Gender & History ISSN 0953-5233
Michal Shapira, ‘Indecently Exposed: The Male Body and Vagrancy in Metropolitan London before the Fin de Si
Gender & History, Vol.30 No.1 March 2018, pp. 52–69.
Indecently Exposed: The Male Body
and Vagrancy in Metropolitan London before
the Fin de Si
In the summer of 1861, Sir John Villiers Shelley, a Member of Parliament, was brought
to court for having indecently exposed his partially nude body from his apartment
window as London’s elite paraded the streets in honour of the Queen’s Drawing-Room
This ‘extraordinary charge’ and his trial received extensive public and press
Mrs Stafford testified in court that Shelley had lifted up his shirt while
standing by his half-open window. She was ‘too much disgusted’ to look, but swore
she saw his exposure repeatedly. Miss Griffiths, another witness, declared that Shelley
had appeared to be wearing a loose gown and drawers when he exposed his person.
Appalled, she tried to block the view from the children present in the room with her.
She added, ‘I did not keep my eyes on him more than I could help . . . I was ashamed,
but the shame was his, not mine’.
Thenextday,The Times reported, the court was
packed to the point of suffocation. Another witness, Maria Harley, told the court that
she had spoken about Shelley’s past exposures with a Mrs Train who replied that ‘it
was very disgusting’. Mr Garth, speaking for the defence, argued that although there
was an air of truth to her statement, Shelley was a colonel of the Middlesex Volunteers
and since the day was hot, he had changed into light clothes such as those worn in
India. The witness might have seen him dressed in this way and ‘must have been
deceived’. Garth further claimed that no respectable woman would have placed herself
in an opposite window so as to see what had been alleged. At this point, a number
of gentlemen who read about the case in the papers voluntarily came forward to state
that they had seen the defendant wearing light garments but that this was in no respect
indecent. The magistrate, Mr William Corrie, allowed the examinations to go on for
five hours, noting the trial’s importance both to the public and to the defendant.
concluded by accepting the defence’s arguments. The accused would have had to be
mad, he reasoned, to commit such an alleged offence when police, soldiers and the
public were thickly about. Shelley, he decided, would leave the court unstained in
character. After the trial, the witnesses left the place ‘assailed by the most tremendous
yells and hisses’ from the hundreds who awaited the verdict outside.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd