The engaging headline said it all - 'Prosecution under the Act for the Prevention and Defilement of Women.'

Shockingly the two people facing the unique charge were two common prostitutes, Mary Ann Mears, 38 and Amelia Chalk, 21, who plotted to seduce a young woman into their vile way of life under the pretext of offering her a home.

"You are the first persons to be empannelled to act on the provisions of this very wholesome statute," trumpeted prosecutor Mr Saunders who told jurors they had under-estimated her strength of character.

"They had hoped to obtain an infamous livelihood by trading in the ruin of a most hopeless and unsuspicious person, but owing to the strong moral courage of the young woman, the offence was not perpetrated. Everything was done on the part of the defendants to procure it but by her moral resistance, and for which she is to be highly commended, it was not perfected. I can only comment with the severest severity on the enormity of the crime imputed to them."

Johanna Carroll was 15 and alone. She had lost both her parents and with nowhere to go was forced to live in the Southampton poorhouse where the Guardians eventually told her she must find a job in service and leave.

So on November 18, 1850, she did but where was she to go?

In desperation she ventured to a public house to ask for a bed for the night but the landlord refused and referred her to Mears who had just come into the premises with Chalk.

Both thought because of her age and circumstances she represented easy prey.

Mears quickly wheedled out of Carroll her sorry story, conning her to believe she had known her parents and if the teenager went home with her, she would do her best to get her a job. The unsuspecting teenager agreed and remained there for three days during which several punters were entertained by the two women.

Despite her age, Carroll had an uneasy feeling one night when one man left the downstairs room with Mears, leaving her with Chalk.

"I said to her, 'Are they going to say anything about me?' I said that because they looked at me and smiled. Chalk replied, 'Perhaps she has gone to ask the man if you might like to go into the bedroom with him.' I told her I would rather leave the house and go back into the poorhouse again than go into a bedroom with any man.

"She made no reply and Mrs Mears came back into the room with the man. She called me to one side and asked if I had any objection to go into the bedroom with the man. I told her I would not do so. Mrs Mears told me that if I wanted to get a living, this was the best way. Chalk afterwards said to me, 'Go into the room with the man, get some money and give it to me."

After she again refused and the man left, Mears told her she was a nasty little creature and called her names. "She several times told me to get my living as she did and that I should do so if I remained there."

When the teenager said she was leaving, Mears refused to hand over her belongings until she paid her for staying there. She refused and Mears threw her out.

Carroll said she then met a distant relative of her mother who took her back to the poorhouse where she reported her narrow escape to the Guardians.

Acting under the Court of Guardians, they instituted the proceedings which came before the town's quarter sessions on January 6 the following year.

In his summing-up, Recorder Edward Smirke posed one question to jurors.

"It is a very simple one. It is for you consider whether these two women attempted, by false representations and fraudulent means, to procure this girl to have illicit carnal connection with a man. The mere attempt to persuade her, without using false and fraudulent means, does not come within the Act, but if they made false statements to her, acting in concert together, you will find a guilty verdict."

They consulted for several minutes before convicting the pair, a verdict with which Smirke concurred. However, he was unsure what sentence to pass and relied on a higher court. "I would not like to take the whole responsibility on myself and I should leave it to the opinion of the judges as it is a new offence."

But told they would be remanded in custody in the interim caused Mears to burst into tears as Chalk defiantly bawled: "Hold on, hold on. Don't say a word. We'll tell the bastards to go to Hell when they die."

Smirke however said that in his opinion the sentence should be one of 12 months imprisonment without hard labour but that would be respited until the law lords reviewed the case.

Within a month, they convened in the quaintly named Exchequer Chamber and endorsed the conviction and sentence.