Pleasant autumn weather on Monday 1 November 1858 prompted governess Jane Marsh (20) to give her two charges, Mary Hayes (13½) and sister Alice (12), a break from studies. After an early lunch, they bid farewell to two younger sisters and widowed mother Mrs Hayes, leaving the family’s gracious terraced town-house at 52 Rodney Street (now in Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter), to walk to out-of-town Prince’s Park. It was a gentle mile-plus walk along a wide boulevard, the park’s lake and footpaths a pleasurable escape.
They were dressed for the occasion. Mary, at least, wore a crinoline , very popular with western women of all backgrounds in the 1850s. Hooped crinoline petticoats made it possible to achieve skirt ‘standout’ without yards of layered material. The invention of cheaper steel hoops in 1856 boosted popularity, and crinolines increasingly attracted a puritanical backlash not unlike the introduction of the miniskirt in 1964. Mary may have been tall for her age and in an adult-length crinoline, or perhaps wore the shorter below-knee skirt of younger girls.
Halfway along the boulevard, with no-one else close by, a man with dog was leaning against a wall. As they approached, he began walking towards and past them, unfolding a knife. Suddenly, Mary felt something tugging at the back of her skirt and realised he was attacking her petticoat with the knife. With spirit, she shouted repeatedly, “Give over!” and Jane Marsh grappled the assailant by his arm. His strange words, “These ropes, these ropes, these ropes, I will cut them,” reflected a mistaken belief that crinolines still had rope hoops, rather than the new uncuttable steel. After several minutes struggle, he gave up and walked away, leaving the shocked girls to continue to Prince’s Park to find and report to a policeman.
Returning home, they described their ordeal to Mrs Hayes, who summoned the girls’ guardian and uncle-by-marriage John Woodruff, alderman. He pulled strings to obtain a thorough police investigation, and one of the town’s best detectives William Horne was put on the case. After two days’ inquiries in Toxteth he had a suspect, John Huntington (26). The Huntington, Hayes and Woodruff families were from the same background – prosperous shopkeepers who had moved up the merchant class and gained significant public profile.
Jane Marsh and the girls unequivocally identified Huntington as the assailant. He was immediately arrested, charged and questioned. He claimed mistaken identity and listed a range of that day’s business contacts (almost as if ready prepared), and was imprisoned at least one night until his prosperous milling and bakery family could arrange bail. Horne visited the contacts, who confirmed seeing Huntington, but were fuzzy regarding exact times.
The case went to Magistrate’s Court a week later. Each side had two barristers; the public gallery was packed. The three girls gave clear testimony and identified the man in the dock. The recollections of Huntington’s various business contacts had miraculously sharpened up almost to the minute, to strengthen the defence case of mistaken identity. Stipendiary magistrate John Mansfield decided that strong conflicting evidence and the potential punishment (fine or prison) required a jury trial at the Borough Assizes in December. In both trials, Huntington exercised his right of silence.
Now events become surreal. Liverpool’s new St George’s Hall combined a law-court complex with large performance spaces for music and entertainment, and is arguably still the most stunning and magical neo-classical building anywhere. But its main courtroom was already booked. There was overwhelming public interest in the case. So in a never-repeated first, they chose its ‘great hall’, a dramatic public space seating 1500. Therefore 13-year-old Mary, her sister and governess, must describe the attack – on her underwear! – in front of a vast crowd. Many women attended, sitting in the upstairs gallery. But sympathetic female faces were also much closer. Although all the professionals involved in the case were inevitably male (and this would have likely also been true 100 years later), there were three high-status young women seated together on the court platform as ‘observers’: Frances the young wife of the judge (Recorder Gilbert Henderson) wearing mourning dress, Margaret Preston daughter of the Mayor, and her friend. A planned pointed public statement of female solidarity.
Over twenty defence witnesses queued to implant ‘reasonable doubt’ in the minds of the jury. Some, (business associates or Huntington employees) supported an alibi; others were character witnesses. One line of prosecution questioning was stopped by the judge: had the accused heard anti-crinoline sermons by the maverick extremist minister of St Paul’s Princes Park? For this seems to have been Huntington’s catalyst. Though not the first crinoline attack in Liverpool, it was the only one to go to court.
Summing up for the prosecution, Mr Segar QC gave a compelling takedown of the defence case, and pointed up the “intelligence, education, capacity of observation” of the girls’ testimony.Recorder Henderson gave a long balanced summing up and sent the jury out. Then the doors of the great hall were opened and in surged another 2500 members of the public waiting outside for the verdict. It came 90 minutes later. Not guilty! Just like a celebrity trial. Pandemonium. Cheering. Hats in air. The hordes exited the hall to await John Huntington’s appearance, an unprecedented number of both attendees and outside onlookers for any Liverpool trial. Prolonged cheering. Huntington, looking stunned, hoisted shoulder-high, carried down to a waiting carriage. Then theatre turned to circus. The horse was unharnessed, the driver riding it shouting “Three cheers for Huntington”, while members of the crowd followed, pulling the carriage in a quarter-mile triumphal procession to a nearby hotel.
Later, horse reharnessed, harder-core supporters followed the carriage a mile to the Huntington family home. Support banners displayed on neighbouring houses! Leading the supporters, local businessman John Hughes gushingly stated he had not the shadow of a doubt of Huntington’s innocence, and he and his friends… “would congratulate him on his discharge from one of the most extraordinary cases of mis-identity it had ever been the misfortune for a man to be the victim.” John Huntington’s reply was equally over the top, expressing gratitude, calling the charge “one I should scorn to commit”, “got up in maliciousness”, and that “to have a warrant issued… thrust into a cell with the scum of the town have caused me more vexation and indignation than all the proceedings put together.” Hmm. His words “…I should scorn to commit” are not quite a denial. No word of sympathy for the girls.
Comparing 1858 with today, we can see both social differences and resonant current commonalities. It’s a compelling story that would make a good film. Victorian Liverpool was run by the male merchant class for their benefit. They rallied round one of their own, even though Mary and family were of the same background. A different jury might have given a guilty verdict. The patriarchy was just starting to be challenged; suffrage was becoming a discussion topic. But Mary and the girls were surely forever hyper-alert on the streets. Plus ça change.
Tony Whittaker is a retired charity administrator and amateur local historian with an interest in Liverpool. Contemporary aerial view of Liverpool, draggable and zoomable, shows key locations in the story. Edge of Prince’s Park is extreme bottom right, streetlamps on the wide boulevard clearly visible above it: https://tinyurl.com/crinoline-case  History of the crinoline: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crinoline Within 20 years, they would be gone, inconvenient encumbrances. But the kindly fashion industry would then offer the joys of whalebone corsets and 14” waists.  19th century detective work in Liverpool: https://visitvictorianengland.com/2019/10/01/victorian-detectives-in-liverpool/  Press accounts of trials: Magistrate trial: Liverpool Mail, 13 November; Liverpool Mercury 11 November. Jury trial: Liverpool Mercury 10 December two different editions cover each day of the trial; Liverpool Mail 11 December  St George’s Hall Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_George%27s_Hall,_Liverpool  Longer MS Word version of this story: https://tinyurl.com/princes-park
It could make a gripping theatrical play, screenplay or documentary. With a natural narrative arc and range of key characters, it’s a ready-made period story with modern resonance.
Image credit: http://princes-park-mansions.org.uk/index/history