Assault was one of the most frequently prosecuted offences at summary level in the police courts of London, as it was in all the studies we have to date on the activities of justices of the peace in England and Wales throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. My own work has shown that magistrates in the City of London in the second half of the 1700s spent just under a third of their time hearing individual complaints of assault, most of which ended in a settlement between the warring parties, often brokered by the justice.
It has been suggested that as the 19th century unfolded the state increasingly intervened in what had been a largely ‘civil’ prosecution process for assault, to assert society’s growing distaste for interpersonal violence. However, violence (particularly spousal or ‘domestic’ violence) remained a prominent feature of everyday life, especially in the poorer areas of London.
In March 1867 John Angus, a ‘young man’ who lived in a court off Windmill Street, near King’s Cross, was charged with attacking and wounding Randell Payne, a local bricklayer.
Payne, who also lived on Windmill Street, had come out of his house to remonstrate with group of youths that were making a noise. He told the magistrate at Marlborough Street that:
‘he was much annoyed by a number at boys at night in the court he lived in, and requested they go away. They refused to do so, and he then took hold of one boy and pushed him to get him away, when the prisoner [Angus] came and struck him two violent blows on the head with something sharp he had in his hand, inflicting two severe wounds’.
In his defence Angus denied using a weapon but admitted striking the bricklayer. He said he had only done so because Payne was ‘ill-using his brother’.
With some doubt as to whether a sharp edged weapon had been used (which would have the more serious charge of wounding could have been proved) the justice requested that Angus be remanded until medical evidence could be produced.
Some time later Dr Peter Duncan of Marlborough Street testified that he had examined Payne’s wounds some 48 hours after the incident had occurred (another doctor, Harris, had conducted the initial inquiry but he was not available to speak in court apparently). Dr Duncan told the court that while he had found two contused wounds, which were certainly serious, they were not incised ones and so not caused by a weapon of any sort.
Mr Knox, the sitting magistrate, turned to the accused and told him that while he would not proceed against him for wounding he had ‘struck harder than he should have done’. In consequence he convicted him of common assault and fined him £5 or a month in prison.
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 16, 1867]