‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London

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The marriage between Thomas and Lucretia Gates was not a happy one. The relationship had soured over time and Thomas’ poor treatment of his wife had provoked her to move out of the marital home in Bethnal Green. Thomas, who was described in the press as a ‘tradesman’, then employed a female servant to look after him. This seems to have been a bone of contention for his estranged wife.

On the 14 April 1852 the broken marriage reached the Worship Street Police Court as Thomas summoned Lucretia to answer a charge that she had assaulted him. This was rare; whilst many men might have been attacked by their wives and partners, very few were prepared to risk the damage to the reputations by admitting so in public.

Thomas Gates arrived with a police escort. He had so stirred up the community that a ‘great crowd, chiefly of women,  followed him to court’. This probably reflected both a show of solidarity with Lucretia by the ‘sisterhood’ and a degree of contempt for Thomas for running to the authorities instead of asserting his patriarchal rights and position.

The scene certainly enlivened the court reporter’s morning, however, and he must have regarded it as a welcome, if unexpected, bonus.

Thomas started by declaring that: ‘this woman is my wife, but we live apart, she in fact, having run away with another man’.

Lucretia was not having this; having vehemently denied this version of events she ‘reproached her husband with having taken a  young hussy home to supply her place’.

Thomas rejected this accusation and described how the assault he had accused her of had happened. He was at his home in Turk Street when Lucretia had called on him. She took him by surprise and rushed in, shouting abuse at him and the young serving girl, Sarah Hartlett. Both were assaulted by the angry wife before Lucretia turned her rage on the room.

She ‘swept all the china and glass from the shelves and cupboards, and having smashed them to pieces, set two work to demolish the furniture and everything she could lay her hands on’.

But she didn’t stop there, he said.

‘She tore the shirt entirely to pieces from his back, and tore the dress of the other woman also, exclaiming, “I’ll teach you to have a ____ here while I’m away,” and accusation which he assured the magistrate was quite unfounded’.

It was quite a display of anger and Lucretia did not deny it. Instead she explained that her husband had driven her away with his abuse and violent threats. On one occasion, she said, he ‘had stood over her with a knife, threatening to kill her’. He also repeated her accusation that Hartlett was his mistress.

It was now the servant’s turn to be questioned by the justice (Mr Ingham)  and she denied any impropriety on her part. She only worked there during the day and always left him alone  in the night. Thomas may have been having an affair but Sarah claimed it was not with her.

Several of the woman that had accompanied the couple to court testified to seeing or hearing Thomas’ abuse of his wife. One recalled her being thrown out of a window, while another said she had seen Thomas Gates chase his wife down the street brandishing an iron poker. Mr Ingham turned to the pair and told them that it was clear their relationship was in tatters but that did not give either of them to right to turn to violence or to disturb the public peace. He cautioned them both and dismissed Thomas’ charge against his wife. They then presumably left the court and returned to their, separate, lives.

Divorce was not really available to the majority of people in the 1850s. The government (through  a Royal Commission established in 1850) were looking at a reform of the law to allow the upper middle class to gain a full divorce, whilst at the same time making the cost of judicial separations prohibitively expensive to everyone else. In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act which removed divorce from the church (ecclesiastical) courts to the civil. The new law, not surprisingly (since it was created by men) favoured men over women. A man could sue for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery whereas a woman would have to show an additional cause (such as as incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion) or prove cruelty on its own.

Thomas and Lucretia could not hope to get divorced, they simply could not have afforded it. Instead the best they could aim for was either to patch up their broken marriage or live apart and agree to ignore each other’s infidelities. Given Lucretia’s passion and temper, I think this might have been unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 15, 1852]

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