Kissed Against Her Will: A Victorian Case of Assault and Abuse of Power

“His Lordship said it was perfectly clear from the evidence that an assault was committed.  If any man kissed a woman against her will it was an assault.”
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 22 February 1888.

Persuasion by Leonard Campbell Taylor, 19th Century.

Persuasion by Leonard Campbell Taylor, 1914

In February of 1888, Sheffield confectioner Ralph Williamson was charged with the attempted shooting of blacksmith George Bridges, the father of a girl that Williamson had assaulted days earlier.  The girl, named Bertha Bridges, was only fifteen years old.  She worked in Williamson’s confectionery shop in High Street.  It was there that one night, while Miss Bridges remained late to fetch his dinner, Williamson hemmed her into a corner and forcibly kissed her.

While some may not associate ‘stealing a kiss’ with assault, it was then—just as it is now—an unlawful touching and an assault under the law.  At Williamson’s trial, the prosecuting attorney would explain to the jury (as reported in the 22 February 1888 edition of the Sheffield Evening Telegraph):

“…that even if Williamson had put his fingers upon her without her consent, it would have been an assault, but he not only stroked her face but attempted to kiss her.”

After Williamson stroked her face and kissed her, Miss Bridges demanded to know what Williamson meant by such behavior.  Williamson responded by assuring Miss Bridges that “he was single” and that his wife—when she had been alive—had been “a good wife to him.”  He then retreated to the cupboard where he rummaged around until he found a funeral card for this same late wife.  He attempted to give the funeral card to Miss Bridges, though it is unclear to what purpose.  Miss Bridges, however, refused to take the card.  Instead, she went directly home and told her father.

North West Passage by John Everett Millais, 1874.

North West Passage by John Everett Millais, 1874.

Most father’s would have been angry under the circumstances.  However, a Victorian father had cause for even greater fury.  In the Victorian era, a girl’s character was judged in relation to her sexual conduct.  Even if a girl had not been a willing participant—even if she was the helpless victim of a groper or a rapist—she was no longer considered to be an innocent.  Instead, as Louise Jackson explains in her book on Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England:

“The act of sexual abuse was deemed to have corrupted the girl and effected her ‘fall’ from innocence; once ‘fallen,’ her moral status was dubious.  The sexually abused girl was seen as a polluting presence, and a particular danger to other children.”

Knowing this, it is perhaps understandable that Mr. Bridges went looking for the man who had assaulted his daughter, intending to thrash the villain within an inch of his life.  Williamson was well aware of the seriousness of his offense, but rather than resigning himself to accept what would have undoubtedly been a severe beating, he instead armed himself with a loaded revolver.

On Wednesday, February 8, Mr. Bridges finally ran Williamson to ground on High Street.  They exchanged words and then Mr. Bridges struck Williamson.  At that point, though the street was crowded with people, Williamson drew his revolver and fired at Mr. Bridges.  The first shot missed.  Williamson promptly fired again.  The second shot missed Mr. Bridges as well, instead striking an innocent bystander in the ankle.  After that, Williamson gave up on attempting to shoot Mr. Bridges and allowed himself to be taken away by the police.


Duel between Onegin and Lenski by Ilya Repin, 1899.

At trial, Williamson’s assault on Miss Bridges was not disputed by either party (though Williamson did claim in his defence that Miss Bridges told him she was “nearly seventeen”).  Williamson admitted to kissing Miss Bridges against her will and Justice Day declared that:

“If any man kissed a woman against her will it was an assault.”

A jury would later find Williamson guilty of both the assault and the shooting charge.  They recommended mercy, but the final decision belonged to Justice Day.  Day concluded the trial by delivering what the Sheffield Evening Telegraph referred to as “a scathing rebuke” of Williamson.  First, Day addressed the fact that Williamson was Miss Bridges’ employer.  Today we would recognize this type of offense as a classic abuse of power.  Though Justice Day does not use the exact phrase, his words—as quoted below—cannot be misconstrued:

“He took her into his service, and by taking her into his service he entered into a grave moral responsibility towards her.  A man of his years ought to have felt that a child like that was entitled to a parental protection, but she had not been in his service many hours when he got her to come into the place and immediately proceeded to stroke her face, kiss her, and to use her own expression, ‘hem’ her in a corner.”

After the Misdeed by Jean Béraud, 1885-1890.

After the Misdeed by Jean Béraud, 1885-1890.

As for the shooting charge, Justice Day was no less severe.  He concluded that Williamson knew what he deserved for having assaulted Miss Bridges and knew what he was “likely to get” if he met her father on the street, but that it was still no excuse to have armed himself with a loaded weapon.  He declared:

“It would be a very sad thing indeed if a man, because he was threatened with personal chastisement, was to go about the streets of Sheffield…with a revolver at a time when the streets were swarming with people.”

Addressing the conduct of Mr. Bridges, Day went on to say that, though he did not agree with taking the law into one’s own hands, he could not be surprised by the actions of the aggrieved father.  Indeed, in some respects, he tended to agree with the course Mr. Bridges had taken, stating that:

“…he could not help thinking that if more fathers of girls adopted the same course as Bridges did there would be fewer girls ruined and fewer girls brought to the misery they saw in those courts.” 

Ralph Williamson was sentenced to imprisonment with hard labor for fifteen months on the shooting charge.  For forcibly kissing Miss Bertha Bridges, he received three months in prison.  Upon hearing his sentence, Williamson was unusually calm—and a little bit Dickensian.  As the Sheffield Evening Telegraph reports:

“Prisoner, on hearing the sentence, turned to the gallery, and bowing remarked: ‘Well, I wish you all good morning, and God bless you; every one of you.’  He was then conducted from the dock.”

The Irritating Gentleman by Berthold Woltze, 1874.

The Irritating Gentleman by Berthold Woltze, 1874.

In Closing:

I have seen a great deal in the news lately with various elected officials claiming not to know whether a forcible kiss or touch is an assault.  I have also seen some who claim that 21st century complaints about forcible kisses or groping are just another trivial by-product of a society which has become too politically correct.  As a lawyer and historian, these sorts of comments irritate me to no end.  Having said that,  I hope this Victorian era case—which is just one of many—has given you some insight into the fact that even in the 19th century, even in a patriarchal society where women could not vote, a forcible kiss was recognized as an assault.  Period.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 


Jackson, Louise A. Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England.  London: Routledge, 2000.

Lancashire Evening Post (Lancashire, England), 10 February 1888.

Morning Post (London, England), 10 February 1888.

Sheffield Evening Telegraph (South Yorkshire, England), 22 February 1888.

Wiener, Martin J. Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s Quarterly Newsletter by clicking the link below.


You can also connect with Mimi on Facebook and Twitter.

33 thoughts on “Kissed Against Her Will: A Victorian Case of Assault and Abuse of Power

  1. caeciliadance says:

    This is rather fascinating! At first I was surprised that unsolicited kissing constituted an assault back in 1880s England. No one should doubt that it constitutes assault now, especially given the rather wide definition given by the HoL in 1969: “an assault is committed where the defendant intentionally or recklessly causes the victim to apprehend immediate unlawful personal violence.”

    By the way (since I am about to enter the profession), I am curious as to how you balance writing so often with your job as a lawyer?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Caecilia 🙂 Yes, it is surprising that it was taken so seriously back then considering the popular view of how Victorians treated women. Are you just starting law school or just graduating from it? Either way, best of luck with your career!


  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    An excellent and timely post. To my mind any man who kisses an unwilling girl deserves anything she or her father can hand out to him. Pity Miss Bridges did not have a hatpin to hand to ram into his cods. Another reason to bring back the wearing of hats in my opinion. I’ve been in a similar situation in my youth and I used a judicious knee, and then stamped on his instep with my cuban heeled maryjanes while nutting him on the chin as he bent forward after the knee did its work. No more trouble. A woman – or a boy – should always fight back or at least complain of such assault. Even lascivious language designed to humiliate and sexualise is an assault IMO.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Good advice, Sarah! And I agree about lascivious language. I’ve experienced these sorts of things myself in the workplace (among lawyers, no less). It’s not a great position to be in, especially if the person making the unwanted advances is a superior–as happened with Miss Bridges.


  3. jeanne229 says:

    Thanks for this post that so excellently reflects a social issue that is finally being given the attention and serious respect it deserves. It doesn’t surprise me that in Victorian times such “liberties” as an unwanted kiss would be considered sexual assault. What is truly encouraging is that 40 years after “women’s liberation” it can once again be seen for the crime it is. And we don’t need fathers to defend our honor or give credence to our accounts. Oh, and by the way, the title of that last illustratins….”The Irritating Gentleman”… hardly a gentleman!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Jeanne 🙂 Like you, I’m glad that current events allow for this type of behavior to be shown for what it is. It is important for people (especially younger women & men) to know that these sorts of unwanted, forcible touchings are not okay–and have never been okay.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ellen says:

    Thank you for this very interesting article… it is so wonderful to have some history to compare to the current situation. Very enlightening! As always, I love your articles and illustrations/photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. debbierodgers @Exurbanis says:

    In a self-defence course for women which I took three decades ago, the gentlemen running it demonstrated a method for repelling unwanted advances in situations where one might not wish to draw too much attention to the situation (is that even politically correct these days?) such as when your husband’s Uncle Frank has one too many and gets touchy-feely: grab one of his ring fingers and pull as hard as you can toward the back of his hand.

    Great article – I do agree 100% with your closing comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Susan Scott says:

    Wonderful post, and sadly still very appropriate.
    I love the Leonard Taylor Campbell painting at the top. What makes it especially interesting in this context is that it’s not a 19thc painting, but was done in 1914. Many of Campbell’s paintings show women in settings and dress that have more of a Victorian flavor than the 20thc in which he was working. My guess here is that the modern young woman of 1914 (for so I’m sure she’d describe herself) is still having to face the same male “persuasions” that confronted earlier generations, and that her great-granddaughters continue to do in the present – an excellent illustration for your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks so much for the information on the painting, Susan 🙂 I couldn’t get an exact date on it, but estimated late 19th century. This was a huge time in terms of the changing role of women in society. For context, consider the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 or the National Women’s Suffrage Movement of 1867 which began campaigning for women’s right to vote (which they would earn in 1918). At only 15, Miss Bridges was coming of age in a time of great change for women. I like to think that these peripheral events might have influenced her decision to “report” the actions of Williamson. Definitely a dilemma still faced by countless women in the workplace today!


  7. Kathleen Whitcomb says:

    Having only recently discovered your articles I have to thank you. I find them enlightening and interesting. I have been for sometime working on a story from this time period. These little tidbits give me insight. I too find the timeliness of this article interesting given the political climate of the day. Sarah Waldock and I seem to share a similar attitude when it comes to these behaviors. Would that more girls were raised to value themselves in such a way. Thank you again for your fine writing. I look forward to reading more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Kathleen 🙂 I’m glad you are enjoying my articles. I hope that, if anything, the current political climate has encouraged discussion among parents and their daughters (and sons!) about not tolerating these sorts of behaviors. No one should have to tolerate being victimized or made to feel unsafe–especially in their place of work!


      • Kathleen Whitcomb says:

        Mimi, and Sarah. I couldn’t agree more. As a long time former Nanny I taught both genders the attitude that it was them or you. If it came down to it make sure you came out of it with your dignity intact and if at all possible your body. Never let yourself wonder if you should have , could have in that situation our of what society has taught us is good manners. If you feel threatened you more than likely are being threatened. My Father’s theory was be the one to level the first blow then run as fast as you could. I won’t say I’ve always been good about the running part but I took part of it to heart. 🙂 Sarah your family sounds like my kind of people.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Your father sounds like mine. He said “If you don’t feel safe, get your retaliation in first, and harder.” And an 11 year old girl can see off 3 bigger bully boys so long as she picks up her bike and starts spinning with it; the momentum does the damage. A bag of school books would probably work as well.


    • Sarah Waldock says:

      Hi Kathleen! I had a brilliant dad who taught me all the dirty fighting tricks he learned in the wavy navy in rough places like Buenos Aires. And my mother learned what to do with a knee from her schoolmistress in their one-mistress country school! And my great gran, whose mother acted as unofficial midwife, was 13 when she had been along to assist and the husband returning to find his wife lying-in said “You’ll do” to 13 year old Charlotte, and undid his trousers, whereupon she bit it! And my gran, her daughter was the lone suffragette chained to the cemetery railings in her time… and actually my great great gran was the wife of a publican who ejected an abusive customer who tried to kiss her by hitting him over the head with a bottle, so perhaps it runs in the family…. with all those examples, who could possibly fail to live up to them?


Comments are closed.