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]

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]

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]

Two ungrateful sons take out their anger on their mother’s effects

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Mercer Street, Seven Dials c.1890

When Mrs Lang lost her husband she also lost the main breadwinner and the driving force for the family business. The Langs had run a coppersmith business in Mercer Street, close to  Covent Garden. Fortunately for Mrs Lang she had two grown up sons and they undertook to help out in the running of the workshop.

However, the brothers, William and George, were not keen to take on the business for ever and soon began to resent working for their mother. They hit on the idea to emigrate and decided to seek their fortunes in Australia. Australia, which had once been deemed only fit as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted criminals, was now flourishing. It had enjoyed its own gold rush and the transportation of felons had come to a halt in the 1860s. Now, in May 1890, it looked like an attractive destination for the Lang brothers, but they needed to the funds to get there and establish themselves.

They began by asking their mother for money, above and beyond what they earned from working in the shop. The requests soon turned to demands, and eventually to demands with menaces. So concerned was Mrs Lang that she told her solicitor who wrote to the men warning them to desist.

This did nothing to deter them however and after their mother rejected demand for a sum of £500 they threatened to ‘do for her’ and then went to her home and smashed it up. The damage they did was considerable. While the elderly lady sheltered in her bedroom the pair set to work on her effects. When she felt it was safe to emerge she found a trail of devastation:

All ‘her pictures and ornaments had been smashed, and were lying about in atoms. The damage would amount to quite £30’ [£1,800 today]. A week later William went further, assaulting his mother by striking her ‘several blows’.

After appearing in court at Marlborough Street William was formally committed for trial while George, although acquitted of causing the damage, was ordered to find sureties (to the tune of £50) to keep the peace towards his mother for six months.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 16, 1890]

The battle of the sexes claims another victim

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Victorian society is often described as one in which the sexes existed in ‘separate spheres’, with men occupying a ‘public’ space and women restricted to the home, or ‘private’ one. While this thesis works quite well for the women of the middle and upper classes it is less obviously true of the vast majority of the working class. Many working-class women worked and looked after the domestic environment. They were housewives, mothers and significant contributors to the family economy, and this often resulted in tensions at home.

Julia Bagot was one such women. She was married to Martin and they had several children. While Julia worked hard every day Martin Bagot had ‘done no work for 18 months’ and liked a drink with his mates. At home the domestic duties fell to Julia who was expected to undertake to keep her husband happy and fed while also performing the role of the family’s main breadwinner.

One evening in May 1884 she came home from work at 9 o’clock, tired and hungry. Her husband followed her through the door a few minutes later, drunk and belligerent. As he demanded tea she put a saucepan of water on the stove to boil and looked to the children.

One of her daughters had no clean clothes to wear for school the next day and when she pressed Martin about this he told her he had pawned them (presumably to get the money he needed for beer). An argument ensued, a ‘few high words were exchanged’, before the affair escalated and Martin seized the pan of water and threw the contents at his wife.

Julia’s face was scalded by the almost boiling liquid and she was temporarily blinded in one eye. Mrs Bagot was taken to the hospital where her wounds were dressed but the doctors feared that she might permanently lose the sight in her eye. The next morning the pair were in the Clerkenwell Police court with Martin facing a charge of assault and wounding. One of his children gave evidence against him and the injuries she had suffered were all too apparent, her head and face being largely wrapped up in bandages.

The magistrate remanded Martin Bagot in custody to see how his wife’s condition developed over the next few days. The papers don’t tell us whether Julia recovered or what punishment the Clerkenwell justice decided to meet out to Bagot. However, while he might have faced a fine or a spell of weeks or months in prison neither would have helped Julia much. Nursing a serious injury and potential crippled for life a women in her forties or fifties (Martin was 54) as she was would find it hard to continue working. With her husband unemployed and with several mouths to feed the outlook for the Bagot family was bleak, if not desperate.

The workhouse loomed large in the lives of the working poor of Victorian London and sadly, it was probably the family’s next destination. There they would be compelled to live in ‘separate spheres’, him on the male side, her on the female.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 15, 1884]

A small treat and a careless driver leads to a tragic accident in Poplar

London was a busy city in the 1800s and, just as it is today, it was full of traffic and people in a hurry. As a consequence of this, accidents happened and fatalities were fairly commonplace. We should also remember that in the nineteenth century medicine was not as advanced as it is today and the emergency services (such as they were) far less effective. Sadly then, traffic accidents often led to death where today lives might be saved.

Every accidental death is a tragedy but the early death of a child is  more upsetting, and more devastating for the parents and those involved.

In May 1852 Mary Ann Merritt and her mother were in a grocer’s shop in Poplar. Mary Ann was three years old and probably as delightful as all three year-olds can be. The grocer’s wife offered her a fig, but her mother intercepted the treat, and told Mary Ann she must give half of it to one of her siblings.

Mrs Merritt divided the fruit in half and gave one part to her little daughter. Excited, Mary Ann ran out of the shop and into the street.

Meanwhile Matthew Gale, a 23 year-old greengrocer from Bromley, was ‘lolling’ in the back of his cart while his vehicle proceeded along the road, guided only a four year-old child he had entrusted the reins to.

As the cart rumbled along the cobbles at a speed of ‘four or five miles an hour’ Mary Ann rushed out to cross the road and the cart with its load of potatoes, collided with the little girl. Mary Ann was ‘knocked down and one of the cart’s wheels ‘passed over the child’s head, and it [sic] died almost immediately’.

Whe Mary Ann’s father, a mechanic, discovered what had happened he quickly found Gale and grabbed him. ‘You vagabond, you have killed my child’, clearly holding him responsible for the accident. Merritt hit the greengrocer and the pair ended up in the Thames Police court on the following Monday, with Gale charged with causing the child’s death.

The magistrate, Mr Yardley, thought that some responsibly did indeed lie with Matthew Gale. The court heard that if ‘the prisoner had been in his proper place, in front of the cart, with the reins in his hand, he could have pulled up and prevented the occurrence’. Drivers, he said, should ‘be more careful in a neighbourhood where children were running about’.

But Mr Yardley also attributed some of the blame to Mary Ann’s mother. She should, he said, ‘have looked more cautiously after her little girl, and prevented it running into danger’. Gale was bailed to await the findings of the coroner’s inquest. He doesn’t appear again so I expect that it was accepted that  this was just an accident. It was avoidable, and the young man would have to live with it, as would Mrs Merritt, her husband and their family.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 11, 1852]