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]

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

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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]

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 17, 1888]

A brutal husband is saved by his terrified wife

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This week my masters students at the University of Northampton will be looking at the subject of domestic violence. This 14 week module concentrates on Violence and the Law and we discuss all forms of violence (including state violence inflicted as punishment). Historians and criminologists have shown that, in history, the vast majority of all violent crime (homicide, assault, wounding, and robbery) was committed by men.

It is also true that the most likely relationship between murderer and victim was domestic or at least involved parties that were known to each other. Despite the concentration of ‘true crime’ histories and television dramas on ‘stranger’ murders, the reality was (and is) that most people know the people that injure or kill them.

Many of the domestic murders that were eventually prosecuted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century started their journey in the summary courts. Moreover, these courts heard countless incidents of male violence towards their wives and partners, some of which may well have been steps on the way to a later homicide. Working-class women in the victorian period put up with a considerable amount of abuse before they went to law since the consequences of involving the police or magistracy could make a bad situation worse.

Several of the  Police Magistrates who wrote about their careers expressed their frustration at the abused wives who continually summoned their spouses for their violence only to forgive them or plead for leniency when they appeared in court. This is one such example of the almost impossible situation some married found themselves in in the 1800s.

William Collins was described as a ‘powerful and ruffianly-looking fellow’ when he stood in the dock at Lambeth before Mr Norton. His wife, Elizabeth, was unable to appear at first, so injured was she by her husband’s violence. In her place the constable dealing with the case told the magistrate what had happened.

He explained that he was called to a house in Caroline Place, Walworth Road where the couple lived. He found Elizabeth ‘in her night dress, with two or three deep wounds on her arms and one on her chest, from each of which the blood was streaming’.

Collins had apparently attacked his wife with a broken wine bottle, ripping her flesh with the jagged edges of the glass. The PC arrested Collins and put Elizabeth in a cab so she could be taken to hospital to have her wounds dressed. The court heard from the surgeon that treated her that she was ‘within a hair’s breath’ of dying from her wounds; fortunately for her the cuts had avoided any major organs.

The constable reported that when he had gone to fetch Mrs Collins to appear he was unable to find her and believed she was unlikely to press the case against her husband. Mr Norton chose to remand Collins in custody until Elizabeth could be found and encouraged to appear.

A few hours later she did come to court, but was clearly (the paper reported) ‘under great terror of the prisoner’. To no one’s surprise despite the horrific attack Collins had inflicted on her she ‘used every possible effort to get her husband off’. The magistrate was hamstring by her reaction and did as much as he could to help her by bailing Collins to appear ‘on a future day’.

He was presumably hoping that this brush with the law would serve as  session to the man, effectively warning him that if he hurt Elizabeth again in the meantime he would face the full force of the law. Sadly, I doubt this would have had much, if any affect on someone who was prepared to slash his wife with such casual cruelty.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, November 5, 1855]

Since it is November 5th, ‘bonfire night’, you might enjoy this blog post I wrote for our ‘Historians at Northampton’ blog site which looks at the BBC drama series about the Gunpowder Plot.

“Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”; murder in the East End 1888

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The Isle of Dogs, 1899 (Manchester Road runs south-east parallel to Blackwall Reach)

In early October 1888 London was gripped by the ‘Ripper’ murders. As far as the press and public were concerned an unknown assassin had brutally murdered six women in a small area of East London and the police had no clue as to his identity. Police patrols had been stepped up and the newspapers were becoming inundated with fake letters from people purporting to be the murderer, and correspondence offering advice on how to catch him. Between the end of September (when both Elizabeth Stride and Katherine Eddowes were murdered on one night) and the 9th November (when Mary Kelly’s body was found in Miller’s Court) the killer seems to have lain low, avoiding the redoubled attentions of the police.

Meanwhile over at the Thames Police Court Mr Lushington was hearing the case of a man accused of murdering his wife. Levi Bartlett was a 57 year-old general dealer who lived and worked in Poplar. He and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a small shop on Manchester Road on the Isle of Dogs, selling mostly milk. He had been held on remand since the incident had happened back in August, because after killing his wife he had attempted to cut his own throat with a razor.

Even by October he was a weak man and was allowed to sit in court rather than stand through the evidence. Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Mears, testified that Levi and her sister had live together for many years before they married, and had now been married for about five years. During all of that time, she said, the dealer was ‘nearly always drunk’.

By all accounts when he was sober, Levi was a good man but that was rare. When in his cups he was abusive and violent and dipped into the shop’s till to feed his drinking habit.  Not surprisingly then quarrels between him and Elizabeth were frequent and loud.

On the 18th August 1888 Emma visited Elizabeth and found her sitting crying. When she asked what the matter was her long suffering sibling said:

‘Can’t you see the old villain is drunk again, and hasn’t been to bed since two this morning’. This was punctuated by the dealer’s loud denials, ‘don’t you believe her’ he shouted. He then asked for 2d for gin.

‘No, you villain, you have had enough now’ was his wife’s response. This provoked Bartlett to threaten her: ‘I will mark you for this tonight’, he declared.

More abuse was exchanged and before she left Emma told her her sister to fetch a policeman if her husband hit her again. Perhaps because Levi was so frequently drunk and abusive no one really expected what was to happen next, although the sights were there. At some point on Sunday morning (19 August) the former stevedore attacked his wife with a hammer, fatally wounding her,  before admitting his crime to George Jones who he had employed as a milk delivery man.

Jones later related the dramatic scene to the Old Bailey court as he was woken up by his master:

‘between 4 and 5 in the morning I was awoke by the prisoner coming into my room—he asked French if he had got any drink—French said no, he had forgot to bring any; the prisoner shook hands with French and said “Good-bye, you won’t see me no more alive”—he then went back to his own room, he seemed sober then—in about twenty minutes he came into our room again, and again bid French good-bye; he then came to me and said “Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”—he shook hands with me and went out of the room’.

Bartlett then visited his old friend Benjamin French who had lodged with the Bartlett’s for 14 years. He also bids him ‘goodbye’ which left the dock labourer perplexed and not a little concerned. It was French that finally fetched a policeman, police sergeant Doe (30KR), who found Bartlett sitting on his bed ‘in his shirt, bleeding from the throat; the front of his shirt was covered with blood—he had a razor in his right hand’. Having taken the razor from him he summoned a doctor and then took him to hospital.

Bartlett, who had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dick the jockey’ (his middle name was Richard) was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 22nd October 1888 he was convicted of murdering Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s sister testified to the years of abuse that she had suffered at Levi’s hands while the former dock worker’s best friend Benjamin said he had never heard a cross word between them. Drink was Bartlett’s downfall and it seems he simply could not function with it or without it. Ultimately this cost both him and his wife their lives; having recovered from his own suicide attempt Levi Richard Bartlett was hanged at Newgate Gaol on 13 November 1888.

Such a tragic event may well have created many more ‘headlines’ than it did in 1888 had there not been a supposedly crazed serial killer on the loose. This was, of course, a much more typical homicide for nineteenth century London than the series that has occupied the attention of researchers for over 120 years. Most murderers are men, and most of their victims (many of whom are women) are close to them – as wives, partners, lovers and acquaintances. The ‘Ripper’ killed strangers, and that made him all the more difficult (indeed almost impossible) to catch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 06, 1888]

A migrant woman’s lament: ‘He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

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Today’s post is a sadly typical tale of domestic violence but one that also sends some light on immigrant communities and working-class attitudes towards marriage and illegitimacy in the 1860s. We shouldn’t assume, for example, that everyone married in the past, even when they wanted to start a family. Nor does it follow that migrant families were more socially conservative than those of the indigenous English population. Instead what we can find is that there was a much greater degree of continuity in relationships than a discourse that sees the 1960s’ ‘sexual revolution’ as a dramatic catalyst for changing moralities.

At the beginning of October 1867 a German shoemaker named John Martz was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police Court in the East End. Martz may have been a Jewish immigrant but we can’t determine that with any certainty from his surname. We do know that he was cohabiting with a woman who also came from Germany however, Sarah Leiss and given they have migrated to East London it is at least plausible that  they were members of the growing German Jewish population of Whitechapel.

Whilst John and Sarah were not married they did have two children, one of them an infant. On 1 October Sarah appeared in court with her baby in her arms to accuse Martz of beating her. He had come home drunk on the previous night and ‘scolded and swore at her little boy, and threatened to beat him’. When she tried to take the boy away he grabbed it and threw the child down the stairs. Thankfully the boy was uninjured but it was this act of violence that probably prompted her to come to court.

It was not the first time he had hit her or threatened the children and it always occurred when he had been out drinking. It was a familiar story and Mr Benson, the justice, had heard it all hundreds of times before.

‘Why don’t you leave him?’ he asked.

‘I have left him several times’ Sarah replied, ‘and he comes after me again. He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

When sober, she added, he was a ‘very good man’ but when he was intoxicated, he ‘was furious and cruel’.

On the night in question Martz had been seen coming out of his house Merton Place, St George’s-in-the-East, brandishing a knife. PC Joseph Newman (166H) had shouted to him as the shoemaker approached, warning him to drop the weapon. Drawing his truncheon he declared:

‘If you advance another step with that knife I will murder you’.

This had the intended effect and a terrified Martz dropped his knife in the street.

In court Martz needed a translator to make sense of everything that had been said and in his defence merely said he had been drunk and wasn’t aware of what he was doing. Mr Benson instructed the interpreter to explain carefully to the shoemaker that he was clearly responsible for more than one act of violence and that he must now find sureties for his good behaviour towards his wife for three months. If he failed to find two persons that would vouch for him and pledge money then he would go to prison for 14 days.

If Martz was (and I expect he was)  the main breadwinner then a term of imprisonment, whilst giving Sarah some peace, would have severe consequences for her and her children. Hopefully this brush with the law would chasten the German and provoke a change in his behaviour. But it does have the feeling of trying to place a sticking plaster over an open wound; a case of doing the minimum without really trying to solve the situation.

It is the other elements of the case that I find useful as a social historian; the detail that John and Sarah were not married, the open statement that they had children together nevertheless and cohabited, with no comment being passed by either magistrate or the papers. This seems very ‘modern’ but perhaps the reality is that marriage (and divorce) were luxuries that many very poor working class Londoners could not afford in the Victorian period.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 02, 1867]

A ‘have a go hero’ is fined for his trouble

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It took quite a long time for Arthur Joyce to be brought before the magistrate at Woolwich Police Court. On the night of the 25 July the confectioner, who had a business at Shooter’s Hill in south-east London, was in bed when he heard a scream of ‘murder’ outside his window. When these were followed by several more he leapt out of bed, pulled on some clothes, grabbed his revolver and headed out into the street.

He soon saw a man ‘savagely beating a woman’ and shouted to him to stop. When the man turned his anger on Joyce the tradesman fired his pistol five times in the air to, as he later explained, ‘to attract the attention of the police’.

Immediately after the incident Joyce was brought before the nearest police court but any charges against him (for firing a gun) were dismissed by the magistrate. Presumably on that occasion his worship felt this vigilante act, while not exactly legal, was appropriate and in pursuit of a higher goal.

However, Joyce had no license for his revolver and this was an offence which came under the jurisdiction of the Inland Revenue in 1888. As a result a summons was issued for the confectioner to appear again and on 29 September 1888 he was up before Mr Fenwick at Woolwich.

The prosecution was brought by the Commissioners of the Inland Revenue in the person of a Mr Power who called Joyce’s neighbour, Frederick Hoare, to testify. He had seen Joyce running excitedly up the street, blood coming from a wound he had received from the wife beater. In defence Joyce’s lawyer told the court that his client was a ‘respectable tradesman’ and ‘could not be expected to take out a license for a revolver which was intended solely for protection in his own house’.

Mr Power was sympathetic to the confectioner’s situation but pressed his case; there had been a number of similar incidents he said, and several complaints, so he must insist on a fine. I rather suspect that while the magistrate agreed to the legal truth of the matter he also felt that Joyce had acted with honourable intent. He fined him 1s with 2s costs, possibly the minimum he could so that ‘justice’ could be done without unduly penalising the actions of a ‘have a go hero’.

We should remember that this was London in 1888 in the midst of ‘autumn of terror’ when the Whitechapel murderer killed at least five women in the streets of East London. One of the debated ‘facts’ of the ‘Ripper’ case is that no one seems to have heard anything as the killer struck and it has been said that cries of ‘murder!’ were so common that nobody would have reacted anyway. Well, perhaps Arthur Joyce, had he lived in Whitechapel, might have bothered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 01, 1888]