A distraught wife declares: ‘I intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving me’.


A Southwark street in the 1890s

Serious violence such as attempted and actual murder was rarer in the nineteenth century than we might think from all the concentration of sensation literature and ‘murder news’ that has survived. Excellent work by Judith Flanders and Rosalind Crone has illuminated our understanding of the Victorians’ fascination with murder and gore but we shouldn’t conclude from this that homicides were an everyday occurrence.

Sadly, domestic and spousal violence was commonplace and the Police Courts were regularly witness to tales of wife beating as tensions in the home were brought into the public sphere. Magistrates tried to take a firm line with abusers but were often frustrated by the fact that survivors frequently refused to condemn their abusers in court; they were prepared to take them to law but not prosecute them fully, for fear of future retribution or losing the main breadwinner.

Nearly all of these victims were women but women did initiate violence sometimes and fight back when attacked. Men rarely prosecuted their wives however, because this would have suggested they had lost control of the household and that would have been a social catastrophe for their reputation.

So it is rare to see a woman in front of the courts for assaulting her husband or partner, unless there is a very clear and obvious reason, as there is with the case of Elizabeth Penning.

Elizabeth Penning had been living with John Walthe for several years. The couple weren’t married but lived as if they were. This sort of arrangement – normal today – was much more common than me might expect in the nineteenth century. Marriage was expensive and working class society did not demand that couples tied the knot officially, especially in large urban centres such as London.

It wasn’t a happy marriage however. John was having an affair and abused his wife. By his own admission he had ‘ill-treated [her] while he lived with her. He had broken three of her ribs, [and] struck her with a chopper, for which he had been punished’.

In late January 1860 he had been out drinking late and was on his way home. As he approached the Sir John Falstaff pub on Kent Street he noticed Elizabeth sitting on the step outside.

She challenged him, calling out: ‘What have you done with your woman?’

The pair rowed and John walked on. He hadn’t gone far when he heard female screams and rushed back and down Falstaff Yard, near the pub. There he found Elizabeth armed with a knife. She rushed at him and aimed  stab at his neck. The kitchen knife went in deep and blood flowed. John was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital and his life was in danger. He didn’t recover form his wounds for a month. Meanwhile Elizabeth was arrested while the courts waited to find out whether she would be charged with attempted or actual murder.

Fortunately for all concerned John survived and the case came initially before the Southwark Police Court magistrate, Mr Burcham in February.

Now that Waltin could give evidence more detail of what happened that night emerged. He’d not been alone when he passed Elizabeth at the pub. He’d had a woman on his arm and that was how the row had started. Elizabeth had threatened him and he’d dismissed this, telling her she ‘had not pluck to do it’.

PC 171M had been first on the scene, responding to the shouts from Falstaff Yard. He saw Elizabeth brandishing a bloodied kitchen knife and arrested her. She admitted stabbing her husband and said ‘she intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving her’. John was reluctant to testify against his wife, and admitted his own fault in the matter. Elizabeth said nothing before the justice, preferring to keep her defence for the jury trial that would inevitably follow.

The case did come before the Old Bailey and Elizabeth was convicted of wounding her partner. The trial unfolded with little more detail than we have from the pre-trial hearing. We do get to hear from Elizabeth however, who issued a written statement at the end of the case. This repeats some of the facts John admitted to at Southwark but adds considerably to a picture of his brutality and callous disregard for her. I’m not for a moment suggesting she was justified in stabbing him but it helps explain why she did so:

The prisoner put in a written defence, stating that she had lived with the prosecutor for seven years and suffered much ill treatment; that she had charged him at Southwark Police-court with cutting her head open with a chopper, for which he was imprisoned for three months; since when he has fractured three of her ribs, cut her eye open, and given her two severe wounds on the head with a pickaxe, which caused her at times not to know what the did or said; that he had kept her for three months without boots or shawl, so that she could not seek work, and got involved in debt, and that when she spoke to him about it he struck her; that she saw him on Saturday night with the woman in question, whom he told to give her a good hiding.

Having been found guilty Elizabeth was sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Common Sergeant.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 27, 1860]


Outrageous behaviour by “welshers” and “roughs”


The steam train had opened up Britain and given the Victorians opportunities to visit the seaside and enjoy other leisure pursuits, such as a day at the races. However, this came at a price because the train was a great social leveller, and so long as one had the funds the normal barriers to the mixing of the classes were weakened. Single female travellers were particularly at risk from the unwanted sexual advances of other passengers but, as this case (from the Southwark Police Court) shows, it was hard for anyone to escape bad or boorish behaviour on the railways.

On the 6 February 1879 two publicans  and brothers – Edwin and Walter Cole – had taken the Brighton Railway Company train to  Plumpton to watch the horse racing. When they got back to the station at Plumpton there was a crowd on the platform. Walter (who ran the Latimer Arms in Notting Hill Gate) explained what happened as he and his brother waited for the train:

They ‘were surrounded by a numbers of “welshers” and roughs, who attacked them, and attempted to rob them of their railway tickets and money’.

As they boarded the train the attack continued, and Walter was punched by one man and   had to get help from the guard to restrain him. The guard called Charles Jones, an inspector working for the railway company, who collared the attackers and shepherded them to a carriage at the opposite end of the train where he locked them in.

When the train reached London Bridge Edwin and Walter alighted and were walking towards the exit when two of the men that surrounded them at Plumpton rushed them . One aimed a kick at Walter before he was seized by the station master, a Mr Pierpoint, and Inspector Jones. The assailant, a man named William Butler, was then handed over to the police.

The police seemed reluctant to prosecute at first because there was no obvious injury to either of the Cole brothers. Butler was released and no other members of the group that had caused the trouble in East Sussex were arrested. Walter was determined to press charges however, and applied for a summons to bring Butler to court.

So, a few weeks later, on the 22 February, Butler found himself before Mr Partridge at Southwark having to deny he had anything to do with this ‘outrageous’ behaviour. He said he didn’t go to horse races, didn’t bet on the horses and hadn’t done anything wrong.  The evidence against them was pretty damning and the prosecution witnesses were respectable men and their stories were consistent.

Moreover an ex-detective from P Division appeared in court to inform his worship that the prisoner was a member of a notorious ‘gang of welshers and thieves’ who hung around race courses. They were were know as ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’. ‘Hooligans’ were to become closely associated with the Southwark and Lambeth area in the 1890s and in 1888 the Pall Mall Gazette ran a feature about the various ‘gangs of London’ all of whom had colourful monickers like ‘Dutch Sam’.

There was laughter in the court as Butler’s affiliation was announced. Whether this came from his ‘chums’ or was a derisory reaction from the general public isn’t clear but Mr Partridge wasn’t in a mood to be amused. Despite the violence being petty and no real damage being done he handed the young man a two month prison sentence at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 24, 1879]

p.s the term ‘welsher’ has, it seems, nothing to do with Wales and the Welsh people. According to the OED a ‘welsher’ is a ‘bookmaker who takes bets at horse races but who absconds, or refuses to pay if he loses’. It seems to have come into regular usage in the early 1860s. ‘Roughs’ was commonly used in the early Victorian period for groups of men at political demonstrations that acted aggressively; by the 1870s onwards it seems mostly to have applied to gangs of young men that were increasing seen as a social problem in British cities. Organised crime around British race courses is the subject of the BBC TV drama series Peaky Blinders, which takes the real-life story of the Birmingham gang as its inspiration, weaving in other race course gangsters such as Darby Sabini and Billy Kimber. ‘The inspiration for ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’ may have been an early professional boxer of the same name who was popular in the 1820s.

‘All his trouble brought on by drinking’; a suspected burglar at Southwark


We know that London was a cosmopolitan city in the Victorian age, and that it sat at the heart of Empire and world trade. Ships brought cargoes from all over the globe and Britons traveled far and wide to work and seek their fortunes in foreign lands.

Charles Conran was one such individual. In February 1865, as the American Civil was coming to an end, Conran had recently returned from Brazil where he had been working as a navvy. He had been contracted by a firm in Victoria Street to help build ‘a railway near Rio Janeiro’ [sic] and had been abroad for three years.* Once home In London it had gone on what we might today describe as ‘a bender’; drinking heavily and spending the wages he had accumulated abroad.

This had not ended well for Charles. At half past one in the morning he had been discovered trying to break into a premises on Newington Causeway by a policeman on his beat. PC 163M had heard ‘a rattling noise’ outside a glove dealer’s shop and stopped Conran as he attempted to ‘force the bolt of a shutter box’ to gain entry. Since the man couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation of his conduct the constable arrested him and presented him before the Southwark magistrate in the morning.

The Police court was told that had Conran managed to shoot the bolt he would have been able to access the shop via a set of steps and could have plundered Mr Solomon Myers’ stock with impunity. Conrad insisted however that he was no thief; he had got drunk and lost his way, he had no intention to break in to Mrs Myers’ shop at all.

The police had conducted some enquiries and discovered that Conran was telling the truth about his return from Brazil. That added up, and his employers state that while they had given him some of his salary there was still more to come. So Conran wasn’t completely broke (and therefore motivated to steal from the glover’s) and this helped his case.

The magistrate was inclined to believe that this was an honest error on his part, that perhaps all he wanted was some shelter in the doorway of the shop, not to burgle it. When he was arrested all he had on him was ‘an old knife’ the policeman said. As for money, ‘he had not a farthing’. He wasn’t drunk but had clearly been drinking the justice was told, so he couldn’t be prosecuted as drunk and disorderly either.

The magistrate looked down from the bench and instructed the court officer to discharge Conran, suggesting to the former navvy that ‘he keep sober for the future’.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 17, 1865]

*The British had been active in the building of the Brazilian railways between 1840 and the 1880s. Schemes funded by the City of London and private investors had helped open up Brazil thought the period and into the 1900s

Plenty of sympathy but no justice for a Hackney cab driver


This case shows how statute law sometimes clashed with popular perceptions of how justice should work, even when the supposed ‘keeper’ of the law (the magistrate) felt that the law was wrong, or at least not fit for purpose.

William Loakes was a cab driver from Rotherhithe and this was his third appearance before the Southwark Police Court magistrate. Cabbies didn’t have a very good reputation in the 1800s, being described as surly and disrespectful, especially towards wealthier clients. They were not infrequently accused of overcharging or refusing to take fares where they requested to go.

But Loakes had done nothing wrong and had been coming to court to seek redress. He claimed he was owed 10s by a man named Thomas who had given his address asBor the Nag’s Head pub in Borough. He had come twice before to get a summons against the man but so far he had failed to trace him. No one  at the pub had any knowledge of him so William was back in court to ask for a warrant to arrest him.

The Warrant officer of the court told the magistrate that two summons had been served at the address but since ‘Mr Thomas’ (if that was his name) was not there they’d had to return with them. Mr Bridge was apologetic but explained that he didn’t have the power to issue a general warrant to arrest the fare dodger since that wasn’t a crime under the terms of the Hackney Carriage Act. The act, passed in 1853, set out plenty of regulations for the operators of cabs but failed (in Mr Bridge’s view) to protect the drivers from non-payment by their customers.

‘Cabmen were liable to severe penalties if they broke their contracts, and the parties that hired them should be treated the same way’, said Mr Bridge. He added – using the fact that his words would be reported – that he thought it high time Parliament looked at the law and changed it according to give magistrates more powers to deal with this.

There was little he could do for Mr Loakes however, who had already lost three days work sitting around in Police Courts trying to get his 10s. He suggested the matter be communicated to the Commissioner of Police in the hopes he might use his influence to get the law changed. Finally, he granted the cabbie a third summons for free and Mr Loakes left court after thanking the magistrates ‘for his kindness’ (but probably grumbling under his breath about the unfairness of it all – he was a London cabbie after all).

[from The Standard, Friday, February 02, 1883]

Two ‘inveterate readers of juvenile literature’ caught short at Lambeth


The Union Jack, juvenile reading matter from 1880

Thomas and Roger Casement were avid readers, or so their father believed. The pair of adolescents (Thomas was 13, his brother 11) were arrested in January 1876 in possession of three books they had allegedly stolen from a Lambeth bookshop. Mr William Polder, the shop owner, appeared in court at Southwark to press his prosecution against them while the boys’ father was there to defend his sons.

Polder said the lads came into his shop on York Road around lunchtime and asked to look at some of his 3d editions. Having perused these for a while they thanked him but said nothing interested them, and left. Soon afterwards however, Polder realised that three copies of more expensive texts (which he described as being ‘of greater value with showy covers’) were missing and he suspected the boys.

He soon caught up with them and, with the assistance of a police constable (PC 97L) they were arrested. The books were discovered and the constable asked them why they had taken them.

‘To make money of, as they had none’, the juvenile thieves reportedly replied.

Having ascertained that their father was a respectable man, a captain in the local militia no less,  a message was sent to fetch him. In court the officer spoke up for his offspring:

He ‘could not account for the lads taking the books unless it was to pay for the loan of them some other day. They were inveterate readers of juvenile literature, and were in the habit of borrowing books and paying for the loan of them’.

The justice, Mr Benson, pointed out that they had made no claim to borrowing anything, or offering to pay – this seemed like theft but the captain insisted it must have been a mistake. The magistrate gave him (if not the lads) the benefit of the doubt and released them into their father’s care on him agreeing to enter into a recognizance against their future good behaviour. If they stayed out of trouble all would be well, if they repeated the thefts then a reformatory possibly beckoned.

I imagine the journey home was an uncomfortable one for Thomas and Roger, but perhaps not as uncomfortable as the thrashing they were very likely to have received later.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, January 26, 1876]

Three hearty fellows from Horselydown fall foul of Mr Coombe’s benevolence


In January 1861 three ‘hearty-looking men’ appeared at the Southwark Police court in front of Mr Combe, the magistrate presiding. The trio were dressed in agricultural labourers’ clothes and said they come from Horsleydown, by Wapping, where they claimed to earn a living by  working on the river front. However, there had been a severe winter and the frost had prevented them from doing any paid work. They told the magistrate that their ‘wives and families were at home starving’.

That the winter of 1860/61 was a hard one is evidenced by several donations listed in the papers to the local poor relief funds. At Southwark alone over a dozen people had left sums of money, postal orders or postage stamps for the magistrate to distribute as they saw fit. However, these three men had been arrested for begging and that was met with strong disapproval from Mr Combe. He enquired the circumstances in which they had been picked up by the police and PC Duff (216M) stepped forward to make his report.

PC Duff explained that he was on duty in Bermondsey Street at four in the afternoon when he saw the three men walking down the road. They were carrying spades and singing a song. As they sang ‘Got no work to do’ they waived their spades on which was written the words “Relieve the distressed poor” in chalk.

Several people did part with money, although the constable felt they were often in worse straights than the three river workers. It was also suggested that there was more than a air of menace about the way they presented themselves and how they persuaded passers-by to help them.

After they had been shaken down at the police station six shillings and eleven pence was discovered so they had managed to extract a small amount of loose change from the Southwark locals at least. Mr Combe was not inclined to leniency in this case; he saw the men as imposters – and declared ‘he would not be doing his duty if he didn’t send them to prison’.

And prison was where they went next, sentenced to seven days hard labour in the house of correction. That seems to have come as something of a shock to the three of them, who perhaps hoped for help not brickbats. Mr Combe was making it quite clear that this was a society who helped those it deemed deserved it and these three ‘hearty’ fellows from Horselydown did not fit that description.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 24, 1861]

‘When I come out I’ll have fifteen years for her.’


Today living with someone you are not married to is almost as normal as being wed. There is no stigma attached to unmarried cohabitation and similarly little, if any, to having children outside of wedlock. This state of affairs (sometimes bemoaned by traditionalists) is often compared unfavourably to past societies, where marriage is presumed to have been universally accepted as the only way for couples to show commitment to each other.

Yet even a casual study of Victorian society reveals that amongst the working classes (by far the largest social group) the bonds of marriage were much more fluid. Men and women cohabited without being married, and had children, and no one (of their class at least) seemed to bat an eyelid about it. Perhaps we are not as ‘modern’ as we think we are.

Marriage can be expensive and divorce, in the 1800s, for most men and and women, was pretty much impossible. So I suspect many came together as lovers and stayed together as partnership being married in all but name.

Edward Chatfield and Elizabeth Wardle were an example of this type of ‘common law’ marriage. They had lived together at their home in Kent Street in the Borough, south London, for some time but their relationship was far from rosy.

Edward allegedly forced Elizabeth to prostitute herself when they had no money and beat her when she came home without any money. Their quarrels finally made it to the inside of the Southwark Police Court and the pages of the newspapers when, in 1863, Elizabeth took her ‘husband’ to law for an assault upon her.

She told the magistrate, Mr Coombe, that Chatfield had come home late and had attacked her. As she stood in court everyone could see the results of the assault:- she had ‘a cut on her under lip, and several marks on the arms’. Her man had beaten her and knocked her to the floor. He started kicking her and if a policeman hadn’t heard her cries and come to her rescue she feared for her life.

It was not the first time the couple had come before the magistrates. Three months earlier the very same justice had sent him down for two months for beating Elizabeth. He’d only been out for six weeks and he’d done it again.

No lesson learned there then.

Edward objected and offered this defence:

‘It is false’, he declared. ‘I should not have touched you this time, had you come home properly. Your worship, she did not come home till six this morning, and then she was half drunk and would keep the door open’.

When Elizabeth refused to shut the door and keep quiet he had pushed her out of the bed. This was the point at which Elizabeth accused her partner of pimping her out as a prostitute, something Chatfield vehemently denied. ‘Now, that’s a lie’ he said, ‘you know I go out a thieving to support you’. This admission caused a sensation in the courtroom provably at the self-declaration of offending and the very public disintegration of their relationship.

Mr Coombe was told that Elizabeth’s body was ‘covered in cuts and bruises’ and he sent Edward to prison for six months this time, at hard labour. The prisoner’s reaction was contemptuous, both of the court and his common law wife.

‘When I come out I’ll have fifteen years for her, as I want to get out of this ________ country’.

He may have been hoping to be transported to Australia but I doubt he got his wish. The numbers of convicts deported had slowed from the 1850s and the last ship sailed from England in 1867. Still possible but I can’t see him in the records of those sent so I suspect he minded his behaviour. Mr Coombe added a codicil to his six months, a requirement that he found bail against his good behaviour towards Elizabeth for a further six months on release.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 15, 1863]

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