‘I found her insensible’: when domestic violence ends up in tragedy

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A little after 1 in the morning on the 27 May 1889 Dr Edward Cooney was called to a house in Bayonne Road, Fulham. His patient was a woman in her early forties, who was unconscious and who appeared, to Cooney, to be suffering ‘from compression of the brain’. On examining her he found a bruise on the side of her face, by the left ear, and one under her eye.

Turning to the woman’s husband (Charles Mills) he asked how she had come by the injuries, and he admitted inflicting them himself. He treated Mary Jane Mills and left her in the care of her husband and son. Within two days however, she was dead, never recovering from her condition.

In due course Charles Mills was arrested and charged at Hammersmith Police Court with causing her death.

In court Mills again admitted hitting his wife but said it was in response to her attacking him in the middle of the night. According to his account he had been woken by her striking him hard across his head. Half-asleep he had retaliated and presumably thought he had done enough to send her back to sleep. He only realised that he had done her more harm when he awoke in the middle of the night.

Mary Jane had a history of drinking and was seemingly unable to cope with life. The couple’s son lived with them and later testified to his mother’s erratic behaviour and inability to keep the house clean and tidy. Charles Mills was a bookseller, and his son worked as a fishmonger; they had respectable occupation even if they do not seem to have been particularly well-off. Mary Jane was not fulfilling her allotted role in life, as help-mate and mother. This probably counted against her in the view of society.

On May 30th 1889 Charles Mills was remanded in custody by Mr Hannay, the Hammersmith magistrature, and on 24 June of that year he was formally tried before  jury at the Old Bailey. The charge was manslaughter and the court heard that Mills was a well respected man with a good character. His wife’s drinking was detailed in court and so was evidence that this was not the first time Charles had hit her.

A neighbour told the Old Bailey court that she had witnessed or heard several alterations between them in recent weeks, including threats to her life:

‘I remember one occasion’, Hannah Noble recounted, ‘ about four weeks previous to this occurrence—about twelve o’clock, after he came home from his work, he gave her a thrashing—I saw it through their window, which had no blind, and I saw her next day with a pair of black eyes and scratches on the side of her face—on one occasion, towards twelve o’clock, I heard him say he would do for her.’

Whether Charles Mill meant to kill his wife or not is impossible to say, but men routinely used violence in the 1800s towards their spouses and children. Domestic murder was not at all uncommon and the most likely context in which homicide occurred. While the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper dominated the news hole in the 1880s incidents like this were far more typical of the daily tragedies that befell women in late Victorian London.

The jury found Charles guilty of manslaughter; how could they not given his confession to the police, his son, and Mary Jane’s mother in the immediate aftermath of her death? But they recommended him to mercy on ‘account of his character and the great provocation he received’.

The judge sentenced him to 12 months impriosnment at hard labour.

[from The Standard , Thursday, May 31, 1889]

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An angry husband waits up for a wife who comes home late, ‘exhibiting manifest symptoms of intoxication’.

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Hackney in the 1840s

There were plenty of assault cases heard before the professional police magistrates of London in the nineteenth century and it was rare for any of them to be pushed on up through the justice system. Most ended in a reconciliation between the warring parties, with apologies made, or were punished with a fine. In some cases, for example if the defendant did not have the money for  fine or the assault was deemed serious enough (or it was against the police) prison was used as a deterrent for future violence.

Assaults were generally perpetrated by men. Men fought other men outside pubs, and drink was often the catalyst. Men hit their wives (drink and jealousy, frustration, or dissatisfaction being the underlying causes) and women sometimes hit back. Most of this violence (at least that which reached the summary courts) was committed by working class Londoners on other working-class Londoners; appearances by the ‘respectable’ or ‘well-to-do’ while not entirely absent, were rare.

This is one such rare case, both because its protagonists were members of the lower middle class and one at least was an elderly man, not often the subject of assault accusations or counter-claims.

Thomas Wicher was a  ‘respectable’ master builder who had taken rooms at an address in Dalston, Hackney, East London. However, he didn’t live there most of the week, leaving that space for his wife, and only ‘occasionally’ sleeping there . Richer was an elderly man – at least that is how he was described by the court reporter that wrote up his case – and perhaps his wife was much younger. We can’t know that from the newspaper report but we can perhaps infer it.

The builder clearly entertained some suspicions  about his wife’s conduct, in particular involving a former friend of his called George Minor. Minor was a linen draper, another member of the capital’s growing middle classes. The men had known each other for years, indeed they had lived together and been ‘intimate’ in the past. I take this to mean that they were (or had been) close ‘chums’ at one stage. This friendship was about to be sorely tested, however.

Thomas Wicher, having as I’ve said, either having been tipped off or otherwise suspecting all was not right in his relationship with his wife, headed for her lodgings in Shrubland Grove, Dalston. He got there at 10 o’clock at night and was concerned when his servant told him that his wife was not at home.

Thomas waited in the parlour for her return in a ‘state of considerable agitation and anxiety’ until about one in the morning when he heard a hansom cab pull up. The builder opened his front door and went outside. He could see his wife ‘reclining in the back’ of the cab and then saw George Minor alight from the vehicle. Minor was ‘evidently surprised’ to see Wicher but ‘recovered himself’, smiled and offered him his hand to shake.

The builder refused the hand of friendship and instead went straight up the cab to look at the state of his wife, who was clearly quite drunk. In fact Mrs Wicher presented a ‘dreadful spectacle’:

Her ‘bonnet was crushed and broken, her hair and dress [were] in a most disordered condition, one of her ear-rings gone, and herself exhibiting manifest symptoms of intoxication’.

Wicher lifted his drunken wife from the cab and proceeded to carry her into their house, followed by Minor. The linen draper insisted on entering despite Wicher’s attempt to prevent him. The pair soon struggled and a fight broke out.

Minor alleged that his former friend now beat and hit him with great violence, striking his face and landing a blow on his chest which meant that he ‘spat blood for upwards of an hour afterwards’. Thomas Wicher was evidently in a jealous rage and had it not been for the intervention of a local policeman he may have caused more harm to the draper, and possibly his wife.

Fortunately he was arrested and presented at the Worship Street Police Court in Shoreditch on the following day. There, Mr D’Eyncourt  pronounced his doubt that he could deal with such a serious assault summarily, and bailed Wicher to appear at the Sessions of the Peace. The terms of the bail were set at £100 for himself, and two sureties of £50 each. Normally one would approach close friends or business associates as sureties, we can probably be fairly confident that Wicher didn’t ask George Minor.

I haven’t got around to matching up the sessions of the peace records with the summary courts yet, but after September (on the release of the Digital Panopticon project) I am hopeful that these will become available digitally, making that task a lot easier.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 30, 1852]

Violence and intimidation on the Hornsey Road

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The early Metropolitan Police (note the stove pipe hats which weren’t replaced with the more familiar helmets until 1863)

Thomas Jackson was a ‘powerful fellow’. He had been arrested after a considerable struggle, and charged with assault and with threatening women in an attempt to extort money from them. This unpleasant character appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court on Saturday 28 May 1853.

His victim, and the chief witness against him, was police constable John Hawkridge (71S). Hawkridge explained to the magistrate that he had been on duty on the Hornsey Road at half-past eight the previous evening when he was told that a man was threatening women with a bludgeon.

Rushing to the scene he found Jackson walking menacingly behind a small group of women waving his club at them. When he saw the policeman however, he dropped his violent display and ‘pretended to be drunk’. He claimed he was only asking for few pennies for his night’s lodging. PC Hawkridge decided to give him an alternative place to sleep, and arrested him.

He marched him off towards the nearest police station but when they passed a ditch on Hornsey Road his prisoner jumped him and the pair fell to wrestling on the ground.

Jackson seized ‘him by the stock on his neck, and tried to strangle him, and struck him a violent blow on his head, which knocked him down and inflicted a severe bruise. He was half stunned’.

The fight continued with the copper’s assailant kicking and punching him as he lay on the street. Eventually however PC Hawkridge eventually gained the upper hand and again began to escort his prisoner towards the station house. Jackson made yet another attempt to escape, however, desperately trying to pull a concealed knife on his captor.

This time a couple of gents in a passing carriage saw the policeman’s difficulty and intervened to help. Having secured Jackson at last, all four men travelled to the Highgate police station.

Jackson had to be transferred to a stretcher as several officers tied him down to carry him inside to the cells. One imagines he passed an uncomfortable night there before being brought up at Clerkenwell the next morning.

The court heard that numerous complaints ‘had been made [that]  persons of the prisoner’s description had been the habit of prowling about the neighbourhood of Hornsey, etc. begging, and intimidating ladies’.

The magistrate told the prisoner in the dock that had he actually been convicted of stealing money with menaces he would have faced a punishment for highway robbery. As it was he would go to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 29, 1853]

‘An annoyance and a great nuisance’: firemen are unwelcome at Lady Clifford’s

This case is revealing, not only of the way the the fire service operated in the late 1800s but also of the attitude of the well to do towards them and their own responsibilities as rate payers.

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Colonel Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer Clifford, Bart, resided with his wife and family at Rutland House, Rutland Gardens, in South West London. The Clifford barony (of which Sir Robert was the third holder) had been created in 1838 for Robert’s grandfather (Augustus) who had an illustrious naval career than began in the era of Nelson. There is far less information about Robert however, so perhaps he contented himself with living on the annual stipend and his other inherited wealth.

His wife. Emmelina Lowe, certainly seems to have been a woman that took money seriously, in a  way which many contemporaries would have seen as a little ‘bourgeois’.

In May 1886 a small fire broke out in the chimney of the kitchen of the Clifford’s smart London house . This alerted neighbours who raised the alarm and the London fire brigade (founded just 20 years earlier) despatched an engine to attend the fire.

However, when they arrived they were met by Lady Clifford who refused to let them in. The firemen were adamant that they needed access as their were ‘sparks and flames issuing from a chimney at the back of the premises’.

Fire was a real threat in London. Even if the capital had not experienced a devastating conflagration since the ‘great fire’ of 1666 Londoners retained the folk memory of that week of horror. Improvements in house building and private fire insurance (with private companies of firefighters) had protected homes and businesses thereafter. From the mid 1800s the capital had its a professional force of firefighters.

The Metropolitan Board of Works administered these regulations and prosecuted householders and builders for unsafe properties and dangerous structures. Failing to admit the fire brigade and not maintaining their chimney earned the Cliffords an unwelcome day in court. On 27 May Lady Clifford and her daughter appeared at the Westminster Police Court before Mr D’Eyncourt. As a concession to their social status they were not in the dock, but sat on the bench with the magistrate. This was indicative of wider class bias in the Victorian period and in this case, Lady Clifford really seems to have felt she was literally ‘above the law’.

The case was brought by Norman Bevan on behalf of the Board. He argued that the Cliffords were culpable of breaking regulations and flouting their responsibilities; he pushed for the maximum fine possible, 20s.

The details of the evening were recounted by Henry Cummins, a fireman stationed at Knightsbridge who found the front door barred. Lady Clifford admitted she had put the chain on the door to prevent the firemen entering. She had heard the fire engine’s alarm bell being rung but the family were at supper and she saw no need for panic. It was, she added, just a small chimney fire, not serious.

Her daughter backed up her mother’s testimony, saying that the ‘bell ringing [of the fire engine] was most violent and unnecessary’. Indeed the noise was such that she had been ‘unwell since the noise the firemen had made’.

Having proved the breach of regulations Mr Bevan now argued that the Cliffords should pay the full fine while Lady Emmelina tried to bargain with the court in a quite unladylike manner. She continued to argue that the fire was insignificant (‘it was only a little soot on fire, not a real fire’, she pleaded) and therefore she should only have to pay a nominal amount. She had suggested it was merely worth ‘half a crown’, not 20 shillings.

She mentioned that on the way into court Bevan had indicated that he would take half that amount, 10s, something the Board officer refused to admit. When she complained that in some cases fines were reduced the magistrate explained that ‘it was only cases where the parties are very poor’ and that certainly wasn’t the situation here. The Cliffords may not have been extremely wealthy but they were still members of the affluent elite and could well afford the fine.

Bevan seems to have been embarrassed by his earlier determination to prosecute the family and now began to backtrack. As Lady Clifford attempted to charm her way out of a fine, or argue for special treatment on account of her social rank, the Board officer said he had tried to persuade his boss that a smaller fine was indeed appropriate. D’Eyncourt was not to be moved however, the penalty was 20and 20s (plus 2s costs) was what would be paid.

Even now Lady Clifford demonstrated her contempt for the law and for her responsibilities to other citizens by continuing to say that such a small fire was worthy of  a small punishment:

‘I should have thought half a crown would have been quite enough in satisfaction of a case of this kind, especially as it was not a real fire’.

This drew laughter in court, but not from the person of the magistrate.

‘You are fined 22s., Lady Clifford, and I must ask you to remain satisfied with my decision’, a clearly annoyed D’Eyncourt told the Baron’s wife. She then left the court having paid her fine (or made arrangements to pay) ‘protesting that the whole proceedings were very unfair’.

In reality of course it probably was only a small fire but it was still the Cliffords’ responsibility and the fire brigade had been called out. Other people were fined for similar neglect of their properties, neglect which endangered the lives and homes of thousands of fellow citizens, so it seems entirely reasonable that fines should be levied that were proportionate to wealth. As the magistrate noted, ‘poorer parties’ would pay less but they would still pay, or else they would go to prison for non-payment.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 28, 1886]

Excessive punishment of an eight year-old truant earns the perpetrator a fine.

EDUCATION/BRITAIN/CLASS

There is a perception that discipline in schools is not what it was and while few would call for the return of the cane and the slipper, some commentators have suggested that school teachers have been left with very few ‘weapons’ to ensure order in the classroom. Since 1987 corporal punishment in state schools has been banned; private schools followed suit in 1997, but I remember it when I was at school in the 1970s and early 80s. Teachers routinely hit boys at my grammar, one quite openly in the classroom, while a visit to headmaster would often involve a few strokes of the cane. There are lurid tales of Winston Churchill being beaten at school, an experience shared by thousands if not millions of children.

In the 1800s corporal punishment was part of everyday life. Masters beat their servants (especially younger apprentices), men hit their wives, prisoners were whipped, and members of the armed forces were flogged. So it really is no surprise that parents and school masters routinely thrashed youngsters and sent them home with welts and tear-stained faces. What is perhaps surprising is on occasion some parents actually challenged the brutality of the punishment handed down to their offspring.

In May 1886 a little lad of eight, Thomas Bryant, skipped school because his mother wanted to keep him at home. On the next day he attended as usual but as he sat waiting for his name to be called his headteacher, Mr Robert Burton, identified him being absent the previous day and called him to the front of the class. There poor Thomas was hit three times with birch rod on each upraised palm and a further three times across his back.

Once he got home his mother asked him what had happened as she was shocked to find bruises on his hands –  evidence of the force of the injuries inflicted on him. When he told her she resolved to take it up with the school as her boy was not regularly truant, and she was rarely in trouble with the school board. When she got no joy at the school she formally summoned Burton for assault, and the case came before the London Police courts.

There she explained to the West Ham Police Court magistrate that  the family had suffered a series of tragedies in recent years:

‘One of her children was recently burned to death while she was at work, and another was nearly drowned, and she had to keep him at home’.

The very first time this boy had returned to school the master had beaten him for being absent. The man clearly little compassion and a violent streak that suggests he was entirely unsuited to his chosen occupation.

Despite this Mts Bryant was not opposed to the use of physical chastisement if it was necessary; she had told the school master that he should punish her boys if they played truant while she was out at work. However, this did not mean she had given him license to ‘bring bruises on their hands and backs’.

There seems to have been no father at home, so perhaps he had died or abandoned them. Mrs Brant was trying to cope with childcare and keeping the family’s head above water; no easy task in the 1880s (or in any age for that matter).

In court Mr Burton, as head master at The Grove Catholic (St Francis) School in Stratford (which is still educating local boys and girls) defended himself. He argued that the punishment he had meted out to Thomas was proportionate and not excessive but the magistrate did not agree. Instead he stated that Burton had overstepped his authority and failed to provide a safe place for the children in his care. Punishment at school should be ‘judicial and deliberate’ and administered in the presence of other teachers (presumably to avoid abuse like this). Thomas’s hands were still bruised some two weeks after the incident, evidence enough that Burton had used excessive force. He fined the master 20s and costs.

Today if Burton had acted this way he would have been sacked and protected for abuse. There is no place for violence in schools, towards pupils or staff, and someone that has to resort to beating an eight year-old to establish their authority is very far from having any in my opinion.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 27, 1886]

A lady’s ‘companion’ undergoes a most unpleasant visit to an estate agent

In May 1879 Miss Lowrie was asked to wait in an estate agent’s office while her older lady friend undertook a familial visit to her brother. What happened next resulted in a very public and embarrassing appearance for all the parties before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street.

Miss Lowrie was ‘companion to Mrs. Oldfield’ of Upper Holloway. This probably meant that she acted as a paid (or possibly unpaid) ‘friend’, somewhere between a family member and a domestic servant. Young ladies like Miss Lowrie (we have no recorded Christian name) were sometimes distant relatives but certainly members of the ‘respectable’ middle classes.

Mrs Oldfield was visiting her brother, Mr Pace of Messrs. Morton and Pace, auctioneers and estate agents and went upstairs to see him while the younger woman waited in the office of his partner, George Morton.

Morton was friendly and offered her a chair before showing her pictures of his wife and child. However, he soon began to be a little too ‘friendly’.

‘As she was looking at them he put his arm around her waist and kissed her. She struggled to free herself; but he laid hold of her indecently and forced her on a chair’.

When Mrs Oldfield came downstairs Miss Lorie left with her, saying nothing until the pair were safely back inside the lady’s brougham. When she heard what had happened the elder woman was furious and wanted to turn the coach around but her companion was adamant they should not. One imagines she was mortified by the whole experience and simply wanted to go home.

However, she was later persuaded to take out a summons against Mr Morton, which brought the whole affair before the Bow Street Police Court.

Mr Stallard, defending, suggested that it was odd that no one had heard anything of the struggle that Miss Lowrie said had lasted over five minutes. Nor was the young woman’s clothing disarranged. He argued that the incident had been ‘grossly-exaggerated’ and that if ‘she had screamed out there at least three clerks who must have heard her and who would have come to her assistance’.

Miss Lowrie responded that the door to the clerks’ room had been firmly closed by the defendant and that she had not cried out but tried to fight him off instead. Her necktie had been ‘dissarranged’ (and Mrs Oldfield testified to this) and Morton had been responsible, having undone it while he held her down. Morton’s brief tried to argue that his client was merely helping her re-tie it after it had accidentally become undone, but this seemed unlikely to the court.

Stallard said the clerks were happy to back up the agent’s version of events but sadly none had made it to Bow Street. Mr Howard, the magistrate was unimpressed. He told the defence that they could easily have made them come, by issuing a subpoena. Their absence  spoke volumes.

Addressing the accused Mr Howard said that ‘it was at least a most improper and impertinent assault, especially from a man who exhibited  a picture of his own wife and child to the lady’. He fined the estate agent £5 with the threat of gaol if he didn’t pay. The fine was paid and all the parties left the court. One is bound to wonder what the ‘office’ atmosphere was likely on the following Monday morning.

 

[from The Standard , Monday, May 26, 1879]

Artists models raise an old lady’s hackles in 19th-century Fitzrovia

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Sarah Gibbons was an elderly resident of Charlotte Street, in what is known as Fitzrovia. Today it would be a smart London address, in the 1880s it was less genteel, but an area much frequented by artists. and Bohemians.

Sarah was in dispute with her neighbours across the road who she saw as noisy and disreputable. On the 8th May 1885 things had reached a point where she could stand it no longer and she left her house and crossed the road to number 98. There she was conformed by her nemesis, the much younger Maggie Jennings.

When she saw Sarah the younger woman called inside to her ‘creatures’ (as Sarah later described them in the Marlborough Street Police Court), who came running out into the hallway.

According to Sarah they then assaulted her violently:

Maggie ‘and another woman, rushed out of the room and struck her, scratched her, and tore her bonnet, and it was with difficulty that she stopped herself from going headlong into the the kitchen below’. Sarah told the sitting justice that Jennings and orchestrated the attack, calling on her friends to join in.

Where was the landlord in all this, she was asked. He was present but Sarah had no immediate blame for him in this instance, however she clearly held him responsible for  keeping the sort of house he did. She declared that she would happily have ”jumped him’ if she had been able, drawing laughter from the court.

Miss Jennings’ solicitor denied the facts as presented and said his client had been the victim not the aggressor. The court was told that Miss Jennings was an artist’s model with a ‘good connection’. Indeed, ‘ladies’ went there to have drawing classes and several artists regally called on the women who lived there, in a professional capacity. It may have been the noise these men made that caused Mrs Gibbons such consternation he suggested, but it wasn’t his client or her friends that were to blame.

The landlord also appeared and spoke up for his tenants, describing them as ‘respectable’ models and adding that it was indeed Sarah Gibbons who had landed the first blow in this fight, not Maggie.

This infuriated the old lady even further and throwing up her hands she made to leave the courtroom. ‘Models indeed!’ she exclaimed. ‘Do they take models in the dark?’, suggesting perhaps that while the men did have  professional relationship with the women, it wasn’t one based on the pure practice of ‘art’, but prostitution. This would have opened the landlord up to a possible charge of running a brothel or at least an unruly house and so the magistrate adjourned the hearing to wait for the report of the policeman that had attended to the assault incident.

A couple of days later the court reconvened the case and a police inspector reported that he had visited the property. He, and PC French who had responded to the disturbance on the 8th, both testified that ‘all the inmates were respectable persons’.

Mr Cooke, the magistrate, now turned his attention to Sarah Gibbons. He told that he was going to dismiss the charge because she had no right to have entered the property in the first place. If she wished to bring a complaint then she should have proceeded through the proper channels, and not taken the law into her own hands.

As she opened her mouth to say something the justice shut her up, and said ‘he would not hear any more’. Maggie Jennings was free to go, without a stain on her character and this verdict was met ‘with loud applause’ from those in court.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 25, 1885; The Morning Post , Wednesday, May 27, 1885]