‘There are few frauds of a worse kind than those by which respectable girls are induced to leave their homes. Finding themselves destitute among strangers they become an easy prey to the wily seducer.’ (Jerome Caminada, 1895)
At a local history exhibition on the Isle of Wight last month, I was surprised to discover a link between our Island house and a nefarious criminal from my home city of Manchester, who posed as a fashion designer to groom young women for sex.
The House of Redfern, a leading Victorian fashion house, was founded in Cowes, Isle of Wight, by John Redfern (1820-1895). Starting out as a tailor, Redfern developed a successful business that became world-famous in the 19th century, with celebrity clients including royalty.
Inspired by the renowned annual event of Cowes Week, John Redfern designed yachting outfits, riding costumes, evening dresses and travelling suits. At the height of his success, he was appointed as one of Queen Victoria’s dressmakers. Redfern also created outfits for the Princess of Wales Alexandra of Denmark, as well as for her husband’s well-known mistress, the actress Lillie Langtry.
As the Redfern empire expanded, John Redfern’s sons joined him in business, and the House of Redfern opened branches in London, Paris, Edinburgh and New York. Known for employing attractive female sales assistants, their success led to a lascivious conman taking advantage of the couture house’s reputation to open his own branch in Manchester. In 1893, when advertisements for young women to work in the new showrooms appeared in the local newspapers, many rushed to apply.
Applicants were instructed to send a photo of themselves ‘showing style of figure, if full or slim’. They had to dress well in both gowns and underwear. Once accepted, the women were required to purchase a dress made by Redferns: ‘a French-made gown, cut by a man, corsets and shoes to match their appearance’, costing about £4 (around £425 in today’s value). This ‘investment’ was non-refundable. Mr Redfern, manager of the Paris branch travelled to Manchester to conduct interviews in the new business premises.
Three young women were engaged immediately; one to act as the manager’s secretary, one to search for premises for the newly-appointed sales assistants to live in; and the third to furnish the new living quarters. All three would also work in the showroom and, for that purpose, they would need to be measured for their new gowns of black satin. ‘Mr Redfern’ informed the young women that, in Paris, it was customary for men to take measurements, and each one was submitted to a private appointment for this purpose. Asking them to remove their clothes, he measured their bust, waist and legs. Two of the women refused to take off their dresses, but the third was persuaded, and she was subjected to a sexual assault. When she later confided to her companions what had happened, they took her straight to Detective Chief Inspector Jerome Caminada, of the Manchester City police force, who investigated the case.
On his arrest, the prisoner gave his name as ‘Alphonse Redfern’, nephew of the famous couturier. Detective Caminada found no evidence to support his claim and proved that he had no connection with the fashion house. The false fashionista was convicted of obtaining money by false pretences and sexual assault, for which he received sentences totalling 18 months.
You can read Detective Caminada’s own account of this case in my latest book, Detective Caminada’s Casebook: