjust, to say that the boy had been tutored and instructed in the first instance, he had, at all events, been induced to make statements while under undue coercion which he afterwards denied.
          The jury having retired for about half an hour, found the prisoner guilty of an assault.
          The prisoner is to be indicted on another charge, in which the boy is to be the principal witness.
                              (The Operative, Sunday 21 April 1839)


Francis John Nichols, aged 19, who was acquitted on Friday, of a capital assault upon a boy named Purdy, and found guilty on Tuesday of an assault upon another boy named Hall, with intent to commit the crime, was again indicted on Wednesday, upon a third indictment for a capital offence of a similar description with the latter boy. – The boy Hall, in his evidence, as he had done before, denied that the capital charge had been committed, although he had previously given evidence of the fact before the magistrate. In the course of his examination he stated that on the day he went to the baths the prisoner and the two boys Purdy and Dones accompanied him; that the two latter and himself went into the bath while the prisoner remained walking about; that Purdy got out first, and that then witness saw him go into one of the boxes to dress, and that the prisoner went into the same box and remained there some time; and then the prisoner came into the box where the witness was dressing, and committed the assault upon him. – When Purdy was called, he denied that he had gone to the bath on the occasion in question, or if he had gone, he had no recollection of it; but when Dones was called, he said he recollected going with Purdy, Hall, and the prisoner to the bath about the time in question, but his evidence was different in many respects from the statement of Hall, and upon being questioned by the judge, he said that what he stated before the magistrate was untrue, and that he was induced by the terror of the flogging he received from the Rev. Mr. Mortimer, to give the evidence which was elicited from him in the first instance, adding that the rev. gentleman told him that if he did not tell the magistrate what he had told him to tell, he would be severely flogged. The Rev. Mr. Mortimer, on being questioned with respect to this circumstance, denied in the most strenuous manner that he had made any such statement. After a lengthened trial the prisoner was acquitted. He was subsequently called up for judgment, and sentenced to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour in the House of Correction for two years for the indecent assault of which he was found guilty on the previous day.
                              (The Charter, Sunday 21 April 1839)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Boys in the Bathhouse, 1839", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 10 May 2016 <>.

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