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]

The battle of the sexes claims another victim

eastend3

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]

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

St-Pauls-Blackfriars

As PC 99 L Division made his usual patrol by the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge  (i.e south of the River Thames) he saw a woman sitting on the steps by the water. As he approached he could see that she was in condsiderable distress and asked her what she was up to.

The elderly lady, who gave her name as Elizabeth Briant, admitted that she had been so ‘cruelly beaten by the man whom she had lived with for thirty-eight years that she was tired of her existence’. Elizabeth was working up the courage to throw herself into the river to drown.

Attempting suicide was a crime and so the policeman arrested her and, the next day, brought her before the magistrate at Southwark Police Court.

Elizabeth cut a forlorn figure in the dock: her arms were covered with bruises, as was her face. She told the magistrate that her husband had ‘ill used her to a great extent’ in recent weeks. On the previous Saturday he had ‘knocked her down, kicked her, and blackened both eyes’. Having assaulted her the man then ‘thrust her out of the house, and left her to starve in the streets’. She had run down the steps at Blackfriars and it was only the lucky intervention of the beat bobby that had saved her from ending her miserable life.

The magistrate asked her if she had any children, and she told him she had eight, ‘but only one was living, and she hoped he was serving Her Majesty in India’. So this poor old lady had lost seven sons or daughters and her only surviving son was in the imperial army thousands of miles away.

It was a desperately sad story but also a fairly typical one for the time. There was little the justice could do expcept order the arrest of the husband (who might expect a short prison sentence if summarily convicted, hardly benefiiting Elizabeth) and send the poor woman to the workhouse to be cared for. Once there, she could hardly expect to leave and was effectively being condemned to live out the remainder of her days as an inmate before being given a pauper burial when she finally passed away.

Nevertherless, Elizabeth looked up from the dock and thanked ‘his Worship for his kindness’. She had probably lived most of her life in grinding poverty and could now expect to see out her remaining days in a ‘pauper bastille’. It would be another 45 years before the government of the day introduced the Old Age Pension and, since she would have been a recipient of Poor Law funds, Elizabeth would not have been entitled to it anyway.

For me, the Victorian period is a savage reminder of what our society looked like before we had a welfare system; it was a society that often left women like Elizabeth Briant to choose the only option that ended the pain of everyday life. For all the calls for belt-tightening in the face of self-imposed austerity we should remember that today this country is one of the top 25 richest countries in the world and we can well afford a decent welfare system, whatever politicians tell us in the next few weeks and months. The divide between rich and poor is as wide as it has ever been and it is frankly appalling that so many ‘ordinary working people’ have to resort to food banks in the 21st century. So before we look back with horror at a Victorian age that drove women like Elizabeth to attempt suicide which she take a long hard look at ourselves.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 1, 1860]

 

‘Disagreeable’ but not quite mad enough to be locked up: a violent husband at Marlborough Street

wyke-house-hotel-1

Joseph Jesnoski was one of thousands of Polish immigrants living in  London in the 1800s. The fact that Joseph seemed to speak good English (or at least to understand) it suggests he was part of the well-established Jewish community that existed well before the huge waves of immigration that followed after 1880. Tens of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews fled the Russian Empire during the nineteenth century to escape persecution and forcible conscription in the Tsar’s army.

The Ashkenazim were restricted to one part of Russia known as the Pale of Settlement, which covers the modern countries of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine. Many Jews left their villages as refugees and economic migrants hoping to make a better life in England and the USA. A quick scan of the genealogy site Ancestry reveals Jesnoskis serving in the Union army during the American Civil War and living in Montana in the 1870s; so at least some of Joseph’s extended family traveled a very long way from the Shtetlekh of Eastern Europe.

For Joseph however, life in London was hard, and even harder for his poor wife. Jesnoski was, like so many of his fellow migrants, a boot maker by trade. In the nineteenth century cobblers and shoemakers had a fearsome reputation for independence, radical politics and – less positively – domestic violence. Anna Clark’s study of working-class relationship revealed the commonality of spousal violence that formed part of the ‘struggle for the breeches’ in the long nineteenth century.

The Police Courts of London (and elsewhere) were dealing with accusations of wife beating and abuse on a daily basis, but in many cases the magistrates were unable to do much more than broker settlements between man and wife, given that the consequences of sending an abusive husband to prison were often catastrophic for the family economy. Many wives were seemingly prepared to accept a considerable amount of ‘unacceptable’ behavior before they resorted to the law and even then most were prepared to forgive their partner’s often drink inspired abuse.

Some on the other hand were looking for a working-class version of divorce. Divorce was beyond almost every woman in Victoria society; it was hard to prove grounds against your spouse and prohibitively expensive. The best a working-class wife could hope for was a separation ordered by a magistrate with a maintenance order to help keep herself and her children housed and fed. The alternative if one had no support network, was often the workhouse, and no one went inside those walls if they could help it.

So Mrs Jesnoski took her husband to Marlborough Street Police Court in April 1862 because she probably ‘wanted rid of the burden of him’, as Mr Selfe (the magistrate) put it. She charged him with ‘threatening to cut her throat and his own afterwards’, and added that he had ‘beaten her and her children black and blue , and struck her in the eye’.

She also handed the justice a certificate from Thomas Young, a government medical officer at the Polish Emigration Society (which looked after the interests of Poles in Britain and the US). This stated that her husband had been admitted to the St Giles Workhouse as a lunatic who was ‘dangerous to others’ but that he had been discharged because the workhouse master there did not believe he ‘was sufficiently insane’ to be detained.

Mr Selfe was not sure that his police court was the proper place for him either, but he was loath to lock him up unnecessarily. A police constable testified that Jesnoski had often been seen behaving strangely – ‘dancing and kicking about’ in the early hours of the morning – and added that the other tenants in his lodging house were scared of him. Mrs Jesnoski told the magistrate that her husband had not worked for months and was ‘spiteful and dangerous’.

Still the magistrate was unconvinced or unsympathetic. ‘It is a very strong measure to deprive a man of his liberty because he is a little queer’, he said, and instead ordered him to be bailed for £10 (a large amount in 1862) but warned him that any repetition of his violent behavior would not be tolerated. If he ‘behaves unruly again’ Selfe concluded, ‘he will go to prison for three months’.

Given the high levels of spousal abuse in Victorian society and the number of homicides that occurred in domestic settings I hope that Mrs Jesnoski was not let down by the inaction of the Marlborough Street court and the reticence of Mr Selfe to apply the law.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 28, 1861]

 

‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London

fuller-street

The marriage between Thomas and Lucretia Gates was not a happy one. The relationship had soured over time and Thomas’ poor treatment of his wife had provoked her to move out of the marital home in Bethnal Green. Thomas, who was described in the press as a ‘tradesman’, then employed a female servant to look after him. This seems to have been a bone of contention for his estranged wife.

On the 14 April 1852 the broken marriage reached the Worship Street Police Court as Thomas summoned Lucretia to answer a charge that she had assaulted him. This was rare; whilst many men might have been attacked by their wives and partners, very few were prepared to risk the damage to the reputations by admitting so in public.

Thomas Gates arrived with a police escort. He had so stirred up the community that a ‘great crowd, chiefly of women,  followed him to court’. This probably reflected both a show of solidarity with Lucretia by the ‘sisterhood’ and a degree of contempt for Thomas for running to the authorities instead of asserting his patriarchal rights and position.

The scene certainly enlivened the court reporter’s morning, however, and he must have regarded it as a welcome, if unexpected, bonus.

Thomas started by declaring that: ‘this woman is my wife, but we live apart, she in fact, having run away with another man’.

Lucretia was not having this; having vehemently denied this version of events she ‘reproached her husband with having taken a  young hussy home to supply her place’.

Thomas rejected this accusation and described how the assault he had accused her of had happened. He was at his home in Turk Street when Lucretia had called on him. She took him by surprise and rushed in, shouting abuse at him and the young serving girl, Sarah Hartlett. Both were assaulted by the angry wife before Lucretia turned her rage on the room.

She ‘swept all the china and glass from the shelves and cupboards, and having smashed them to pieces, set two work to demolish the furniture and everything she could lay her hands on’.

But she didn’t stop there, he said.

‘She tore the shirt entirely to pieces from his back, and tore the dress of the other woman also, exclaiming, “I’ll teach you to have a ____ here while I’m away,” and accusation which he assured the magistrate was quite unfounded’.

It was quite a display of anger and Lucretia did not deny it. Instead she explained that her husband had driven her away with his abuse and violent threats. On one occasion, she said, he ‘had stood over her with a knife, threatening to kill her’. He also repeated her accusation that Hartlett was his mistress.

It was now the servant’s turn to be questioned by the justice (Mr Ingham)  and she denied any impropriety on her part. She only worked there during the day and always left him alone  in the night. Thomas may have been having an affair but Sarah claimed it was not with her.

Several of the woman that had accompanied the couple to court testified to seeing or hearing Thomas’ abuse of his wife. One recalled her being thrown out of a window, while another said she had seen Thomas Gates chase his wife down the street brandishing an iron poker. Mr Ingham turned to the pair and told them that it was clear their relationship was in tatters but that did not give either of them to right to turn to violence or to disturb the public peace. He cautioned them both and dismissed Thomas’ charge against his wife. They then presumably left the court and returned to their, separate, lives.

Divorce was not really available to the majority of people in the 1850s. The government (through  a Royal Commission established in 1850) were looking at a reform of the law to allow the upper middle class to gain a full divorce, whilst at the same time making the cost of judicial separations prohibitively expensive to everyone else. In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act which removed divorce from the church (ecclesiastical) courts to the civil. The new law, not surprisingly (since it was created by men) favoured men over women. A man could sue for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery whereas a woman would have to show an additional cause (such as as incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion) or prove cruelty on its own.

Thomas and Lucretia could not hope to get divorced, they simply could not have afforded it. Instead the best they could aim for was either to patch up their broken marriage or live apart and agree to ignore each other’s infidelities. Given Lucretia’s passion and temper, I think this might have been unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 15, 1852]

An astrologer fails to see his own future in the stars.

the_constellations_with_astrological_signs_of_the_zodiac_-_atlas_coelestis_1660_192-193_-_bl

James Wallace was described in court as a 37 year-old astrologer. When he appeared before Mr Bridge at Bow Street he was charged with a violent assault on his wife. The case was fairly straightforward, although some things about Wallace clearly disturbed the magistrate and led him to hand the man a hefty sentence.

Mr and Mrs Wallace lived at Edward Street on the Hampstead Road. The newspaper report gives us no indication whether their marriage was a happy one or whether, instead, Wallace’s abuse of his wife was a regular occurrence. I expect it was the latter because the historical research that has analysed domestic violence in the 1800s reveals that many women put up with a considerable amount of abuse before they felt impelled to take the matter to court.

At Thames court, in the East End, spousal abuse was a weekly if not daily part of the business of the court and Messrs. Lushington and Saunders regularly sent violent men to prison or fined them, for beating this partners. Thomas Holmes, who wrote several article sand books on the Police Courts in the late Victorian and Edwardian period had this to say about domestic abuse before the Police Court magistrates:

These wives will put up with a lot before they complain to the magistrates, and it is only when the wounds are fresh, and pain and resentment have not yet subsided, that they will give evidence against their husbands. Smarting under their wrongs, they rush to our courts and beg for protection, but when the summons has been granted and a week has elapsed before it is heard, their resentment cools, and very little evidence can be obtained from them; in fact, many wives do not appear, and a great number of those that do appear lie unblushingly to the magistrate in order to save their husbands from prison‘.

Thomas Holmes, Pictures and Problems from the London Police Courts (Edward Arnold, London, 1900). p.64

Holmes was a Police Court Missionary, a forerunner of the Probation Officers that were to be created in 1907. PCMs attached themselves to the London courts and offered help and advice to defendants, whilst at the same time seeking to them to append their name to the pledge to refrain from drinking alcohol. These champions of temperance identified the ‘demon drink’ as the ‘curse of the working classes’ and became familiar and largely, it seems, welcome faces at the courts.

Anyway, let us return to James Wallace. He did not fit the usual profile of a ‘wife beater; in late Victorian London. Rather than being a rough manual worker who, on returning from work or the pub late in the evening, took out his frustrations on his life partner. Instead Wallace was an educated man, or so he wanted the magistrate to think. Whilst he was on remand for the attack on his wife he wrote to the magistrate. In his letter he explained that he was a former clerk, but now earned  a living as an astrologer. He spoke of his wife in ‘a very derogatory manner’, trying to excuse his own behaviour in chastising her.

However, Wallace hadn’t simply beaten his wife for her bad behaviour – as was commonly the case with men in the period, or at least was the justification they presented in court. Wallace had dragged his wife through the streets and punched her in the head. This stepped way beyond contemporary views of acceptable ‘chastisement’.

Moreover, James Wallace was, to the magistrate at least, a charlatan and a trickster. As an astrologer he claimed to be able to read peoples’ fortunes and Mr Bridge described him as someone who ‘obtained money by cheating unwily persons’.

It is quite easy to get the impression that Mr Bridge was disgusted by the man he saw before him in the dock. He was squandered an education to peddle false dreams and he undermined any pretence of being a ‘gentleman’ by his cruel treatment of his wife.

In his letter Wallace had apparently asked the magistrate to allow himself and his wife to separate. That at least Bridge was happy to agree to. But he added that the astrologer would have to pay his wife maintenance of 10s a week for the duration of that separation; neither were free to remarry unless they obtained an expensive divorce.

On top of that the justice ordered that Wallace be sent to prison for six months  at hard labour, a serious penalty that reflected his poor opinion of him, his chosen ‘career’ and his behaviour towards his spouse.

I guess James didn’t see that coming…

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 14, 1889]

A vociferous campaigner against alcoholism is treated gently at Clerkenwell

4Ipswich_Temp_Tractssm

As a crowd gathered around a speaker at Packington Street, Islington, one Sunday in 1866 the police felt obliged to intervene. It wasn’t the first time that William Henry Edwards had been at the centre of a furore; he had been standing on his soap box in Islington for the past two month’s of Sundays.

Edwards was a tarpaulin maker by trade but his actions had nothing to do with his profession. He had taken it upon himself to publicly condemn what he saw as one of the scourges of Victorian society – the over consumption of cheap alcohol. He described drunkenness as an societal ‘evil’; claiming also that ‘our prisons were filled through drink’. Edwards was a member of the Temperance Movement that grew to prominence in the mid to late 1800s, and like many a lay preacher in the Victorian age (and since)  he was prepared to take his message to the streets.

Men like William Edwards advocated abstinence from all forms of alcohol and while the middle classes also enjoyed a ‘tipple’ the movement was clearly aimed at the urban poor and working class who were seen to be the worst offenders, and the main victims of alcoholism. The police courts were full of drunk and disorderly people because the police cleared them off the streets at night and dragged the before the justices in the morning. Drunkenness then was a failing of the working man and woman, a failing that manifested itself in public.

On Sunday 25 March 1866 the police who moved in to the clear the obstruction on Packington Street found Edwards ‘standing on a chair, singing’. Having thus assembled a crowd about him he then swiftly warmed to his theme of temperance, and refused to stop and go away when the officers asked him to.

As the crowd grew the police again invited him to step down but again he insisted on continuing and by this time many people were arguing with him, while his supporters cheered his words. He was quickly becoming a nuisance and so the police were forced to arrest him and take him to the nearest police station.

When he appeared in the Clerkenwell Police court two days later he was unrepentant; because of the social problem of drink and drunken behaviour (and the effects this had on family budgets, tempers and so the persons of many working-class wives and partners) he felt justified in ‘holding open-air meetings on the subject’.

As for causing an obstruction (and that was the charge laid against him) he had, he told the magistrate, made all efforts to ask his audience to stand to one side so pedestrians could pass by. Today Packington Street is a through road that leads to the busy Essex Road, but the houses on it (smart Victorian terraces) suggest that in the 1860s this was a wide street which may have carried considerable local traffic.

The police, in the person of Inspector Wiseman, argued that while it wasn’t Edwards himself that was causing the obstruction he was responsible for the crowd of well-wishers and nay-sayers that had surrounded him. It was happening on such a regular basis, Wiseman continued, as to have become a nuisance even if that wasn’t the preacher’s intention.

Edwards apologised and said he would certainly ‘not go there again if it was wrong’. Mr Barker, the magistrate, told him that he had committed an offence which carried a potential fine of £5 but he would not, on this occasion, impose it. However, if he appeared before him again he could expect the full weight of the law to fall upon him.

Mr Edwards ‘thanked his Worship’ and left with his supporters. The cause of Temperance had been highlighted in the newspapers, and that, perhaps, was part of his strategy.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 27, 1866]