The case of an eiderdown quilt and an exasperated wife

This is a strange case of theft from the late nineteenth century. Alexander Matthews, an unemployed clerk, was charged at the Westminster Police Court with stealing an eiderdown quilt. The item belonged to his landlord, a Mr John Bowley of 11 Margaretta Terrace in Chelsea.

Matthews was no stranger to the law as he’d twice served short prison spells for assault and threatening behaviour towards his wife. He had been released from gaol just a few weeks previously and had returned to live with his wife at Margaretta Terrace where he seemingly resisted all of her efforts to get him to seek gainful employment.

Mrs Matthews was a dressmaker working from home and she complained that Alexander ‘was constantly pawning her goods, and the materials entrusted to her by customers’. It was Mrs Matthews who had rented the house from Mr Bowley and he had left her in charge of many of his possessions. Mr Bowley was away in Paris at the time and so when Alexander pawned her landlord’s quilt it was Mrs Matthews that had him charged with theft.

This raised the issue in court of whether she, as a wife, was able to prosecute her husband. The magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, declared: ‘it won’t do, and you cannot give evidence’. ‘This is a serious matter’ she retorted, ‘Mr Matthews pawns by dresses and he will not work’.

The court asked if there were any independent witnesses and a local police man, PC Cotton, testified that he had been called to the house for a disturbance. He had found Alexander in the garden ‘kicking at the door’. He had then arrested Matthews at his wife’s request. He added that a pawn rticket for the quilt was found on Matthew’s person. The defendant now told the court that the quilt wasn’t his wife’s property, it belonged to her landlord and the justice took this for an admission of guilt sufficient to remand him.

So could a wife give evidence in law against her husband in the period? Under legislation passed in 1992 ‘if you are the spouse of the accused you are competent to give evidence for either the defence or the prosecution (unless you happen to be a co-accused).’ You cannot be compelled to do so unless the charge relates to an act of abuse or violence against a child under 17. In 1889 the law was different; spouses could testify against each other for an offence ‘committed by one against the other’, but not against third parties. Alexander had not stolen from his wife but from her landlord (as he was at pains to say in court).

As the newspaper reporter said, this ‘was a peculiar case’.

[from The Standard , Monday, June 24, 1889]

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