The Southwark magistrate helps two wives obtain a brief respite from their abusive spouses

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George Wright so badly mistreated his young wife, Emma, that after 18 months of marriage she had walked out of his life, and had gone to live with her mother. During that time she had not taken a penny of his money but had ‘maintained herself’ independently of him. In July 1881 however, the pair had run into each other on the New Kent Road, and this had ended badly.

George Wright may have gone looking for Emma; he was aware that she had a new man in her life and was accustomed to ‘walking out’ with him and her sister, something that annoyed him greatly. When they met he assaulted her, knocking her to the street and kicking at her while she lay there helpless.

Emma was badly hurt and her sister helped her get some medical attention before making a formal complaint to the police about George’s behaviour. In court even George’s own sister testified to her brother’s cruelty and this helped make it an easy case for the Southwark magistrate to adjudicate on. He awarded Emma a judicial separation (as close as he could get to granting her a divorce under his powers), and ordered her husband to pay her 10s a week in maintenance.

Both this case and the next one reported that day at Southwark Police Court , that of  a 33 year-old ironmonger named Stafford, accused of assaulting his wife, were presented under the headline ‘Matrimonial Causes’. This referred to the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) which was the first piece of legislation to give wives some semblance of control over their marriages. It hardly offered equality in marriage as we might recognise or understand it today but it was a hard fought victory for women nevertheless and it made some small difference to women of the middle or upper classes. For poorer women like Emma Wright or Mrs Stafford it did little but perhaps did at least establish some legal grounds for separation in abusive situations.

Wife beating was widespread in the nineteenth century and not just in working-class homes. It was here however that the spotlight tended to fall with drink and fecklessness being attributed as causal factors in so many women being attacked in their own homes.  Wllliam Stafford was sent to prison for three months at hard labour for the beating he handed out to Eliza, his wife. The justice also separated the couple and similarly ordered William to pay her a regular sum of 7s and 6d for the support of her and her children.

Emma Wright then was lucky, she had escaped from George’s violence, for the time being at least. But a full divorce and the opportunity to be a ‘respectable’ married woman with someone else (rather than simply being a ‘common law’ partner) was still a relative pipe dream. Moreover, while she had bene awarded 10s a week, there was little to ensure that it was paid other than to constantly be prepared to drag her husband back to court time after time.

So it was a victory of sorts, but possibly a short-lived one.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

Callous violence is punished with a fine

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Pall Mall, c.1842

This is an unpleasant if unusual case of domestic abuse. It is unusual because of the nature of the injury caused and how, and because it took place in public. It led to the arrest of a man and the hospitalisation of his victim.

James Jones of 9 Claremont Place, Lisson Grove, appeared at the Marlborough Street Police Court in early July 1844 on a charge of assault. His victim was his common-law wife, Mary Ann Drew. There was at least one witness to the attack, which happened in broad daylight on Pall Mall.

Jones had been out friends, dining in Chelsea, but it seems Mary Ann had been concerned that he was up to something else. She had followed him about during the day and had been imploring  him to come home. He had dismissed her and told he would come home when he was ready. Mary Ann was not satisfied however, and continued to dog his footsteps, which clearly annoyed him.

Edward Groom was also strolling on Pall Mall and saw the couple, Mary Ann walking a few paces behind her ‘husband’. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and Groom saw Jones stop and turn around. He advanced on the woman brandishing his umbrella. Then he struck.

‘he made a lunge at her with his umbrella, and thrust the ferrule [the sharp metal tip] under her eye, so as to burst the eye-ball, and cause it to protrude from the socket’.

Mary Ann fell to the pavement screaming in agony, where she lay until a policeman came up and helped take her to St George’s Hospital. Meanwhile Jones was seized and arrested. As he was led away he muttered that ‘it served her right, for following him about’.

In court he admitted lunging at her but with no intention of doing her ‘serious injury’. He said he was drunk at the time. The surgeon who had treated her appeared to give the grim news that she would never recover her sight in that eye. She was also far too ill to testify before the magistrate at this time. Mr Maltby, the justice, fined her £5 which he paid straight away and walked free.

Domestic violence was endemic in Victorian London but it usually took place behind closed door and the police often turned a blind eye. No one wanted to get involved in ‘a domestic’. It was often only the actions of concerned neighbours that saved working-class women from their savage husbands and partners. For wealthier middle-class women the abuse was often just as bad but more carefully hidden by them, fearing embarrassment.

This blog is sadly filled with numerous cases of domestic violence meted out by brutish males and I have created a sub-section theme for those interested in learning more about this dark side of Victorian society. Follow this link for similar cases.

Domestic violence

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 03, 1844]

The courts act against river pollution near Chelsea

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Sadly no Thames or Worship Street cases were included in newspaper reports for the 16 June 1881. This is one of the perils of historical research, those in the past didn’t always leave us the information we require in the form we need it. As a result I had to chose between the 8 courts where proceedings were recorded.

At Greenwich there was drunk driving case which ended in a fine; at Southwark a ‘malicious burglar’ was committed for trial; Westminster Police court was exercised over the ‘cock-crowing nuisance’, while at Marlborough Street it was a case involving cruelty to a horse which attracted the attention of the reporter. At Clerkenwell the RSPCA successfully brought a prosecution against a man for possessing and ill-treating a starling.

Two other cases involved violence: Edward Cleverly was sentenced to six months hard labour for beating his wife, while at Lambeth George Herbert was sent for trail charged with attempting to murder Caroline Penman by cutting her throat. Herbert was later convicted at the Old Bailey and sent to prison for four months.

But it is the a different sort case that I have selected today, perhaps because in week in which the Thames and Worship Street courts have served up a depressing diet of domestic violence we need some relief from human cruelty. Not that I find this particular incident much less troubling, involving as it does the polluting of the Thames river.

Charles Bates, a Chelsea based contractors, was summoned before the Hammersmith magistrate accused of tipping waste into the Thames. He was specifically charged with ‘allowing road-sweepings’ to be swept into the river.

The case was brought by the Thames Conservancy, an organisation formed as a result of an act of parliament in 1857 (the year Victoria came to the throne). It looked after the river from 1857 to 1974 (losing some control, to the Port of London Authority in the early 1900s), when the Thames Water Authority took over.

Bates and two others had been seen by John Rough a river keeper, dumping mud from a barge into the water ‘instead of wheeling it onshore’. As Rough approached them they ran away. He gave chase and caught up with one man who said he was being paid 30s (about £70 today) to dump the unwanted soil from the streets.

In a separate incident a policeman testified to seeing another group of men on a barge of mud. He didn’t see them empty any of the cargo into the river (although clearly that had been taking place) but assumed it was because they had seen him coming and had fled.

A Mr Rye was named as the person paying for the mud to be dumped and he was produced in court. Rye denied everything and since there was little solid evidence against him, and because he seemingly sub contracted work from Bates he was let off. Bates however was fully convicted. The magistrate (Mr Shiel) noted that this was probably why such a useful piece of legislation had been passed and he fined Bates £10 plus 2cost for each offence, a total of £20 and 4(nearly £1,000).

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 16, 1881]

Yet more casual violence towards women in the East End

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Limehouse, Tower Hamlets. This photo is early 1900s but the scene would have been quite similar in the 1880s

There were two reported cases from the Thames Police court in the Morning Post on the 15 June 1881. The first was an awful case of domestic abuse that I will consider shortly, while the second was a case of fraud.

A compositor (someone that worked in the printing trade) named Jacob Marks was brought up before Mr Saunders charged with obtaining money by false pretences. It was alleged that Marks pretended to be a broker ’employed by the Inland Revenue to levy distress when the Queen’s taxes were not paid’.

He went around Tower Hamlets suggesting that he had some influence in registering people as tax collectors, a steady form of employment. He demanded a registration fee of 1 to 2 guineas but it was a scam. Several people parted with money but no one was appointed as a result and Marks promptly disappeared. Mr Saunders committed him for trial for fraud.

It was the other case that was more shocking however. Thomas Leigh , a 23 year-old ship’s cooper who lived in Limehouse, was accused of assaulting his wife, Ellen. Mrs Leigh was so badly hurt that she was unable to attend the court in person and there were fears over her life as a result of the injuries she had sustained.

I suspect no one is any doubt of how difficult the Victorian period was for women; domestic violence was a daily experience for many women and men resorted to violence in a routine manner. Moreover much of this was simply accepted by society as appropriate or even necessary. The law did little to protect females from abuse by fathers, husbands, lovers or employers and the prevailing rhetoric of patriarchy validated a man’s ‘correction’ of his ‘disobedient’ or ‘bad’ wife.

Proportionally very few women ever tried to prosecute their husbands in court and when they did it was probably after suffering silently or meekly for years. When they did go before a magistrate it was often because they feared that the ‘next time’ they were were assaulted might be the ‘last time’; and given the strong correlation between domestic violence and domestic murder this is not at all surprising.

Thomas Leigh was probably a man that sent considerable time away from home. As a  ship’s cooper he may have worked on land at the docks but it is more likely he traveled often, leaving his wife to cope at home and coming back periodically to (hopefully) share his wages.

The couple lived at Fuller’s Rents, Cotton Street in the East End and on Monday 13 June they rowed. We don’;t know what about but Leigh claimed that he was provoked into hitting his spouse.

‘She tore my shirt, and gave me a great deal of provocation before I struck her’, he told Mr Saunders in his defence.

The row and subsequent fight was loud enough to alert the neighbours (and presumably violent enough for them to not simply ignore it as many routinely did). One aspect of the later ‘Ripper’ murders (in 1888) was the fact that no one seemed to hear anything, or if they did, they chose not to intervene. One witness supposedly heard Mary Kelly shout ‘murder’ but that was so common in the dark courts of Whitechapel that she thought nothing of it.

When PC Robert Wells (346D) arrived he found Ellen in a terrible state. Her husband had beaten her and kicked her ‘five times about the body’. She was, the court heard, ‘enciente at the time’. In other words she was pregnant. Was it his child, did he even know? Was that what they had rowed about? At this stage we can’t know.

It was clear that this was serious but Thomas Leigh seemed ‘indifferent’ in court. PC Wells told Mr Saunders that two women had stayed up with Ellen all night but she was in a ‘dangerous’ condition. Leigh asked for bail which was refused; Saunders remanded him for a week and told him that he was facing a charge of assault that might easily become worse if his victim failed to recover.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 15, 1881]

Routine assault is punished but it unveils a darker problem in London’s crowded lodging houses.

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The Aggravated Assaults Act (1853) was brought in to address the very real problem of domestic violence. Under the terms of the act an abusive husband could be fined up to £20 or sent to prison for up to six months, at hard labour.

However it seems the act was more widely interpreted by the magistracy because one Southwark Police Court magistrate in 1862 used it to send a young man to gaol for what actually seems to have been an attempted rape.

Robert Armstrong, described as a ‘decent-looking young man’, was presented before Mr Burcham at Southwark and accused of assaulting a 15 year-old girl. The court heard that Hannah Ford, the alleged victim, lived were her ‘hard-working’ parents in York Street. The family were poor and occupied just one room in the house; Hannah slept in a makeshift bed on the floor with her sister, while her parents had the only proper bed.

At 5 am both parents went out to work leaving hannah and her older, married sister behind. Her sister was ‘just out of her confinement’, presumably meaning she had just given birth, and her husband was away in the country, perhaps for work.

Soon after her parents left Hannah was rudely awakened by a Armstrong, who was undressed and on top of her. She struggled with him and her sister woke up and screamed. The noise alerted neighbours and eventually Armstrong was overpowered and handed to a policeman to be dealt with.

When he apparel in court Armstrong denied everything and claimed he had been out drinking ‘with some girls’ who had robbed him of his money and his clothes. A police inspector told the court that he had called in a divisional surgeon to examine the girl. He concluded that Hannah had been harmed, which may have meant he didn’t believe that she had been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. This probably saved Robert from a trial and a more serious outcome.

In the end the magistrate used the terms of the 1853 act to send him to prison for three months at hard labour. This case also illustrates the nature of overcrowded slum housing in the 1800s where several families and individuals shared single properties. There was precious little privacy and nothing in the way of security. Writing about Whitechapel in the late 1800s the Rev. Andrew Mearns warned that ‘incest was rife’ in the homes of the poor. He was probably deliberately exaggerating for journalistic effect but it is easy to see how this opinion could be taken seriously by a shocked middle-class readership.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 07, 1862]

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

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On Wednesday this week I related the story of a man who was woken by his wife hitting him. In hitting her back too hard he caused her death. He was sent to face trial at the Old Bailey and convicted of manslaughter. The culprit seems to have had a history of domestic violence and so while he was treated gently by the court (since his wife was a drunk and a sloven, in the eyes of the society they lived in I hasten to add) we should not be quite so understanding. As one correspondent to me on Twitter noted, ‘domestic violence is tragedy’.

Today’s case, from 1862 (some 27 years earlier) also involves a man being accused of causing the death of his partner, and he too seems to have gotten away with what must have been deemed routine and ‘normal’ violence.

John Lemon made ‘base coin’. Now whether this was a legitimate trade or a variation on illegal coining I’m unsure at the present. However, the Bow Street Police court where he appeared in May 1862 was interested in the death of his common law wife, not his occupation.

Lemon lived with Ann Gedling in a property on White Hart Street, off Drury Lane. When he got home late one evening, possibly the worse for drink, he and Ann argued. Lemon hit her ‘a severe blow on the head with a flat iron’ before staggering off to bed.

In the morning, in an echo of Charles Mills’ case from Wednesday, Ann was feeling sick and she called for him to help her. He found that she had swallowed a quantity of poison; namely cyanide, which they pair used in the coin manufacturing process. He told the magistrate it was used in extra-plating coins.

Whether Ann had taken it in an attempt to end her life (and rid herself of an abusive partner) is unknown but it saved Lemon from further prosecution for her death. A doctor was unable to help her as she passed away the moment he stepped through the door.

In court expect testimony was provided by a surgeon called Lovett. He pronounced that death was due to the ingestion of cyanide of potassium and that effectively trumped the blow that Lemon had landed. She may have died from the abuse she had received, and indeed her death could certainly be attributed to the coin maker, at least in terms of him provoking her to kill herself.

But the law, in the person of Mr Corrie the Bow Street magistrate, didn’t see it like that. Since he had not directly killed her Lemon was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 02, 1862]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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