This blog takes as its source material the court reports from the early to the late 1800s. I have begun to notice some differences of style between articles written in the ‘teens and early ’20s and those penned later in the century. One of the clear variations is in the use of an underlying humour in the tone of reporting. This would align quite nicely with changing attitudes towards certain sorts of offences and offenders but at this stage I’m still thinking around this observation; it may be little more than an accident of selection.
In 1824 a man named Hurley (a law stationer) and his step-sister (a Miss Thomas) appeared at the Bow Street Police Office to make a complaint about Mr Hurley’s wife. The paper described the pair as hailing from ‘the Sister Country’, by which it meant Ireland.
The Irish provided the readership of London papers with plenty of opportunity for humour and what we would term ‘casual racism’. Throughout the 1800s the Irish were figures of fun or a cause for concern. Their words were often rendered phonetically, to maximise the comic value of dialect (this was also used to take the rise out of country folk and the London working class).
After the Great Famine of 1845-52 when tens of thousands of Irish men and women left their homes and traveled to Britain (and elsewhere) the Irishman became synonymous with poverty and pauperism. From the 1860s fears about Irish nationalism led to depictions of them as bomb throwing terrorists. Throughout the 1800s they were always associated with heavy drinking and with fighting amongst themselves.
Mr Hurley was exasperated when he came to seek the Bow Street justice’s help. He had married early in life back in Dublin; his wife a ‘strolling actress’ whom his parents disapproved of. In part to escape this parental abrobrium the couple moved to London but things went from bad to worse.
It seems their doubts about the future Mrs Hurley were well founded. Although the pair had six children Mrs Hurley’s behaviour grew more uncomfortable for her husband. She was a heavy drinker; ‘she was in the daily practice of behaving in such a manner, in the presence of her children, as must, if she had been suffered to continue with them, have seriously affected their moral’, he told the court.
Hurley had no choice he felt but to leave her and take the children with him. This was not easy however, because his estranged wife stalked him:
Wherever he took up his abode, and endeavoured to establish himself in comfort, she haunted him like an evil spirit, abusing him, raising a riot in his house, and uttering the grossest obscenities.
Finally his father decided to intervene and sent over Miss Thomas (his step-sister) to care for the children while Hurley worked. This did not deter Mrs Hurley however, who took to writing dramatically worded letters addressed to ‘the only seminary in London for parting man and wife’ and then visiting again to cause yet more chaos and upheaval. In the last visit she supposedly stole a gold watch and ‘some other articles’ that belong to Miss Thomas, hence the court case.
The magistrate issued a warrant to bring Mrs Hurley to law.
[From The Morning Post, Saturday, October 16, 1824]