A ‘wretched woman’ is gaoled in an age which simply did not understand her

In looking back at the proceedings of the Victorian Police courts I quite often see cases that would be dealt with very differently today. In some this is because the law has changed or offenders would be seen elsewhere (such as youth courts for example). But one of the most significant changes has been in society’s attitude (and understanding of) towards those suffering with mental illness.

Take today’s case for example; the woman concerned here is clearly ill and with the benefits of probation and social service reports I would hope and expect her to receive some sort of help rather than the punishment dished out to her in 1895. I may be naive however, and I’m sure someone will correct me.

Elizabeth Durrant was a middle-aged woman living in the East End of London. She had a reputation for disorderly behaviour and violence and was a frequent visitor to the Police Courts. In November 1865 she was summoned before Mr Cooke, the magistrate at Worship Street, on a charge laid (albeit reluctantly) by her sister and the local police.

Elizabeth had been breaking the windows of her sister’s shop in Bethnal Green and the shopkeeper was forced to call the police after five panes had ‘been demolished without provocation’. When the police arrived Elizabeth resisted arrest in the most forceful manner.

PC Horn 242K testified that:

‘Yesterday, about three o’clock, the prisoner was given into my custody for wilful damage. She was quite sober but fearfully violent. She flung a ginger-beer bottle at me, and tore my coat, [and] rolled herself in the mud. It required seven constables to convey her on a stretcher to Bethnal Green station-house where – directly she was released – she tore every garment from her person, and could not be prevented’.

This was not the behaviour of a sane and rational person and today I would imagine that a doctor would have been called and Elizabeth may well have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act (1983). This didn’t happen in 1866 however.

With chaos raging throughout the police station other officers steeped into help. PC Chadwick (350K) tried to intervene but got attacked for his trouble. Durrant ‘sized me by a private part of my body, [and] pained me immoderately’, he told the justice. When she was eventually locked up the police realised how desperate she was and made sure she was not left unattended for the night.

Whilst in court Elizabeth complained bitterly, screaming abuse and threats at the police and ‘calling her sister the vilest names’. Another police witness recalled that she when she was taken into  custody she had an infant child with her. At one point in her desperation she had thrown the infant at the police. Thankfully it was caught by a gentleman who was in the station at the time.

The child was in court (in the arms of a policeman) and looked ‘more dead than alive’ but was apparently uninjured. More evidence about the ‘horrible habits and character of this wretched woman’ were presented before the magistrate proceeded to sentence.

Clearly she needed help, social services would have taken her child under their protection and Elizabeth should’ve been sent somewhere where she could receive proper care. But this was the 1860s not the early 21st century.

Mr Cooke addressed Elizabeth. ‘I shall send you to prison…’ but she quickly interrupted him.. ”I’ll tear up my things, so help me, if you do’, she said. The justice finished.. ‘for one month for each assault..’

As soon as he finished she started to make good on her promise and the gaoler struggled to restrain her and lead her in the yard outside so she could be conveyed into a cell. Once secured he reported back to the court that in the east she had several times been in custody and had attempted her own life. Once she had strangled herself with her garters and turned quite black in the face, if he hadn’t found her he thought she would have certainly died. At this the court room once again heard Elizabeth’s screams from the nearby cell but nothing changed the sentence, The child was sent to the workhouse, its bleak future already determined.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 5, 1865]


2 thoughts on “A ‘wretched woman’ is gaoled in an age which simply did not understand her

  1. It’s worth making the point that although we have laws to protect the mentally ill now we can’t say that we’ve moved on from the Victorian position as much as we would like. Thatcher’s ‘care in the community’ policy was nothing more than a cynical method of reducing the cost of care for the mentally ill as far as I can see, with people turned out onto the streets who had nowhere to go and certainly no-one to care for them. I see many people as I walk around town that are clearly unable to care for themselves and should be receiving better treatment than they do. In my job we encounter them regularly, sometimes in very tragic circumstances.


  2. Being an optimist, as you clearly are, should mean that such a woman, and her child, would receive far better treatment in this day and age. Yet, given how much more we now know about mental illness, I am still far from sure that today’s Court could offer her the facilities she clearly needed. The child, however, would certainly be taken into Care – a far better outcome than the Workhouse.


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