While reading about Victorian crime and sensationalism I came across a story that you have to put in the “you couldn’t make this up” category.
Like all such stories, it has a sordid and dramatic beginning:
On the 17th of June 1875, Colonel Valentine Baker of the 10th Royal Hussars, a personal friend of the Prince of Wales, attempted to rape Miss Rebecca ‘Kate’ Dickinson in a first class railway compartment on a London and South Western train.
At that time trains were of the non-corridor type, each compartment had a separate door, which on some lines was locked between stations to prevent passengers getting out while the train was en route.
Fortunately this was not the case on this train.
Some where between Woking and Esher, Col Valentine pushed Miss Dickinson into a corner of the compartment, attempted to kiss her repeatedly and put his hand up her dress. Struggling, Miss Dickinson tried to pull the communication cord, but the mechanism had not been connected properly and it failed to work.
Miss Dickinson survived, severely shaken, by opening the compartment door while the train was in motion, and clinging to the outside of the train while standing on the running board. When apprehended, Colonel Baker’s clothing was said to be in disarray, Victorian reticence not wishing to into the sordid details but some commentators suggested that Colonel Baker’s fly buttons were undone.
It is worth remembering that many mid Victorian women did not wear underpants, something which made it easier to pee when going to the loo wearing a long and voluminous skirt, instead wearing a shift and long stockings under their dress, so when Miss Dickinson states in her deposition that Colonel Baker’s hand was under her dress on her stockings above her boot, she could be suggesting that she felt his hand on her thighs, rather than somewhere below the knee.
Miss Dickinson, a well connected upper middle class young woman was persuaded by her brothers to press charges, a rarity at a time when rape or assault required the woman to file a civil suit for damages against the perpetrator.
Colonel Baker was bailed on a surety of two thousand pounds and later convicted, sentenced to a year in prison and fined the, for then, remarkable sum of five hundred pounds.
Furthermore, rather than being allowed to quietly resign from the army, he was cashiered, thrown out in disgrace.
After his sentence, some of his powerful friends tried to have him rehabilitated, but Queen Victoria, to her eternal credit, refused let him back as a commissioned British officer. Instead he found service with the Ottoman army.
We know this because Miss Dickinson pressed charges. Given his behaviour, one cannot but wonder if he was some sort of sexual predator and had committed previous crimes and got away with it due to the reluctance of his victims to press charges, or indeed because his victims were from a lower social class.
This would be simply another sordid tale, as well as one of great courage by Miss Dickinson, were it not that one of those who stood surety for the unfortunate Colonel Baker, was his brother, the explorer Samuel Baker, who, in 1864, was one of the first europeans to see Lake Albert, which lies between Uganda and the Congo.
By the time of his discovery Samuel Baker had already had a colourful career. He had lived for several years in Ceylon, and helped found the British hill station of Nuwara Eliya (which we visited in a rainstorm in 2013). After his wife died he returned to Europe, worked as a project manager building a railway in Romania, and befriended Duleep Singh, the last Sikh Maharajah, who had been deposed by the British, and was now exiled in a gilded cage in Scotland.
On a shooting expedition in the winter of 1858-9 to south eastern Europe with Duleep Singh, Baker, who had been widowed a few years previously, acquired a fourteen year old slave girl of Hungarian origin from the slave market in Vidin, in what is now Bulgaria, but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Baker claimed to have rescued her from slavery, escaping across the Danube on an ice floe, but the reality may have been rather more prosaic.
The slave girl, Flora or Florence, became in turn his lover and his wife. Despite the strangeness of their meeting they seem to have formed a genuine and long lasting relationship, lasting until Baker’s death in 1893. Florence lived on for another twenty years, and was buried beside him in Worcestershire.
Baker originally claimed that they had married in Romania after her rescue, but never offered any proof. Perhaps in part due to his irregular home life, Baker set off with Flora in 1861 to find the source of the Nile.
They encountered Speke and Gordon on their way back from finding the source of the Nile, in a small settlement in what is now south Sudan, but pressed on, on Speke and Gordon’s advice, to find Lake Albert.
Despite his success in Africa, Baker was never really accepted by the Victorian establishment, perhaps because of his relationship with Flora,and how he had acquired her.
Despite their marrying in a “proper” Anglican ceremony in London in 1865, Queen Victoria always avoided meeting him due to the suspicion that they had not really been married when he went on his African expeditions with her in tow.
In tow is not quite the right term, by all accounts Flora was a strong woman who rode horses and helped make the expedition a success, perhaps because she was simply better than Baker in managing the porters. By all accounts, Baker not the most patient of men.
Quite what impact the irregular nature of Samuel and Flora Baker’s relationship had on Queen Victoria’s views on Colonel Baker and his conduct is unknown, but given that Colonel Baker was both a member of the Marlborough club and the Marlborough house set, she probably didn’t have a particulaly high opinion of him to start with ….
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