The struggle for the breeches (or the ‘bloomers’ in this case!)

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The nineteenth-century Police Courts were full of assault, much of it perpetrated by men and most of that ‘domestic’ (in other words where the wife or female partner was the victim). Most studies of interpersonal violence have found that men are most likely to be accused of assault in all its forms (from petty violence to serious wounding and homicide); women tended not to be violent or at least were not often prosecuted as such. When women did appear before the magistracy charged with assault it tended to be for attacking subordinates (children and servants) or other women. It was very rare for a woman to accused of hitting or otherwise assaulting a man.

There are good reasons for this and it is not simply because women were somehow ‘weaker’ or even less violently disposed than men. For a violent action to become a statistic it needs to be reported and then (usually) prosecuted if we are going to be able to count it. Historians talk of the ‘dark figure’ of unreported crime and there is widespread agreement that this figure is particular dark where domestic violence is concerned.

The gendered nature of Victorian society made it very hard for a man to report an assault against him by a woman. The mere fact that he had allowed a female to abuse him (to repudiate his ‘authority’) was bad enough in a society which was highly patriarchal. But to compound that by admitting in public that he had been bested by a woman was considered shameful. I am not suggesting that women were frequently beating up their male partners but I suspect the real figure is higher than the records suggest.

So when a man did bring a prosecution against a woman it is not surprising that it made the papers, and (as in this case) provided an opportunity for amusement at the man’s expense.

When Jeremiah Lynch lost his first wife to cholera he took on a woman to help him keep his house together. Lynch, a tailor living in Redcross Street near the Mint, was elderly and employed a vibrant young Irish woman named Carolina. He had hired Carolina in October 1850 and for nine months she had performed her duties admirably. In fact so diligent was she that in July 1852 Jeremiah (despite the age difference) proposed marriage to her which she accepted.

This soon turned out to be a terrible mistake however as Carolina, now Mrs Lynch, appeared to transform into quite a different person from the amenable servant he had married.

He ‘had not been tied to her many days before she exhibited her true temper, by demanding possession of all his money, and wanting to wear the breeches’.

When he refused her demands she smashed all his crockery. At first he ‘overlooked her mad conduct’ but on Friday 19 September 1851 she came home at six and started on him again. She complained (in an example of gender role reversal) that he had not prepared anything ‘nice for tea’ and knocked him about the head and body. She declared that ‘she would wear the breaches’ he told the magistrate at Southwark Police Court on the following Saturday morning.

‘So’, the magistrate asked him (to mounting laughter in the court) ‘she is desirous of wearing the Bloomer costume?’

If Lynch responded it was not recorded but Carolina did speak in her own defence. She told his Worship that the tailor (described as ‘sickly-looking old man’ by the Standard‘s reporter) was ‘a nasty old brute’ who ‘ill-used and starved her’.

Jeremiah Lynch denied this but the magistrate didn’t convict her of the assault. Instead he granted a separation, perhaps acknowledging that Lynch had some responsibility in the matter. He further required that the tailor should pay his former housekeeper 10s a week. In the end then this was probably a fairly successful outcome for Carolina, if not for Jeremiah. In this struggle for the breaches then, it was victory for the ‘fairer’ sex.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1851]

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A Waterman’s narrow escape from death

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The Silvertown India-rubber works and the the nearby WT Henley Telegraph cable Works, in North Woolwich in the second half of the nineteenth century

At half past 11 on Thursday, 19 September 1872 Thomas James was approached by two men as he stood by his boat at by the river near Woolwich (on the Surrey side of the river Thames). They told James, who was a waterman, that they had missed the last ferry over to North Woolwich and asked him if he would carry them over in his craft. James agreed, saying it would cost them 6d each.

The pair conferred for a few minutes and James was sure he heard one say to the other:

‘Promise him the shilling, and when we get to the middle of the river we will throw him overboard, and sell his boat tomorrow morning’.

The waterman thought it must have been a joke and the three set off. However, when they reached the middle of the Thames the pair seized him and manhandled the startled waterman overboard and into the river. Despite him being a strong swimmer he was almost drowned, encumbered as he was by a heavy coat and a large bag he was carrying.

He later told the Woolwich Police court magistrate that it was only the thought of his wife and children that made ‘him desperate’ and allowed him to recover ‘his presence of mind’ and make it to the shore. As soon as he was able he reported the theft of his boat and the attempt on his life and requested a summons to bring the men to court to answer  for it. Presumably he had some sort of description and had been told they lived at Silvertown (in West Ham), because the astounded magistrate granted his request.

One of the men was subsequently named as Thomas Pryce, a mechanic at Henley’s Telegraph Factory at North Woolwich. The case was called at Woolwich but neither Pryce nor his accuser appeared to hear it. The Pall Mall Gazette reported that ‘matter had been compromised by the defendant paying the  complainant a sum of money in compensation’.

This form of settlement was not uncommon in nineteenth century London (and indeed earlier in history). For all his presumed anger at being nearly drowned in the Thames, James wanted a form of justice that benefited him. Since he seems to have been able to identify Pryce it made sense (to him) to track him down and extract a pecuniary advantage from the whole situation. As for Pryce, having been caught he must have realised that a charge of theft with violence would lead to penal servitude for several years and the loss of his job at the telegraph factory. Settling their difference, as Londoners often did, made much more sense for both parties.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 21, 1872; The Pall Mall Gazette , Wednesday, September 25, 1872]

Police ‘errors’ or corrupt practice? The fine blue line in the East End

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When a relatively straightforward and seemingly uninteresting assault case involving two working-class females makes the news you can be sure something extra is afoot. In September 1881 in East London this was exactly what was happening.

Charlotte Frost and another woman, named simply as Seihler (and so most probably from the immigrant Jewish population) had a fight and ended up at Worship Street Police court. Mrs Seihler was accused of assaulting the other woman but when it came up in court the defendant protested.

She told the magistrate (Mr Bushby) that when she had first been taken to the police station she stated, in her defence, that she was merely reacting to having been first attacked by Frost. However, in court this had not been represented this way by the arresting police officer, PC Saw (232K). Mr Bushby asked PC Saw if the woman had made a statement to this effect and the policeman said she had not, contradicting Mrs Seihler’s statement.

Since there was a conflict of evidence the magistrate sent for the station inspector, Hudson, who had taken down the charge against the woman. He supported the defendant’s evidence by confirming that yes, Mrs Seihler had accused Frost of assaulting her, not the other way around.

Mr Bushby was clearly perturbed by this and effectively accused the policeman of perverting the course of justice. ‘There was no doubt’ he said, ‘that the Constable had committed perjury, and his conduct should be reported’. After all, this was serious as it could make all the difference ‘between her [Mrs Seihler] going to prison and being discharged’.

The magistrate then discharged the prisoner but dictated a statement to the clear which was intended to be passed on for the attention of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. This read:

‘The constable swore falsely, after the Prisoner declared at the station that she was struck first, that she did not say so. This most dangerous kind of perjury has occurred here three or four times lately’.

Was it a mistake (as Inspector Hudson presented it – adding that PC Saw was new to the force) or an example of anti-semitism, favouritism, or another form of corruption? We can hardly say from this distance but in close knit communities where distrust of the police was commonplace this hardly helped to foster good relations.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, September 20, 1881]

Beware the green-eyed monster

 

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Violence between women was not prosecuted as frequently as that between men, but we shouldn’t think it was a rare event. Lambeth Police Court just such a serious case of violent assault involving both a female assailant and a female victim in early September 1855.

Eliza Williams was brought up before the magistrate to answer a charge of cutting and wounding. Williams was a ‘good-looking’ and ‘rather well-dressed’ young woman and her victim was Catherine Upton, another young lady living close by.

Upton was married but seems to have been separated from her husband as, and this was the underlying cause of the attack, having a relationship with Eliza’s former lover. As a consequence ‘a strong feeling of jealousy existed in the mind’ of Eliza ‘against her more favoured rival’.

A week before the court hearing Eliza confronted Catherine and they quarrelled. Eliza picked up and smashed a glass number and stabbed her in the head with a shard of the glass. The wound ‘bled profusely’  and needed medical attention.

Now there were in court Catherine explained that she did not wish to press the charge and further. I suspect this means she was content to have the magistrate hand down a lenient punishment rather than take the case before a jury where Eliza might expect to get a long gaol term. Mr Elliott note her wish and sent Williams away for six weeks.

Eliza was far from happy with the outcome however; she raged at the bench and at her accuser declaring that she would ‘give it to the complainant when she got out’. This only landed her in more trouble with the magistrate who now insisted that on release she must post bail against her good behaviour towards Catherine for two months.

At that she was led away to begin her six weeks of confinement.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 3, 1855]

“Give her a good hiding”: marital violence and a lack of a sisterly support

Recently Married Woman With Bandage Across Her Face.

Poor Eliza Taylor.

East End women had, by all accounts, a hard life. Poverty was rife, childbirth dangerous, work hard to find and poorly paid, and husbands that were often drunk and not infrequently violent. The saving grace was usually other women and the extended family that helped keep communities together. Women looked out for each other,  patched up cuts and tended to bruises, and offered tea and sympathy.

Not in all cases it seems and perhaps this reveals the role of the police and local courts in acting as a ‘last resort’ when the community sanctions and support mechanism broke down.

As they clearly did for Eliza Taylor.

Eliza was married but like many relationships in the area hers was seemingly tempestuous. Perhaps her husband drank; maybe he was work-shy; in all likelihood he hit her. Poverty can place a huge strain on marriage, especially when the pressures of life mean  there is little time for caring about each other.

In September 1880 Eliza’s sister-in-law, Anna Desmond, called at the Taylor’s home. It was about 5 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and Mr Taylor was also at home, suggesting he was out of work. Perhaps Eliza had been berating him for his lack of employment, or for being out since lunchtime drinking with his mates. Historians aren’t supposed to speculate in the way that novelists can but sometimes I think it is useful.

Anna hadn’t come come round (as Eliza might have hoped) to empathise with her sister-in-law. Instead she had come round to mete out some family discipline to a disobedient wife and mother. Quit complaining about my brother and this family, she might well have said.

Poor Eliza.

The next thing she knew Anna had attacked her and her husband had joined in:

‘taking Desmond’s part, he held her down, and said, “Give her a good hiding now you have got her”.

Anna had punched her in the head, cutting it open and knocking her to the ground and now Taylor piled in himself. Both assailants kicked and thumped the stricken woman until somehow she managed to get away and escape into the street where she was soon found by a local policeman.

Having told him what happened he arrested Anna Desmond and she was produced before the Thames magistrate on the Thursday morning following the incident. The court was told by the doctor that had treated Eliza’s injuries that she ‘was so weak from loss of blood she had to be taken home in a cart’.

Anna Desmond was notorious in the area it seems; the Poplar resident had been in court several times before, including on a warrant for biting another woman and for trying to kill herself in a police cell. There was clearly something very wrong with Anna Desmond. There was no sign of Mt Taylor in the courts, either as a witness or for the beating he had handed out to his wife.

Eliza probably didn’t want to prosecute her husband. Charging him would probably make things worse in her mind. If he was sent to prison then any chance he would find work afterwards was undermined; if Mr Lushington fined him then that was just another expense the family would have to bear. And of course, merely by dragging him through the courts Eliza would have angered him and made the possibility of further beatings more likely. Best to keep quiet and try and hope he took his frustrations out on someone else.

Mr Lushington was presented with a very easy case to deal with according to law. He didn’t need to look into the other details today. Anna Desmond was violent, abusive, quite possibly a regular drunk and disorderly ‘customer’ and clearly ‘deserved’ the full force of the justice system. He sent her to prison for three months hard labour.

In three months time she would out and back in Poplar. Her brother, fuming from the punishment handed down to his sister and the shame it brought on him and his family was already free.

Poor Eliza.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 10, 1880]

An H Division policeman gets away with brutality towards a defenceless immigrant

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The Kind Hearted Policeman by  L Huard (1864). This was the image of policing the Met were keen to promote but it did not always reflect the reality

Under the headline ‘More outrages of young women’, The Era newspaper (which was aimed primarily at the entertainment industry and licensed traders) carried a story of what appeared to be police brutality in the East End of London.

A respectable married woman (aged about 30) named Sarah Gompertz was walking towards Spitalfields at four o’clock in the afternoon. One imagines Sarah lived here as part of the area’s large Jewish community as her name suggests a Russian, Polish or German origin. There was always tension between the immigrant population and the indigenous one (even allowing for the fact that London has been home to migrating peoples for as long as it has existed), but this was not as pronounced as it was to become in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

As she made her way along a policeman from H Division was patrolling his beat ahead of her. As the constable came alongside her he allegedly spat a mouthful of half-chewed carrot at her as he passed. Outraged Sarah protested. Instead of apologising the officer, PC William Gulley, responded by telling her to move along. When she refused to move he manhandled her violently, as the paper described:

‘this valiant constable of the H Division seized Mrs Gompertz by the back hair with one hand, and grasping her dress with the other, violently propelled her forward by the length of several houses, expediting her movements with brutal blows from behind with his knees, tearing open her dress by the force used, and exposing both her shoulders and her neck and bosom in a most indecent, and to the sufferer, most humiliating, manner’.

And, the report continued,

‘in this disgraceful way, with her dress unfastened, her shawl and bonnet streaming behind, she was pushed and dragged to the station, like a common troll or drunken prostitute, charged with taking part in a street disturbance, and refusing to move on at the voice of authority’.

Back at the police station the inspector on duty refused to register the charge and related the poor woman immediately but did little else to publicly  admonish the constable. The woman had walked home in a state of distress and collapsed. A doctor was called and he noted that her exhaustion and stress was compounded by the fact that she was pregnant. Its not clear whether witnesses saw the constable’s actions or merely saw the effects when she reached home but the paper was clearly convinced that the assault had happened.

Mrs Gompertz later pressed a charge of assault against PC Gulley at Worship Street but the constable was able to find three fellow officers who were prepared to testify in his defence. It went to the Old Bailey in November but the constable was acquitted and no details were recorded. In the end it was probably the word of an immigrant against that of a ‘guardian of the public’ backed up by three colleagues who had not seen what had happened. The inspector must have believed Mrs Gompertz’s account but was presumably too timid to take on his own men.

[from The Era , Sunday, September 4, 1864]

A young man is ‘saved’ by a clever use of the legal system

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A curious case today, where the intention of the prosecutor may well have been something quite different than it at first appeared.

The defendant was a woman named Mary Ann Downes and she had been brought to the Marlborough Street Police Court on a charge of assault. Two gentlemen had first presented themselves before Mr Dyer the sitting justice, to request a warrant. One of the men explained that his brother:

‘a young man of rather weak intellect, had got connected with the woman, and had left his friends, who were persons of station and property, to live with this woman, who so completely got him under control that she will take care that he will have no intercourse with his relatives’.

I’m sure it was not the first or the last time that a young man friends and family had taken exception to his choice of partner, but he was over age (22) and quite able, one would think, to decide things for himself. Unless that is, the term ‘weak intellect’ suggested that he was more seriously mentally ill or particularly stupid.

Either way the two men were determined to separate their friend and brother from the woman and turned up at his house at 8 Bidborough Street in a post chaise with the intention of taking him away to the country. Mary Ann was having none of it however.She remonstrated with them and would not let them in; when they pressed their case she hit them.

Perhaps this was their intention all along because now they had a case for accusing her of assault and Mr Dyer issued the warrant.  A hackney carriage was despatched – this time with an officer of the court (Mr Carter) on board – to execute the warrant and bring Mary Ann in.

Sometime later it returned with the accused woman and a very disheveled officer. Carter  was ‘in a violent perspiration, and the woman’s dress and appearance indicated that a severe struggle between them had occurred’. This had been no easy arrest.

Carter, on oath, told the court that Mary Ann had resisted arrest and had put up such a struggle that he was forced to call a policeman to help him. Mr Dyer turned to the woman and demand to know why she had assaulted the officer.

‘I did not know what he came for’ she replied.

‘I exhibited the warrant’ grumbled the officer, clearly still suffering from the encounter with this formidable woman.

‘You did not’, she retorted, ‘you pulled and dragged me about very much, and would not let me lock up my drawers or my drawing room’. She then added: ‘the warrant was for the purpose of getting me out of the way, so they might take away my husband, Mr Downes, who is not capable of taking care of himself or his property’.

Mary Ann was described as ‘bony and thin’ and an ‘altogether vulgar character’. Her age was put at 35 so she was much older than her ‘husband’ (if they were indeed married). The magistrate bailed her for the assault but noted that the two men who had requested the warrant had not returned to prosecute. In all likelihood Mary Ann was correct in her accusation that the warrant was a ruse; regardless of whether she had hit or assaulted anyone the two gentlemen had used the summary court system to extricate a young man from a domestic situation   that they clearly believed was detrimental to his health, wealth and social position.

One can only imagine the fury that Mary Ann Downes might unleash if she ever got to see him or the two men ever again.

[from The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, Sunday, September 2, 1838]