A cheesemonger runs, but he can’t hide

Ludgate Hill by Camille Pissarro, 1890

John Alfred Smith worked for a cheesemonger in the City of London (who had premises on Ludgate Hill), but in October 1890 Smith was summoned before Mr Denham at Wandsworth Police Court, to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and family.

The prosecution was brought by the Poor law Guardians of Clapham and Wandsworth and therefore fell under Denham’s jurisdiction. Prosecuting, Mr Charter explained that Smith’s wife and her five children had applied for relief on the 30th August of that year.The circumstances of her application are not made clear, but it would seem that at some Smith simply didn’t come home.

What was established was that Smith had run his own business in Battersea but this seems to have collapsed and forced him to seek work elsewhere. With his business in tatters it the man appears to have decided his family was just too much for his pocket to maintain, and he abandoned them to the parish. However, there may have been another reason for his flight: in short, another woman.

Answering the summons before the magistrate Smith made the bold move of denying that he was married to the woman at all. He said no proper marriage had taken place and added that they had never lived together long enough for the relationship to be established as such. One wonders then how she managed to produce no less than five children.

Mrs Smith’s sister was called to give evidence and she described how Smith had taken her sibling, aged just 16, to Brighton ‘on the pretense of marrying her’. While no record of the marriage could be found it seems that there was at least anecdotal evidence of the union. Smith had, his sister-in-law swore, declared on their return that they were married. Mrs Smith also appeared in court to confirm that she was indeed married to the man in dock.

This was good enough for Mr Denham. Regardless of the veracity of her statement or that of her sister he thought it appalling that a woman and five children could be abandoned  in such a way. Smith ‘was morally guilty, whether she were his wife or not’. Moreover now it emerged that Smith had taken a new wife since his desertion, ‘a young woman who was suffering from nervous prostration brought about by his arrest’.

So it would seem that Smith had simply had enough of his former life. Abandoning Battersea, his failing business and its debts, and his wife and kids he relocated to the City and found work and a new (and younger) partner. Unfortunately for his attempt to disappear completely failed just as his business had, the state (in the person of the Clapham and Wandsworth Poor Law Union) caught up with him. The magistrate, angered both by Smith callousness towards his family and his blatant disregard for his responsibilities sent him to prison for six weeks at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 17, 1890]

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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]

The struggle for the breeches (or the ‘bloomers’ in this case!)

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The nineteenth-century Police Courts were full of assault, much of it perpetrated by men and most of that ‘domestic’ (in other words where the wife or female partner was the victim). Most studies of interpersonal violence have found that men are most likely to be accused of assault in all its forms (from petty violence to serious wounding and homicide); women tended not to be violent or at least were not often prosecuted as such. When women did appear before the magistracy charged with assault it tended to be for attacking subordinates (children and servants) or other women. It was very rare for a woman to accused of hitting or otherwise assaulting a man.

There are good reasons for this and it is not simply because women were somehow ‘weaker’ or even less violently disposed than men. For a violent action to become a statistic it needs to be reported and then (usually) prosecuted if we are going to be able to count it. Historians talk of the ‘dark figure’ of unreported crime and there is widespread agreement that this figure is particular dark where domestic violence is concerned.

The gendered nature of Victorian society made it very hard for a man to report an assault against him by a woman. The mere fact that he had allowed a female to abuse him (to repudiate his ‘authority’) was bad enough in a society which was highly patriarchal. But to compound that by admitting in public that he had been bested by a woman was considered shameful. I am not suggesting that women were frequently beating up their male partners but I suspect the real figure is higher than the records suggest.

So when a man did bring a prosecution against a woman it is not surprising that it made the papers, and (as in this case) provided an opportunity for amusement at the man’s expense.

When Jeremiah Lynch lost his first wife to cholera he took on a woman to help him keep his house together. Lynch, a tailor living in Redcross Street near the Mint, was elderly and employed a vibrant young Irish woman named Carolina. He had hired Carolina in October 1850 and for nine months she had performed her duties admirably. In fact so diligent was she that in July 1852 Jeremiah (despite the age difference) proposed marriage to her which she accepted.

This soon turned out to be a terrible mistake however as Carolina, now Mrs Lynch, appeared to transform into quite a different person from the amenable servant he had married.

He ‘had not been tied to her many days before she exhibited her true temper, by demanding possession of all his money, and wanting to wear the breeches’.

When he refused her demands she smashed all his crockery. At first he ‘overlooked her mad conduct’ but on Friday 19 September 1851 she came home at six and started on him again. She complained (in an example of gender role reversal) that he had not prepared anything ‘nice for tea’ and knocked him about the head and body. She declared that ‘she would wear the breaches’ he told the magistrate at Southwark Police Court on the following Saturday morning.

‘So’, the magistrate asked him (to mounting laughter in the court) ‘she is desirous of wearing the Bloomer costume?’

If Lynch responded it was not recorded but Carolina did speak in her own defence. She told his Worship that the tailor (described as ‘sickly-looking old man’ by the Standard‘s reporter) was ‘a nasty old brute’ who ‘ill-used and starved her’.

Jeremiah Lynch denied this but the magistrate didn’t convict her of the assault. Instead he granted a separation, perhaps acknowledging that Lynch had some responsibility in the matter. He further required that the tailor should pay his former housekeeper 10s a week. In the end then this was probably a fairly successful outcome for Carolina, if not for Jeremiah. In this struggle for the breaches then, it was victory for the ‘fairer’ sex.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1851]

Beware the green-eyed monster

 

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Violence between women was not prosecuted as frequently as that between men, but we shouldn’t think it was a rare event. Lambeth Police Court just such a serious case of violent assault involving both a female assailant and a female victim in early September 1855.

Eliza Williams was brought up before the magistrate to answer a charge of cutting and wounding. Williams was a ‘good-looking’ and ‘rather well-dressed’ young woman and her victim was Catherine Upton, another young lady living close by.

Upton was married but seems to have been separated from her husband as, and this was the underlying cause of the attack, having a relationship with Eliza’s former lover. As a consequence ‘a strong feeling of jealousy existed in the mind’ of Eliza ‘against her more favoured rival’.

A week before the court hearing Eliza confronted Catherine and they quarrelled. Eliza picked up and smashed a glass number and stabbed her in the head with a shard of the glass. The wound ‘bled profusely’  and needed medical attention.

Now there were in court Catherine explained that she did not wish to press the charge and further. I suspect this means she was content to have the magistrate hand down a lenient punishment rather than take the case before a jury where Eliza might expect to get a long gaol term. Mr Elliott note her wish and sent Williams away for six weeks.

Eliza was far from happy with the outcome however; she raged at the bench and at her accuser declaring that she would ‘give it to the complainant when she got out’. This only landed her in more trouble with the magistrate who now insisted that on release she must post bail against her good behaviour towards Catherine for two months.

At that she was led away to begin her six weeks of confinement.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 3, 1855]

“Give her a good hiding”: marital violence and a lack of a sisterly support

Recently Married Woman With Bandage Across Her Face.

Poor Eliza Taylor.

East End women had, by all accounts, a hard life. Poverty was rife, childbirth dangerous, work hard to find and poorly paid, and husbands that were often drunk and not infrequently violent. The saving grace was usually other women and the extended family that helped keep communities together. Women looked out for each other,  patched up cuts and tended to bruises, and offered tea and sympathy.

Not in all cases it seems and perhaps this reveals the role of the police and local courts in acting as a ‘last resort’ when the community sanctions and support mechanism broke down.

As they clearly did for Eliza Taylor.

Eliza was married but like many relationships in the area hers was seemingly tempestuous. Perhaps her husband drank; maybe he was work-shy; in all likelihood he hit her. Poverty can place a huge strain on marriage, especially when the pressures of life mean  there is little time for caring about each other.

In September 1880 Eliza’s sister-in-law, Anna Desmond, called at the Taylor’s home. It was about 5 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and Mr Taylor was also at home, suggesting he was out of work. Perhaps Eliza had been berating him for his lack of employment, or for being out since lunchtime drinking with his mates. Historians aren’t supposed to speculate in the way that novelists can but sometimes I think it is useful.

Anna hadn’t come come round (as Eliza might have hoped) to empathise with her sister-in-law. Instead she had come round to mete out some family discipline to a disobedient wife and mother. Quit complaining about my brother and this family, she might well have said.

Poor Eliza.

The next thing she knew Anna had attacked her and her husband had joined in:

‘taking Desmond’s part, he held her down, and said, “Give her a good hiding now you have got her”.

Anna had punched her in the head, cutting it open and knocking her to the ground and now Taylor piled in himself. Both assailants kicked and thumped the stricken woman until somehow she managed to get away and escape into the street where she was soon found by a local policeman.

Having told him what happened he arrested Anna Desmond and she was produced before the Thames magistrate on the Thursday morning following the incident. The court was told by the doctor that had treated Eliza’s injuries that she ‘was so weak from loss of blood she had to be taken home in a cart’.

Anna Desmond was notorious in the area it seems; the Poplar resident had been in court several times before, including on a warrant for biting another woman and for trying to kill herself in a police cell. There was clearly something very wrong with Anna Desmond. There was no sign of Mt Taylor in the courts, either as a witness or for the beating he had handed out to his wife.

Eliza probably didn’t want to prosecute her husband. Charging him would probably make things worse in her mind. If he was sent to prison then any chance he would find work afterwards was undermined; if Mr Lushington fined him then that was just another expense the family would have to bear. And of course, merely by dragging him through the courts Eliza would have angered him and made the possibility of further beatings more likely. Best to keep quiet and try and hope he took his frustrations out on someone else.

Mr Lushington was presented with a very easy case to deal with according to law. He didn’t need to look into the other details today. Anna Desmond was violent, abusive, quite possibly a regular drunk and disorderly ‘customer’ and clearly ‘deserved’ the full force of the justice system. He sent her to prison for three months hard labour.

In three months time she would out and back in Poplar. Her brother, fuming from the punishment handed down to his sister and the shame it brought on him and his family was already free.

Poor Eliza.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 10, 1880]

A young man is ‘saved’ by a clever use of the legal system

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A curious case today, where the intention of the prosecutor may well have been something quite different than it at first appeared.

The defendant was a woman named Mary Ann Downes and she had been brought to the Marlborough Street Police Court on a charge of assault. Two gentlemen had first presented themselves before Mr Dyer the sitting justice, to request a warrant. One of the men explained that his brother:

‘a young man of rather weak intellect, had got connected with the woman, and had left his friends, who were persons of station and property, to live with this woman, who so completely got him under control that she will take care that he will have no intercourse with his relatives’.

I’m sure it was not the first or the last time that a young man friends and family had taken exception to his choice of partner, but he was over age (22) and quite able, one would think, to decide things for himself. Unless that is, the term ‘weak intellect’ suggested that he was more seriously mentally ill or particularly stupid.

Either way the two men were determined to separate their friend and brother from the woman and turned up at his house at 8 Bidborough Street in a post chaise with the intention of taking him away to the country. Mary Ann was having none of it however.She remonstrated with them and would not let them in; when they pressed their case she hit them.

Perhaps this was their intention all along because now they had a case for accusing her of assault and Mr Dyer issued the warrant.  A hackney carriage was despatched – this time with an officer of the court (Mr Carter) on board – to execute the warrant and bring Mary Ann in.

Sometime later it returned with the accused woman and a very disheveled officer. Carter  was ‘in a violent perspiration, and the woman’s dress and appearance indicated that a severe struggle between them had occurred’. This had been no easy arrest.

Carter, on oath, told the court that Mary Ann had resisted arrest and had put up such a struggle that he was forced to call a policeman to help him. Mr Dyer turned to the woman and demand to know why she had assaulted the officer.

‘I did not know what he came for’ she replied.

‘I exhibited the warrant’ grumbled the officer, clearly still suffering from the encounter with this formidable woman.

‘You did not’, she retorted, ‘you pulled and dragged me about very much, and would not let me lock up my drawers or my drawing room’. She then added: ‘the warrant was for the purpose of getting me out of the way, so they might take away my husband, Mr Downes, who is not capable of taking care of himself or his property’.

Mary Ann was described as ‘bony and thin’ and an ‘altogether vulgar character’. Her age was put at 35 so she was much older than her ‘husband’ (if they were indeed married). The magistrate bailed her for the assault but noted that the two men who had requested the warrant had not returned to prosecute. In all likelihood Mary Ann was correct in her accusation that the warrant was a ruse; regardless of whether she had hit or assaulted anyone the two gentlemen had used the summary court system to extricate a young man from a domestic situation   that they clearly believed was detrimental to his health, wealth and social position.

One can only imagine the fury that Mary Ann Downes might unleash if she ever got to see him or the two men ever again.

[from The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, Sunday, September 2, 1838]

An unhappy husband gets sympathy but little help from Mr Yardley

NPG D12316; Sir Francis Buller, 1st Bt ('Judge Thumb') by James Gillray, published by  William Humphrey

‘Judge Thumb’ or Sir Francis Buller, 1st Bt (‘Judge Thumb’), by James Gilroy (1782)

As I mentioned in previous post about domestic violence the Aggravated Assault Act (1853) was well intentioned. Under its term magistrates could send men that beat their wives or partners to prison for up to six months at hard labour and it was considered necessary because of the widespread abuse that women (most visibly working-class women) received in mid nineteenth-century England.

However, not everyone agreed that it was a good idea and some pointed out its flaws and unexpected side-effects. Mr Yardley, one of the capital’s Police Court Magistrates was clearly not a big fan of the new act. While he recognised its purpose he declared that one of its effects was ‘to make […] women a good deal worse, and he had made his mind up to punish drunken and disorderly women brought before him as severely as he could’.

His words presupposed of course that the reason that men beat their wives was because they were disobedient, slovenly and drunken in the first place. Rather than questioning the rights of men to discipline their partners the law was actually trying to limit the amount of violence they used rather than stop it altogether. Yardley was of the school of thought that physical punishment was appropriate so long as it did not go too far. In that regards he was a echo of the possible apocryphal Justice Buller who suggested that men might beat their wives so long as they only used a stick ‘no thicker than their thumb’.

Yardley delivered his statement on the new act during a hearing at Thames Police Court when a man had appeared in court asking for help and guidance on controlling his own, rather disobedient wife. The ‘very respectable man’ (who was not named by the reporter, no doubt to save his blushes), told the magistrate that his wife was an incorrigible alcoholic.

‘The applicant, whose anxieties and troubles were depicted on his countenance, said that his wife was repeatedly drunk; that she had made away with a good deal of property to indulge her propensity for strong drinks; and that when he expostulated with her, she abused him, and used the most foul epithets towards him’.

She had sold off his property to feed her habit and in desperation he had even offered to separate with her and grant her half his navy pension of £60 a year. She had refused his offer and continued to torment him. He wanted help from the court to deal with her but the magistrate was unable to offer any.

Had she been violent towards him? No, the only ‘violence’ was verbal. The poor man was clearly at his wits end and feared that if he tried to repress her with force he would find himself on a charge under the new act and would soon be facing a spell in prison.

Yardley sympathised with him but reiterated that his hands were tied. In his opinion the Aggravated Assaults Act had seemingly emboldened women and innocent men like the applicant were likely to continue to suffer the consequences. He wanted it known that he would deal severely with any drunk and disorderly woman that came before him but that was little comfort to the anonymous husband in his court.

‘Can’t you compel my wife to accept of a separate maintenance?’ he implored the magistrate. ‘No’, said Yardley, ‘I cannot give you the least assistance’.

[from The Era, Sunday, August 28, 1853]