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]

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]

When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

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A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]

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]

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

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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]