The sad story of an elderly seamstress and her Majesty

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In the light of yesterday’s happy announcement of a royal engagement I thought I’d feature a (sort of) royal story from Victorian London’s Police courts.

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.*

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

*(and now my gym!)

for another story that feature Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

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The odds are stacked against a young wife, hemmed in as she was by the demands of patriarchy and the cruelty of her abusive husband

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This week my undergraduate students at Northampton will be looking at marital violence in history. I’ve set them reading by a variety of historians that will (hopefully) allow them to look at the way spousal abuse was perpetrated and prosecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of it was predicated on the prevailing ideology of patriarchy.

English society in the 1800s was fundamentally male dominated. Men held all the positions of power (save one, that of monarch after 1837) and women were effectively excluded from most decision-making.

All the Police Court magistrates I write about were men, as were all the judges and jurors at the Old Bailey. Policeman were exclusively male, most other parish officials were men, and almost all senior employers were male as well. In the household the man was dominant too; while the ‘rule of thumb’ can be over-stressed men did have (or believed they had) the right to discipline their wives and children if they thought it necessary.

Police Court magistrates dealt with a huge amount of domestic violence, nearly all of it directed at the wives or common-law partners of working-class males. Men like James Bridgeman clearly believed they were entitled to hit their wives. This had been instilled in them from childhood as they witnessed their fathers beating their mothers for the most trivial of reasons. Often the men were drunk and simply resented being questioned as to the time they were coming in. On other occasions they complained about the food they’d been presented with, or about how long they’d had to wait to get it.

Abuse was frequent but women less frequently did much about it. Some fought back and London women were a tough lot by most accounts. But the scales were hardly balanced and years of abuse took its toll. Some wives fled, others were cowed and suffered up in silence. A few took their husbands before a magistrate, often hoping he would give them a divorce. It was a forlorn hope; justices had no power to permanently separate married couples.

Many, presented with the choice of seeing their abusive husband go to prison for beating them chose instead to take them back, fearing worse punishment if they didn’t or a worsening of their economic situation (and that of their children) if he was ‘sent down’. A ‘bad’ husband was sometimes better than no husband at all some must have reckoned.

James Bridgeman was a ‘bad husband’. He beat his young wife often despite them being relatively newly wed. He had spent two ‘unhappy years’ married to Ellen, as she told the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell. Then, one day in November 1884 things got worse.

On the 10 November they quarrelled and Ellen left to go back to her mother in Elsted Street, Walworth. On the next morning James turned up at his mother-in-law’s house and asked Ellen to come back to the family home in Newington Causeway.

She refused and he asked her if she would at least go to court to ‘get a separation’. ‘No, I have not got time’ was her reply. The next thing she felt was a sharp pain in her neck as her husband stepped her with his clasp knife.

The witnesses that saw the attack or saw him before he stabbed her said the knife was already open; he had intended this violence or anticipated her rejection at least. She was saved by the appearance of her mother and another man who pulled Bridgeman off her.

As James ran off, Ellen was taken to the police station where her wound was dressed. Soon afterwards James gave himself up at the station and Ellen charged him with the attack on her. In court before the Clerkenwell magistrate Ellen deposed that he had threatened her when he visited her at her mother’s.

He told her: ‘If you don’t live with me, I’ll do for you’.

The magistrate first remanded him then committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. There Bridgeman tried to claim that his wife stayed out late and was ‘living an immoral life’. It was an easy slur to make and Ellen vehemently denied it.

He also tried to argue that it was an accident, that Ellen had walked into him as he was using his knife to trim his nails. She had a inch deep cut in her neck and bruising around her throat where he had grabbed her.  Bridgeman had told the police and the magistrate that he acted as he had because he was entitled to do so, and this was reported in court.

Why had he stabbed her?

‘Only for her stopping out all night as she has done I should not have done what I have done’, was his defence.

It was the defence of all violent abusive men in the 1800s. The jury found him guilty of lesser offence than that with which he was charged. He was young (just 22) and the judge respited sentence. In the end he seems to have gone unpunished, no record exists that I can find of any sentence, so maybe some leniency was shown to him. The fact that the police surgeon didn’t think Ellen’s wounds were ‘dangerous’, and she recovered soon afterwards probably helped his cause. And the fact that the jury was male and he had publicly accused her of being a disobedient spouse.

I hope that ultimately she escaped him, because the chances are that such a brutish man would be quite prepared to make good on his threat in the future.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 23, 1884]

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

‘A gross outrage’ on a young woman reveals the commonplace nature of sexual harassment in London

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Farringdon station under construction in the 1860s

The news feed is still dominated by the Westminster ‘sex pest’ scandal with a growing list of male MPs having to deny, admit or explain their poor behaviour towards female colleagues in the palace or outside. What has emerged is that sexual harassment (from the relatively minor to the extremely serious) is endemic in British politics.

As I discussed last week the Victorians experienced this problem, especially when the new railways began to break down the barriers between the sexes (and classes).  The busy railway carriages of Victorian London provided men with an opportunity to get close to women in ways that were usually denied them. We have seen this replicated in the modern world with attacks on female commuters on the London Underground.

Of course sexual  harassment is not (and was not) confined to the tube or other forms of transport. The Westminster scandal is just the tip of the iceberg; the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations have opened a can of worms in the movie and wider entertainment industry and I fully expect that over the course of the next year or so we are going to see more and more women come forward to complain that they have been assaulted at work or pressured into having unwanted sexual relations by men in positions of power.

This is because we don’t live in an equal society in terms of gender, despite the progress that has been made since the end of the last world war. There needs to be a reckoning and I rather suspect that it is just beginning. But let us return to the nineteenth century and to an incident that was reported, if not in great detail.

Miss Mary Ann Newell was ‘quietly walking along the street’ minding her own business one afternoon in November 1866. Mary Ann was quite close to her lodgings in Northampton Square, Clerkenwell (close to where the London Metropolitan Archives are located today) when a young man came up behind her.

Without warning or introduction he reached around her with his arms and ‘assaulted her in a  very indecent manner’. The newspaper report does not give any more details than this but I think it is quite clear that he must have touched her breasts. Such an action was of course as outrageous then as it would be today. Mary Ann escaped from his grasp and ran home where she told her landlord.

He set off in pursuit of the young man, capturing him a few streets away and taking him to a police station. The next day all three appeared at the Clerkenwell Police Court in front of Mr D’Eyncourt.

The young man, whose name was William Sparrow Cumber was just 16 years of age, and described as a bookbinder. Several of his friends appeared to give him a good character but the offence was proven against him. The magistrate made no comment that was recorded by the reporter but fined him the significant sum of £2 10(about £240 today). Mr D’Eyncourt warned him that if he failed to pay the money he would go to prison in the house of correction for a week at hard labour.

Did this represent ‘justice’ for Mary Ann or an effective deterrent to William and those inclined to behave similarly? I suppose the proof would in what happened next. If this served to let the young bookbinder know that he couldn’t treat women as objects, then a hefty fine (rather than gaol) allowed him to keep his job whilst being effective in protecting women locally. If his mates helped pay his fine and his ruffianism and day in court was considered a ‘badge of honour’ then more young women were likely to fall victim to similar assaults.

Given the deeply gendered nature of Victorian society and the generally subservient position of women in it, and the experience of modern women in a society which is supposedly so much more ‘enlightened’ where equality is concerned, I rather fear Mary Ann was forced to tread much more carefully when she left her home, with more than half an eye on who was behind her from then on.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 07, 1866]

Two ‘professional’ thieves are nabbed on the Kingsland Road

victorian era burglar tools

Although the metropolitan Police Courts mostly dealt with petty crime and disorderly behaviour this was also the place where a lot of more serious crime first came before the criminal justice system. Magistrates acted as a filter to the justice system, holding pre-trial hearings and determining whether there was a case for sending defendants for trial before a jury.

Early one morning on 8 October 1870 Inspector George Silverton (of N Division, Metropolitan Police) was out on patrol with two of his officers in the Kingsland Road, Dalston. They may well have been acting on information because they were after two well-known thieves, George Wool and John Thompson.

At about 5am Silverton spotted the two men and attempted to follow them. He lost them close to a stable yard attached to a pub, the De Beauvoir Arms*. The inspector now decided that the suspected thieves could only be in one of a handful of buildings nearby so he had his men surround them and waited.

Soon enough they saw a door in one of the properties, a shop belonging to Simon Drickkes, open slightly before it shut again immediately. Silverton alerted his men and when the door opened again they rushed it, gaining access and overpowering the occupants.

Inside they found Wool and Thompson with several sacks of goods they had stolen and were preparing to carry away.  The men were arrested and taken back to Kingsland Road Police Station. In the morning they were taken before the magistrate at Clerkenwell. There they were charged with ‘burglariously breaking and entering’ Mr Drickkes property and attempting to take away the following haul:

‘eight timepieces, two watches, three meerschaum pipes, 700 cigars, twelve meerschaum cigar-holders, and a quantity of other valuable property’.

Inspector Silverton also explained that the police had found a skeleton key in the building that had fitted the shop’s lock, suggesting that the burglars had carefully planned their operation.  The two accused men declined to comment, preferring to reserve their defence for a judge and jury at the Middlesex Sessions.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 22, 1870]

*a pub with that name still exists on Southgate Road, only a short walk from where Inspector Silverton says he lost sight of the pair.

Bovril in hot water over its ‘dangerous’ method of advertising

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In the autumn of 1890 the London press had received a number of letters concerning a new method of advertising. Companies (especially those that did not have a high street presence) had begun to put up ‘sky signs’ that loomed over the metropolis atop tall buildings.

These signs ‘used the sky of heaven as a background for their advertisements’ and were particularly useful for businesses that were located ‘in back streets and out of reach of the public eye’. One such sign that had recently been erected advertised the merits of Bovril, ‘a thick and salty meat extract paste similar to a yeast extract, developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston’ (wikipedia, 4/10/17).

The Clerkenwell vestry opposed the the installation of such sky signs because they felt they presented a risk to health and safety, and summoned the representatives of Bovril Ltd to Clerkenwell Police Court and prosecuted them under the Metropolis Management Act, 18 and 19 Victoria, cap 120 (1855) section 119. The section of legislation made it unlawful for anyone to block a passage or erect a sign that endangered road users and the vestry’s concern was that the Bovril sign (in particular the letter ‘B’)  might fall and crush passers by below.

The case for the vestry was presented by Mr Bodkin and he argued that since the letters were made of wood, and weighed ‘on average one hundredweight’ they constituted a real risk to those below. As noted above the letter B projected over Lever Street and so the vestry had ordered the firm to take them down. This request had been refused or ignored and so it ended up before Mr Bros at Clerkenwell. Bodkin argued that there was a very real risk the sign could fall and added that its elevated position made it entirely possible that it could be struck by lightning, fall or ignite the rest of the building in fire.

Defending Bovril, Mr Forrest Fulton suggested the concerns were overblown. He called Mr George Sage (of messrs. Sage), whose company had made the letters. Sage attempted to convince the magistrate (and the vestry) that there was no danger to anyone:

‘The letters were erected with the greatest care and every precaution was taken to avoid accidents’.

They had even attached a lightning conductor to the building as extra protection for the signage. Challenged by the vestry’s spokesman he said that he accepted that ‘London’s atmosphere might, in the course of years, weaken the structure’, but he called forward another member of Sage’s team who reassured the court that ‘no pressure of wind could bring the letter B down’. Mr Fulton also insisted that any fire risk was applicable to the building anyway, and not exacerbated by wooden letters above its roof.

An architect was produced who also testified that the structure was safe and Fulton confirmed that Bovril had agreed to have the sign inspected annually to ensure it was well maintained and presented no risk to the public. So, was this really about public safety or about the increasing presence of advertising? London was awash with commercial signage in the late nineteenth century; indeed it is one of things that first strikes you when you look at pictures of the capital like this Kilburn omnibus below (from c.1890).

LGOC bus Kilburn c1890

In the end I suspect Mr Bros the magistrate compromised because while he fined Bovril 40 for not complying with the vestry’s order this was a nominal amount and not a real disincentive to the advertisers. The paper noted that an appeal was likely and one imagines it would have considerable commercial support. Late Victorian and Edwardian England thrived on commerce and entrepreneurship and companies such as Bovril had deep pockets.

The days of the vestry as an influential body were also numbered, they would soon lose what little power they had to councils. One only has to take a ride through central London and along the river today to recognise that business has triumphed over the aesthetic desires of those that would prefer a less cluttered skyline or a more low-key use of advertising. This process started in the 1800s and has been relentless ever since.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 04, 1890]

A mistake that could have proved costly as a woman knocks a ladder onto the railway lines

Construction of the Metropolitan Railway, London, 1866.

Building London’s underground railway, c.1866

Ellen Childs believed she was doing a good thing when she knocked a ladder over a parapet onto what she thought was waste ground below. She did it to prevent children climbing the ladder which had been left there by men who had been painting girders close to a nearby hoarding. The hoarding itself further obscured Ellen’s view of what lay below the parapet, which was in fact the track of the Metropolitan Railway.

Ellen Childs was walking over the Britannia Bridge (which crossed the railway below) when she had seen a small child clambering up the ladder as it leaned against the parapet. She clipped him around the ears and sent him packing. Her motive was to keep him (and others like him) safe but when she tipped the ladder over the wall it landed on the tracks.

Thankfully before any damage could be done to passing trains it was found by Robert Bloy who was working on the line and heard the ladder fall.  Since trains passed ‘every two to three minutes’ Bloy’s quick actions might well have averted a serious accident as the six foot ladder had landed square across the rails.

Ellen was arrested and  prosecuted before Mr Bros, the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell. She was distraught at what she had done and swore that there was no evil intent in her mind. It was a serious case however and beyond Mr Bros’ powers to judge. He committed her for trial (probably at Middlesex Sessions as she is not listed in the Old Bailey) but accepted bail and released her in the meantime. It was an honest mistake but it could have been a very serious one.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]