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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A City Road ‘Fagin’ gets away with it

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We are all probably familiar with the character of Fagin, created by Charles Dickens as the central villain of Oliver Twist. Fagin is a receiver of stolen goods, who trains a gang of juvenile thieves (led by the Artful Dodger) to go out and pick the pockets of unwary Londoners. In his ‘den’ the boys bring him the proceeds of their escapades in the form of hundreds of silk handkerchiefs, pocket books (wallets) and watches and chains.

Fagin was a fictional character of course, he didn’t actually exist. But Dickens was very familiar with the Police Courts (he had reported from them as a journalist before he became famous) and he had probably seen plenty of ‘Fagin’ in his time. Fagin was a ‘fence’, a receiver of stolen goods, and may even have been based on a real life Jewish criminal called Ikey Solomons.

In 1854 a man named Mark Isaacs appeared at the Worship Street Police Court in Shoreditch. He had ben remanded in custody a few days later on a charge of receiving ‘£50 worth of silk damask’ a high value material belonging to a wholesale upholsterer based in the City Road.

The upholsterer, a Mr Thomas Farnham, had ordered the material especially and had taken delivery in late September and had locked it in a closet. Within two days it had gone, stolen it seems by a person or persons unknown. However, a month later it resurfaced, being offered for sale – by Isaacs – to an auctioneer in St. Paul’s Churchyard at 4s a yard.

At the sale – which Farnham was soon made aware of – Isaacs (and another man) told the purchaser (Mr Barnes) that he had bought the cloth from Debenham and Storrs, who traded from King Street, Covent Garden (and are the ancestors of the modern Debenhams who still exist today). It was a lie of course, they were trading in stolen goods, the problem Farnham had was in proving it.

However, Mr Barnes was in on the act. He was working with Farnham and carefully paid for the cloth with a crossed cheque. This meant that Isaacs would have to pay it into a bank, he couldn’t change it up for cash and this allowed the police investigation to trace him.

Isaacs was apprehend by the police and inspector Brennan of the met asked him where he had got the damask. Isaacs told him that he’d bought it off a man named Vann who had since gone to America.

How convenient.

Another witness at Worship Street recognised Isaacs as the brother of a man he knew called Coleman Isaacs, who had been hawking samples of silk damask at the City of London Theatre. Faced with what appeared to be mounting and damning evidence the magistrate committed him for trial.

Isaacs appeared at the Old Bailey on 27 November but was accused of theft, not receiving. Perhaps this was a mistake on the prosecution’s part. It was very hard to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Isaacs had stolen the goods that he said he had legitimately purchased from Mr Vann. The case was short and the jury were unconvinced. Mr Isaacs was acquitted and Mr Farnham left with justice or his 184 yards of silk.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 15, 1854]

A mysterious case of arson in Mile End

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Charles Brighton had gone to bed at about 11 at night on the 26 October 1874. Brighton, a stableman, lived with his wife and children in Lombard Street, Mile End. He employed William Goodsall to help him in his stable work and Goodsall lodged with the family.

Between half past midnight and one o’clock in the morning Brighton was woken up by the cry of ‘fire!, fire!’ coming from downstairs. He recognised Goodsall’s voice and rushed down to find his sitting room in flames.

He found that the ‘house [was] full of smoke, the passage on fire, and the flames catching the stairs’.

With some outside help (including some members of the fire brigade who arrived swiftly) he managed to fight the fire and put it out. However, when he went into Goodsall’s room he began to suspect the blaze had started there, and had been set deliberately. He couldn’t find his servant anywhere and so his suspicions grew.

Others were affected by the fire. The wife of a dock constable (whose husband was presumably on duty at night and so not at home) had to jump out of a window to escape the flames, falling and injuring herself in the process. Brighton’s family escaped unharmed but it must have terrifying for them.

Later that morning Goodsall was found and arrested. Back at the police station he was asked if he set the fire and seemed to admit it: ‘All right, I have done it’ he reportedly told the desk sergeant, adding ‘I won’t swear if it was wilfully done or an accident’.

The case was heard at Worship Street Police Court before Mr Hannay. The magistrate examined the evidence and was told that there might have been a bit of unpleasantness between Goodsall and Mrs Brighton. What this was is not made entirely clear, either in the newspaper report of the pre-trial hearing nor in the Old Bailey trial that took place later in November.  It appears that Goodsall and Mrs Brighton argued because ‘Jim’ (as William was known) had visited the school where the Brighton children studied and their mother took exception to this.

It seems very unlikely that this alone caused the young man (Goodsall was 24) to set his room on fire to spite his employer, so perhaps there was more to it. Mr Hannay committed him for trial and on the 23 November the jury convicted him despite his defence that he had been out drinking at the time of the blaze. The Old Bailey judge sentenced him to two years in prison.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 8, 1874]

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.

A coster’s barrow stinks out the Guildhall

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Sometimes it is the banality of the Police courts that interests me. The magistrates that presided in London’s summary courts sent thousands of offenders up through the system  to face trials at Old Bailey or Clerkenwell where they were, if convicted by a jury, sentenced to transportation, imprisonment and even to death. Many more petty criminals, drunk and disorderly men and women, or anti-social juveniles were sent for spells of hard labour, expelled to a reformatory, or fined a few shillings or pounds.

The justices (the magistracy of London) had wide ranging powers which were hardly constrained by the right of appeal. Tremendous discretion rested with these men, all of whom had a legal background and many of whom served their communities for years.

One of the responsibilities they had was to keep to peace and another was to help regulate trade and maintain what we might term, health and safety. The metropolis had a infrastructure of inspectors and health officers but it fell to the magistrate to deal with those that broke the numerous rules that governed food sales and preparation or the maintenance of property.

In October 1889 Alfred Woodbridge was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court before the alderman magistrate who presided there. Woodbridge was a costermonger, a trader who sold goods cheaply from a barrow. Costermongers didn’t enjoy a terribly respectable reputation and had frequent and endemic run-ins with the police who were forever moving them on from their pitches on the city’s streets.

Woodbridge wasn’t in trouble for obstructing the highway however; he had been brought on the instructions of the Commissioners of Sewers for having in his possession meat that  unfit for human consumption.

The coster had been spotted outside one of the City’s markets (either Smithfield, Fleet or Leadenhall – the report did not specify which) by a meat inspector named William Allen. Mr Allen told the court that he had discovered that Woodbridge had on his barrow:

’29 hams and eight pieces of pork, which were diseased and totally unfit for human food’. He seized them and took them to Dr Sedgewick Saunders – the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London – to be examined.  Dr Saunders confirmed the meat was bad saying that:

‘The odour from them was filthy, and they were quite black. It would have been a very serious result had they been eaten’.

Luckily they weren’t and so no harm had been done. Woodbridge made no attempt to deny the charge and he was fined £9 and 5s with a warning that if he could not find the money to pay he would go to prison for a month.

The magistrate then was enforcing the regulations that allowed trade to function across the City and at the same time protecting the public from unscrupulous traders. Whether Woodbridge learned his lesson and made sure his produce was safe in future is of course unknown. But a £9 fine was no small beer and we can be fairly sure that if he showed his face again in the area inspectors like Mr Allen would be quick to check his barrow.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 18, 1889]

Two jewel thieves nabbed in Cheapside

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Cheapside in the 1890s

One of the early jobs I had as an adult was working in a jewellers over the busy Christmas period. Being new to the trade my job was to fetch items from inside the large shop windows and bring them to the assistants serving customers on the counter. Jewellers are different from most retail outlets in that customers are not generally allowed to select their purchases without supervision; after all some of the rings, necklaces and watches they sell are extremely valuable.

This makes it more of a challenge for shoplifters and jewel thieves. The crudest method is the smash and grab: literally smashing a jeweller’s window with something heavy (like a hammer or a brick) and snatching as much as they can before running off with it. This is harder to achieve during daylight so its no surprise that jewellers routinely empty their displays at the end of the day’s trading.

The other common method of theft is deception by distraction. This is frequently deployed by shoplifters and involves convincing the shop keeper that you are an honest regular customer and diverting their gaze or attention from your target long enough to palm it or other wise secrete it about your person. This often works best if the thief has an accomplice.

In October 1889 Mary Ann Sinclair and Sarah Pond (or Pend) entered a jewellers shop in Cheapside in the City of London owned by a Mr Carter. They asked the assistant if they could see some wedding rings. Neither of them were particular young ladies (Sinclair was 52 and Pend 39) but presumably they were respectably dressed and caused the assistant no alarm.

He produced a triangular wire tray containing a selection of rings. Mary Ann tried on 2 or 3 of the rings but none fitted; she told the man that they had better bring in their friend (the bride to be presumably) just to be sure. She then asked the assistant to measure her finger and left. Almost as soon as they had gone the assistant realised one of the rings was missing, a diamond band valued at £15 10s (or around £600 in today’s money).

This was not the first theft these two had carried out however. On the 2 October they had performed a similar deception at John James Durant & Son., also on Cheapside and the police were onto them. Soon after they left Carter’s two detectives picked up their trail and followed them to Gutter Lane, just off the main street, where they were arrested. Back at Cloak Lane police station the pair were identified as the women that had stolen another ring from  Durant’s by Albert Chambers by the same ruse. Chambers, who served as the shop’s engraver, told the police that he counted the number of rings on the wire frame  before handing them to his colleague to show the women. This was probably standard practice.

So the police now had good evidence against the women and at the Mansion House Police court they were both committed for trial. At the Old Bailey on 21 October they were tried and convicted of the theft despite their protestations that they knew nothing about it. Pend admitted to having a previous conviction from 1878 when she was known as Mary Margaret M’Cull. Both women were sent down for 15 months at hard labour.

We have no more information about Sinclair but Sarah Pend (or M’Cull) generated a little more detail in the records. The new Digital Panopticon website notes that she was born in Norfolk in 1850 and had great eyes and sandy coloured hair. She was sent to Holloway Prison and released onto the habitual criminals register in January 1891.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 11, 1889]

The temptation is too great for a teenage toy shop assistant

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Henry Farley ran a toy shop on Fleet Street. In fact it was more than toy shop; Farley sold toys but also operated as a Post Office and considerable money went through his business. Regardless s of this by his own admission Farley wasn’t as careful with his accounting as he should have been and so it took him a while to realise that one of his employees had been dipping into his till.

Farley had employed an errand some months previously. John Martin, ‘a lad of about eighteen’, had impressed the toy shop owner and he soon earned his promotion to the front of house. Martin now had access to the money in the till , ‘being money received for letters  and postage stamps’.

This temptation clearly proved too much for the teenager and by early October Farley began to realise that money was going missing at an alarming rate. About £330 was missing, a huge sum in 1849, and, perhaps reluctantly, the shopkeeper’s attention fell on Martin. Calling him into his office he asked his assistant to turn out his pockets.

‘He turned the contents out of one of them, but being desired to empty the other, he flung  some money into the fire, which turned out to be two half-sovereigns and half-a-crown’.

Appearing before the Guildhall Police Court an embarrassed Farley said he didn’t really wish to press charges. He thought the fault was largely his own for not running his business more carefully. Moreover he didn’t want ‘to ruin the boy’. The whole sorry episode had ‘taught him a severe lesson’.

The magistrate, Alderman Musgrove, asked him if anyone else had access to the till and was told yes, they did but didn’t elaborate. The alderman chastised the toy shop proprietor for the laxness of his systems but declared that he couldn’t let this one go. John Martin would have to stand trial at the Old Bailey for embezzling his master’s property as that was in the best interests of the wider public.

I’m not sure whose interests it actually served to have Martin tried before a jury, as he was on 25 October 1847. There it was revealed that John earned 6s 6d a week and was well cared for, even receiving presents from his master. He clearly hadn’t repaid his trust  and maybe didn’t deserve the good character he received in court. He was convicted and sent to prison for six months. We have no idea whether Farley took him back afterwards, but if not the justice system had probably created another habitual offender.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, October 10, 1847]