The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History explores the true story of servant, Mary Ashford, from Erdington, who was raped and murdered by Abraham Thornton, whom she had met at a local party. The case stands out in the way it galvanised a group of influential middle-class men, under the expertise of impassioned magistrate, William Bedford, in support of a murdered lower-class woman. It also stands out as the case that brought humiliation to the British legal establishment, after two medieval legal loopholes were utilised during the trials by both the prosecution and the defence, ultimately resulting in Mary Ashford’s murderer walking free. Politika News sits down with historical writer, Naomi Clifford, who dedicates her research to marginalised female voices of the past, bringing their untold stories to life.
Your latest book, The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History, explores a subject that seems just as relevant today as it was in 1817: justice for rape survivors and rape victims. How do you think society could honour women like Mary Ashford today?
For me, the most important part of any campaign has to be education. Teach early. That means teaching boy children about respect, boundaries, permissions and so on from a young age. And teach continuously. I recently watched Nate: A One Man Show which explores and teaches the rules of sexual relationships between men and women to an adult audience. There were issues I had never considered before – I learned a lot. It’s never too late to learn.
Part of education is awareness, of course. Many people are doing wonderful work on this front right now. #Metoo, to take one example, started in 2006 by Tarana Burke, has opened out the discussion and given all of us, men and women, insight into this aspect of women’s lives. Everyday Sexism is another.
During your extensive research, what struck you most about Mary Ashford the young working-class woman?
We know so little about Mary, who was a 20-year-old farm servant from a poor family living near Birmingham, UK. This dearth of information is not uncommon for working-class women in history. They tend not to appear in preserved records unless they do something wrong or have something wrong done to them. After her death at the hands of Abraham Thornton, the media, run almost entirely by men, focused on two things about Mary: her attractiveness and her virginity – and in doing this they flattened her into an icon.
Among other things, my book explores the events of the day Mary died. I wanted to think about her likely responses to a sexual predator. As I went along, I formed an idea that precisely because she was a woman of the world, in the sense that as a member of the working-class she had not been shielded from its rougher aspects, she very quickly knew exactly what was on Abraham Thornton’s mind and did her best to get away from him on their nighttime walk together. It was a big moment for me when I found a previously overlooked statement in the archives that confirmed my theory in which Thornton blamed Mary for her own fate because she had rejected him.
You say that support for Mary Ashford remained high in the Birmingham area for years after. As far as your research suggests, was it common for women who had failed to prosecute their rapists to receive solidarity even after the trial was over? If so, did this solidarity ever transcend classes?
Well that’s a big question. It’s calling on me to generalise. I imagine, if they [the women] had the support of their families and communities before prosecuting, they would continue to have that. Did this solidarity tend to transcend classes… well, I think what this case shows us, was that it was exceptional to have the support of a group of people from another class, from a higher class.
There were of course individual cases of people sponsoring prosecutions, and there were associations that could prosecute – farmers got together for example and prosecuted poachers. Other than that, there are individuals who would have supported their servants, for instance, if they claimed rape. There was a case in 1730 of a woman who joined a household of a man called Francis Charteris, whose nickname was ‘Rape-Master General’. And this young servant was raped by Francis Charteris. And she went to a former employer – a woman – who paid for her prosecution of her master. He was found guilty. But he was pardoned, because he was a member of the aristocracy. I think you could find solidarity across the classes, but it is more likely that you wouldn’t. If you were middle-class and a raped occurred to you, that would be, in most cases, covered up. You wouldn’t talk about it.
Do you think women’s history is taught enough in primary and secondary schools? If not, why do you think this omission exists?
I have no doubt that great work on this front is being done in schools. For sure, event-driven history is important, as is telling the stories of the ‘greats’, both women and men. To my mind, the best approach is more contextual, less linear. Also, I like the idea that we can point children to other ways to look at history outside the classroom that are there, just waiting to be explored.
I am not an expert in the teaching of history in schools, but I do know that the curriculum has gaps – black history and trans histories come to mind – so more can always be done. Essentially, we still have a lot of catching up to do on these and women’s history, both in telling their stories and recognising their contributions. Many teachers are aware of this and, despite pressures on their time and the demands of the curriculum, make efforts to redress the imbalance.
Why have these gaps occurred? One reason is the dominance of one narrow section of people who have ‘grabbed the mic’, if you like. People tend to focus on the things that are important to them. Women, so long regarded as inferior in intellect and confused by the actions of their hormones, have often been excluded, both from the story and from the storytelling. I remember well the arguments surrounding the appointment in 1975 of Angela Rippon as the first permanent BBC newscaster. One line was that no one would believe what she said because she was a woman.
Is ‘women’s history’ appropriate as a subject, or do you believe that female experiences should simply be integrated into existing history modules?
Should ‘women’s history’ be separated out from ‘history’? On the one hand, yes, because it is a good way to highlight that this whole area exists and needs to be looked at. Although I am not an academic historian and so am not in that world, I know that Women’s History and Gender Studies are taught widely and have been for some time. There are many wonderful people doing exceptional work in this field.
On the other hand, no, because women are half the human population, and should automatically be part of the story. Not long ago, there was a Twitter discussion on the placing of ‘women’s history’ books in a bookshop. A fellow historian had found my book Women and the Gallows shelved in a separate section and objected, saying essentially ‘But this is mainstream history and should not be stuffed away in a dark corner as if it is something other’.
During a recent seminar you hosted with South Lambeth Library, you cited a striking statistic from rape trials in the Old Bailey during the Georgian era. Namely, of the 365 rape prosecutions at the Old Bailey between 1714 and 1837, only 29 men were convicted for raping an adult woman. According to figures released by the Home Office in 2019, only 1.7% of reported rape cases led to charges or summons. As someone who dedicates their research to the stories of women who have (usually) suffered injustice, what is your reaction to these statistics?
Well, both are shocking and I think that reaction will be shared by most people. Sitting at this far a remove from the historic statistics from the Old Bailey, I can only wonder how those women whose evidence was dismissed by juries felt when their efforts to get justice came to nothing. If they got as far as taking her rapist to court, with all the risk to her that that involved (potential loss of reputation, huge expense, possibility of being sued for perjury), they were most likely ‘on a mission’, desperate for legal redress. It must have been devastating to have that discarded. I will never stop being emotionally jolted when I come across these terrible injustices. They have a power that extends across the centuries.
Definitions of rape have expanded since the Georgian era, of course. We know that there is more than one format for rape. This makes it all the more terrible that so few cases are taken forward as prosecutions. There will be multiple reasons for this, I am sure, cuts to the budget among them.
Do you believe today’s legal system is fit for purpose when it comes to providing justice for rape survivors?
Based on the statistics you have quoted in the previous question, my first reaction would be to answer no, especially at a time when there has been an increase in people coming forward with allegations, but I will also add that this is not my area of expertise. Thank goodness we have organisations such as Rape Crisis who keep a watch on this issue.
Do you think rape culture still exists today?
Sadly, yes, I do think it exists. It’s difficult to know where to start, but you could just look at judges who blame victims for not physically fighting their attackers, or the belief among some people that rape victims can’t get pregnant, or the inappropriate punishment of rapists such as the six months imprisonment given to Brock Turner, who raped an unconscious woman in 2016 at Stanford University in the US and whose father referred to the crime as ‘20 minutes of action’. Perhaps the low figures for rape prosecutions has something to do with the Crown Prosecution Service not believing that juries will accept rape stories that are not the classic stranger rapes.
It is so pervasive we don’t notice it, from builders verbally harassing women in the street, to assumptions that sex workers cannot be raped, to people nodding through Trump’s assertion that he can’t be guilty of sexual assault because the victim was ‘not my type’.
Finally, do you think the media plays any part (positive or negative) in how rape and sexual assault against women is perceived by the public today?
Yes, I do. The media are, of course, part of our culture and although you can say they are controlled by powerful interests, they also reflect our commonly held values and norms. If they victim-blame it is because we, their consumers, also do this.
For me, the media are both the problem and the solution. The big companies, still predominantly staffed by men, for years have perpetrated rape myths, including ‘she was so attractive that the rapist could not help himself’ and that victims acted in such a way as to provoke the rapist and caused their own rape. The fact that we are only now looking back at how the media treated the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper shows me that we have a long way to go.
But the media can be part of a new way, and we are certainly seeing this. Social media, for all its dark sides, has allowed women to come together and form a different narrative, tell a different story, to educate us in the dynamics and the impacts of sexual attacks. There are no women’s voices crossing the boundaries of time and telling us about Mary Ashford. If they were raised then, they were ignored, and ultimately forgotten.
Naomi Clifford is a history writer and blogger. She can be found at naomiclifford.com, on Twitter as @naomiclifford, and Instagram as @naomi__clifford. Her podcast is The Door History Podcast. Her books are The Disappearance of Maria Glenn, Women and the Gallows and The Murder of Mary Ashford. She is currently working on the diaries of an ambulance driver in the London Blitz.
Politika News would like to thank Naomi for her time.