For a second time I want to describe a Victorian sexual scandal. It has echoes in the modern world and illustrates how hard it can be to reconcile two divergent, but uncorroborated, accounts of the same events. If I succeed in interesting you there are several on-line versions of the story readily available. I have tried myself to use contemporary press accounts wherever possible, and also family history resources which are useful in fleshing out life histories. Both these two sources of information show descriptive differences in several small details. Since this is not an academic publication I have silently selected what seems to me to be the most probable sequence of events.
Lt-Colonel Valentine Baker (1827-87) was the son of a wealthy merchant who became a distinguished army officer, serving in India and during the Crimean War. He had risen to command the 10th Royal Hussars and had occupied this posting for 13 years. He was a noted traveller and had been an observer with the German army during the Franco-Prussian war. He seemingly possessed an unblemished record of service. Relatively late in life, in the year 1865, he had married a younger woman Fanny Wormald (1840-85). Fanny was the daughter of Frank Wormald JP, who lived at Potterton Hall, Barwick in Elmet. The couple had two children: Mary Hermione Louisa (b.1866) and Martha Sybil (b.1868). Col. Baker had many influential friends and on the day I shall describe he was journeying to London to dine with the Duke of Cambridge, commander in chief of the army. Astonishingly at the 1875 Surrey Assizes, Croydon, Colonel Baker was convicted on the charge of having, on 17th June that year, committed an indecent assault in a railway carriage on the South Western line. Worse still it seems very clear that he was fortunate to have escaped a charge of attempted rape. How had this extraordinary turn of events come about?
His accuser was a 22 years old woman, Miss Rebecca Kate Dickinson, who evidently impressed newspaper reporters as being lady-like and very self-possessed. You can judge for yourselves from a drawing published at the time. Miss Dickinson lived at Dunford, Midhurst, Sussex with her mother and two sisters. Previously her home had been at New Park, Lymington. In one account she was described as a governess but this may have been a mistake since she was clearly a young lady of significant private means who had no need to work for a living. Miss Dickinson planned to take a trip to Switzerland with her sister and brother in law, Emily and Dr Fredrick Bagshawe of St Leonard’s, Sussex. They decided to leave for the continent from the port of Dover but the rail connection was quite complicated. In the nineteenth century Miss Dickinson could start by catching a local train from Midhurst to Petersfield, Hampshire and then join a train on the Portsmouth-Waterloo main line. Naturally at Petersfield she selected an empty first class compartment for herself and her baggage, and the train set off. If she had been prepared to take a more crowded second class seat none of the following events would ever have occurred. In those days carriages did not have corridors so that passengers could only leave their compartments when the train was stationary at a station. The introduction of corridors was to be the one positive result of the subsequent events. Her journey was uneventful until the train reached Liphook when Col. Baker joined her. According to later accounts the couple spoke on subjects like the beauty of the landscape, the delights of Aldershot, the play Hamlet and, more strangely, mesmerism until the train reached Woking in Surrey. At 40 mph this would have taken about 30 minutes.
The distance to the next station, Esher, was about the same but Miss Dickinson only reached that destination clinging to the outside of the carriage. What could have happened? According to her account, which was never refuted on a point by point basis, Col. Baker asked her for her first name but when she declined he came to sit next to her. He placed his arm round her waist and gave her an unwanted kiss. Later ‘he kissed me on the lips many times’. More disturbingly still, for a Victorian lady, she felt his hand under her dress. In reality it doesn’t seem that his hand got far above her boot and he didn’t actually rummage in her underwear as is hinted at in some accounts.
However Miss Dickinson was seriously alarmed. She tried to pull the communication cord but it was inoperative. She was not strong enough to break the window glass, but she was able to lower the window and shout for help. It doesn’t seem likely that she was heard and in any case there was no assistance that fellow passengers in a moving train could offer. With remarkable courage she opened the carriage door and stepped out onto the foot-board until Esher was reached. Her actions were noticed by several witnesses. Col. Baker later stated that he had himself offered to move outside the train through the opposite carriage door if only she would return to her seat, but she declined. It seems probable that Col. Baker hung onto her arm to stop her falling completely, and almost certain that at that stage he asked her ‘not to say anything’.
Once she alighted at Esher Miss Dickinson insisted on changing carriages and undertook the rest of the journey to Waterloo with a minister of religion, Rev James Baldwin Brown. Once the train reached the terminus both parties were interviewed by railway officials. Col. Baker apologised for frightening Miss Dickinson and said that he ‘knew her brother’. There were three Dickinson men: Dr Dickinson of St George’s Hospital & Chesterfield St, Mayfair, another brother who had been called to the Chancery Bar, and a third who was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers stationed at Aldershot. I assume that it was Lt. Dickinson that was known to the Colonel. When she left Waterloo Miss Dickinson went to the house of her medical brother.
Several written accounts of the case suggest that she might not have taken matters any further but that her brothers insisted on prosecution. The first step was the appearance of Col. Baker at Guildford Magistrates Court. From the historical point of view several factors confused the reports of this and all subsequent legal actions. The first was the reluctance of Victorian witnesses to call a spade a spade. One man noticed that Col. Baker’s ‘dress was disordered’; did he mean that his flies were undone? Miss Dickinson said she was repeatedly kissed but does not seem to have been asked if any other physical contact was involved. The second factor was that Col. Baker never really defended himself or explained what his intentions were. He simply apologised for any fright he had caused, gave an unqualified denial, and stated that events ‘were not as represented’. The account of Miss Dickinson, he said, was promoted by ‘exaggerated fear and unnecessary alarm’. He was given bail at the huge sum of £2000. His sureties were provided by a Viscount Valentia (a captain in the 10th Hussars) and Sir Samuel Baker KCB FRS FRGS. Samuel was Valentine’s elder brother and a noted explorer and engineer. In one of those details that make Victorian history so endlessly fascinating Samuel was said to have married a white slave girl called Florence whom he met on one of his expeditions.
At the subsequent trial before a judge and jury at Surrey Assizes the charge was that of ‘unlawfully assaulting Rebecca Kate Dickinson with intent violently and against her will, feloniously to ravish and carnally know her, at Woking’; that is attempted rape. No new evidence emerged. There was no real corroboration of either account, no significant questions were ever asked of Miss Dickinson, although she was rather gently cross examined. The accused was not at that date allowed to act as a witness in his own defence. Colonel Baker was found not guilty of attempted rape and the judge clearly inclined to the view that he intended to ‘win the girl’s consent to intercourse by exciting her passions‘. He was however found guilty of indecent & common assault, being imprisoned for 12 months and fined £500 with costs.
Punishment did not cease when he was released from prison. Col. Baker was cashiered from the Hussar’s, and was not permitted to resign quietly. Radicals were outraged by the seeming leniency of the sentence and some subsequent commentators have viewed him as a ‘sexual predator’. His powerful friends, including it is believed the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), took a different view and helped him find a post with the Ottoman army. There he once again excelled. He served in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and was promoted to the rank of Lt General. He was known in Turkey as Baker Pasha. At the age of 55, in 1882, he was given command of the Egyptian police and there he stayed until 1887 when he died, perhaps of typhoid fever, being buried with full military honours. His friends never gave up trying to get him reinstated in the British Army but it is said that Queen Victoria would have nothing to do with his sort of irregularity. Be that as it may cartoons of Lt General Baker in his new Turkish role were circulating in the press within three years of his disgrace.
What did Col. Baker’s family think of these events? Of course I don’t know but there was no divorce and his wife and one, and possibly both, of his daughters followed him to Egypt. His family paid a very heavy price for their loyalty since two died there: Fanny in Alexandria in 1885 and Mary Hermione Louisa, who Field Marshall Kitchener may once have loved, in Cairo during 1888. The marriage prospects of his surviving daughter Martha were not harmed by the scandal since she married a baronet, becoming Lady Carden, after her father’s death.
The little evidence available to me suggests that Miss Dickinson led a very quite life after the case. Her name never reappears in the press and she never married. Several census returns record sharing the house at Dunford, Midhurst with her unmarried sister Mary for another 40 years. Both are recorded as ‘living on her own income’ and the two women are seemingly well looked after by several servants. Rebecca Kate Dickinson died shortly after the outbreak of the Great War in 1915. Probate was granted to her RE brother, now a retired Colonel, for over £71,000. As far as I can tell the last survivor of these events was Emily Bagshawe the sister with whom Miss Dickinson was planning to visit the Continent. Her husband was elected FRCP and became a well-known Hastings physician. Emily herself lived until 1929, leaving over £82,000 in her will. I hope that she eventually saw Switzerland.
So what really happened? Colonel Baker was an honourable soldier and I can’t believe that he intended rape; aside from other considerations he could not have escaped detection and total disgrace. Could he have envisaged a seduction in the 30 minutes available? This seems to have been what the judge believed. Marriages between older men and younger women were common in this period so conceivably 48 year old Valentine Baker could have ‘fancied his chances’ with a women 25 years younger. In 1875 there must have been few opportunities for young women to be alone, isolated, and unobserved with unfamiliar men. A railway journey might conceivably possessed a frisson of excitement for that reason. Could passions be excited in a thirty minute train journey? It seems highly improbable that a well brought up Victorian lady would find such an assignation desirable. If the colonel’s flies were indeed undone matters must have progressed in some way. Subsequently he himself did nothing to harm Miss Dickinson’s reputation but he denied the offence and stated that the events ‘were not as represented’. My best guess is that in his enthusiasm he interpreted some action of Miss Dickinson’s as encouragement when this was in reality far from being the case.
Is there a Bradford connection? Only a very tenuous one. For some years next door to Rebecca and Mary Dickinson lived Thomas Bayley Potter (1817-1898), Liberal MP for Rochdale. He was a great admirer of reformer Richard Cobden MP and founded the Cobden Club. It is possible that he or Miss Dickinson actually died in Cobden’s old house. As a promoter of free trade and repeal of the corn laws Cobden’s memory was much prized in Bradford. A statue of him was erected in the Wool Exchange (now Waterstones bookshop) in July 1877 at the time when Valentine Baker was serving in the Russo-Turkish war.