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 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 destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

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Fetter Lane, Farringdon c.1880

I have discussed the tragedy of suicide on this blog before because it features quite regularly in the pages of the London press. While cases in the papers often featured women it would probably be wrong to see this as particularly female; it is just more likely that when a woman (especially a young woman) attempted or succeeded in ending her life it made a more affecting news story.

Given that suicide (or its attempt) was illegal in the 1800s those whose efforts to kill themselves failed or were in some other way interrupted (often by the police) would be brought before a magistrate where the circumstances of their actions were investigated. In some instances this could mean they got some help (and perhaps this was their intention) while in others they simply received an admonition from the justice and even a spell of imprisonment.

It is hard to say whether Sarah Esther was fortunate in getting help from the Bow Street justice or merely thrown from one desperate situation into another. She appeared before  Mr Twyford at London’s senior Police Court having been found by a  policeman on Waterloo Bridge at 7 in the morning. According to the constable she was about to throw herself into the Thames.

When he stopped her and demanded to know what she was up to she told him that she was desperate because she had lost her job. Sarah had come to London from Essex and had secured work as a domestic servant in a house in Fetter lane, Farringdon. She found the work hard and her mistress even harder to please and so she had been dismissed. Destitute and unable to return home to Essex she had seen no other way out than the river.

The alternative for Sarah was the workhouse but according to the relieving officer for the area, Mr Kirby, she seemed ‘disinclined to go herself’. Mr Twyford decided to make the decision for her, thinking it better she went into the workhouse (whatever the horrors it held for the Victorian working class) than to prison. Neither was an attractive option but with no other system of social support aside from charity Sarah’s choice were limited. She could go to gaol for a few days, or enter the workhouse for a similar period. Either way without further help in getting work her future looked bleak.

Girls like Sarah were prey to ‘bullies’ (pimps) and brothel madams, both of whom would sell them into prostitution without a second thought. From there the slide into criminality, desperate poverty, disease and death was pretty much inevitable.

The magistrate determined that the workhouse was best for her because there she would receive ‘every attendance’. But he wanted to make sure the girl was not insane so he sent her off with Mr Kirby but insisted that she be examined by a surgeon as soon as possible. So there was one option remaining for Sarah, if the medical man deemed her to be mad then she might be committed not to a workhouse or a prison but to an asylum. Once there she would have little or no opportunity to leave until her doctors decided she was well again.

So Mr Twyford’s actions, in following the paths open to him by what was a bad law could hardly be said to have helped the poor girl. A one way ticket to Essex and her family would have been a much more sensible and probably cheaper option in the long run. Sadly, that wasn’t the choice the Police Magistrate made.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]

for other cases of attempted suicide from the Police courts see:

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

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

A ‘murderous assault’ in Kensington

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Francis Harben and George Parr both worked for as a harness maker in Kensington but their relationship wasn’t good. Parr had quarrelled with Harben’s uncle (about what it is not clear) but the two young men (Parr was 20) hand;t spoken to each other in weeks.

At half past four on 31 July 1881 Harben entered the saddler’s shop at 10 Holland Place to ‘brush his clothes’. Parr was already there and, seemingly without provocation, he ‘sprang upon him’ and attacked him.

The attack was brutal and almost deadly:

Parr ‘caught hold of his throat and pushed him against the wall’, Harben ‘struggled to get away but [Parr] picked up a leather-cutter’s knife from the board and stabbed him in the throat with it’.

Harben was then stabbed in the back of head and three more times in the face and neck. As he fell to the floor he dragged his attacker down with him and the pair wrestled for some moments before Harben managed to escape.

At no point did the other man say anything that might explain his ferocious attack on the harness maker. PC Northover (T415) eventually arrived at the shop and found the attacker himself bleeding profusely from a wound in his throat. He helped Parr get to the St George’s Hospital where he was treated for his injuries. Soon afterwards Harben also arrived at the hospital having been helped there by some passers-by.

The surgeon that rated them said that Harben was ‘in a state of collapse, suffering from great loss of blood’ and he kept him in hospital for several days before he could appear at the Hammersmith Police Court as a witness against his work colleague. As for Parr he too was close to death with ‘a dangerous wound, [that] must have been done with considerable violence’, he later told an Old Bailey courtroom.

At Hammersmith Parr was charged with ‘cutting and wounding’ and with attempted suicide. The suggestion was that he had, for no stated reason, attacked Harben and then turned the knife on himself. Parr had no recollection of doing anything and so his mental health was called into question. Mr Shiel at Hammersmith committed him to take his trial at Old Bailey and there the house surgeon at Newgate was called to speak to his mental state.

Mr Rowland Gibson did not think that Parr was ‘mad’: ‘the prisoner appeared to be perfectly placid, and quite rational’ when he examined him he said. He ‘had lost a great deal of blood, and was very pale, and is now—the loss of blood might take away his memory for the time—he offered no explanation of how the thing occurred—he said he could not remember anything about it’.

Parr was charged with attempted murder and inflicting grievous bodily harm and tried on 12 September 1881. The jury acquitted him of the first charge but found him guilty of GBH. The judge handed down a sentence of penal servitude for five years.

[from The Standard , Monday, August 29, 1881]

A sad end for an unwanted baby: clubbed to death in a Southwark toilet

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In May 1848 a young woman presented herself at the door of Sarah Potter’s house in Jane Street, Southwark asking if she might take a room. She told her she was a ‘servant out of place’, temporarily she hoped, and that her name was Ann Brightwell.

Ann seemed like a ‘decent young woman’ so the mechanic’s wife took her in. About a month later however, Sarah began to have some suspicions about her new tenant and confronted her. Mrs Potter clearly thought that there was more to Ann’s story than she had revealed at first, and she ‘charged her with being enciente‘ (or in other words, pregnant).

For a servant to get pregnant in the 1800s was common but still unacceptable in the eyes of a disproving society. Ann’s plan was to hide herself away from the shame but despite her denials, Mrs Potter had found her out. Whether this changed her plans or not it is impossible to say. Ann might have intended to have the baby in her room in Southwark and then leave it at the workhouse door or try and raise it alone.

Perhaps then this discovery precipitated a terrible chain of events, or maybe the shock of being found out brought added stress which quickened her pregnancy. Either way things soon became much worse for the young servant.

On the 2 July Mrs Potter saw Ann leaving the ‘water-closet’ carrying an umbrella, ‘in a hurried state’. When Sarah investigated she was in no doubt that a new born baby had been  disposed of inside.

The police and a surgeon were summoned and Ann arrested. In the Southwark Police Court Dr Robert Tebbett deposed that in his opinion there was no doubt the child had been born alive. Mrs Potter told the magistrate that she had heard Ann admit that she ‘had destroyed her child by casting it into the water-closet, and striking it with the end of the umbrella’.

Ann denied all of the evidence brought against her, as well she might. She was being accused of infanticide, a crime that carried a capital charge until 1938. While women continued to sentenced to death throughout the later 1800s none were executed in London but Ann could not rely on that. The magistrate committed her for trial and at that point she disappears from the records.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

‘Limping Bill’ and the case of the stolen armadillo

 

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London Zoo in 1837

Two cases for you these morning, both from the Marylebone Police Court in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. The first features a fair of ‘fashionable’ young men and a street trader, the second involved a theft from London Zoo.

Captain Ferguson (alias Collegian Fred) and Lieutenant Grant (also known as the Lady Killer) were summoned before the magistrate by a stall holder who operated at the corner of Paradise Street in Lambeth. The complaint was brought by Billy Bucket (commonly known locally as ‘Limping Bill’) and he alleged that while he was selling his wares the two came along and whilst play fighting with each other they managed to knock over his stall of seafood.

The Morning Post‘s court reporter rendered Billy’s testimony in dialect, for maximum comic effect and I think this demonstrates one of the functions of these early reports from the metropolis’ police courts, that of entertaining a middle-class or elite audience. To give you a sense of this I shall simply set it down as it was printed in 1837.

‘Please your vorships (said the little bandy-legged complainant) I vos standing at my stall last night in the hact of sarving a customer with a harpeth of pickled heels of the best quality, when up comes these regular swells well primed with lush [he meant the worse the wear for alcohol] , and one of un shoves the other right bang against my stall, not was not strong enough by no means to stand such a heavy “swell” and over it goes’.

The result was that the street was scattered with ‘shrimps, periwinkles, welks, pickled eels, and other delicacies’, Billy’s stock and any chance he might have had to make his living that day was either ruined or stolen as the jars of eels broke and the local children rushed in and picked up and ate whatever they could lay their hands on. Billy estimated the cost of the collision as ‘at least 10s‘ and so he came to court to get compensation.

The two ‘swells’ then negotiated a price with the costermonger, settled their account and left.

Next up was a ‘well-dressed middle-aged’ hairdresser and perfumer named Joel Lazarus. Lazarus gave his address as 20 Upper Cleveland Street, Fitzroy Square. If the first case at Marylebone was amusing because of the characters involved (a cockney costermonger and ‘a couple of swells’) then this one entertained because it was quite bizarre.

While Lazarus stood in the dock the witness stand was occupied by an armadillo, ‘a remarkably fine specimen of its kind’, which the hairdresser was accused of stealing from the zoo.

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The magistrates (there were two in attendance, Mr Shutt and Lord Montford) were told that at seven o’clock the previous evening the gate guard at Regent’s Park Zoo had noticed Lazarus leaving the zoo and was suspicious. John Henry White stated that he observed him ‘making his egress from the grounds carrying before him his hat, around which was tied a handkerchief’.

White stopped him and asked him what he had under the ‘kerchief. Lazarus told him to mind his own business and seemed ‘in a  great hurry to reach his gig, which was standing in the road’. Before he could get to the waiting transport however, White called for help and the man was swiftly captured.

He was searched and an armadillo was found concealed in his hat. This was identified then and in court by Mr Alexander Mullins the ‘superintendent of the gardens’. He told the bench that the animal was valued at £5 and that it had recently been imported from South America.

When questioned Lazarus admitted taking the animal but would say no more. A surgeon appeared to testify that he was aware that the hairdresser ‘occasionally suffered from an aberration of mind’. There was no proof of madness at the time of the theft, the magistrates declared, and  regardless it was the ‘duty of his friends to look after him’ if he was indeed suffering in the way described.

However, they felt a fine was a sufficient punishment in this case and they imposed one of £5 for the theft plus another £5 to reflect the value of the armadillo. The monies were paid and Lazarus was free to go. The armadillo was taken back to the zoo, and was probably the subject of greater close attention than it had been previously. After all ‘bad’ publicity is better than no publicity and I imagine Londoners would have been quite keen to see the armadillo that a hairdresser had tried to steal.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 10, 1837]

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]