The Police Courts are filled with stories of domestic abuse, sadly an altogether too common occurrence in the nineteenth century. Women had few rights under law, and married women arguably less than most. Men frequently deserted their wives, who then struggled to keep the home and family together in the absence of the main breadwinner.
If the man stayed and his spouse objected to his drinking or the hours he kept she could expect regular chastisements that often involved casual violence. In my research into the eighteenth-century courts plenty of ‘domestic’ incidents came before the justices of the peace, and the same is true for the 1800s.
Women could prosecute but it was a dangerous game to play. If the magistrate sided with them and many, (like Mr Lushington at Thames) heartedly disapproved of such ‘brutish behaviour’, they risked the imprisonment of the main earner in the family. If he avoided prison he would probably be fined – another expense that the household shared.
If all that happened was a reprimand then she faced an uncomfortable few days or weeks following the court appearance where he might well take out his anger on her at being summoned to such a public humiliation.
The best outcome – if the marriage had really broken down (and there was no divorce for ‘ordinary’ women in the 1800s) was a court sanctioned separation, with maintenance.
This is what Mrs Ganay achieved in the autumn of 1879. Her husband James worked at the Metropolitan Meat Market as a porter. He was brought before the magistrate at Clerkenwell by Mr Moore, a representative of the Associate Institute for the Protection of Women.
Moore claimed that Ganay had been in the habit of beating his wife for years but she had always, loyally, refused to prosecute him. She said that when he was sober he was decent hard-working man but drink transformed him and nowadays he was ‘almost always drunk’.
Having left her 10 weeks ago Ganay had returned demanding ‘food, money and clean linen’, and when she had asked him where he had been he simply ‘struck her in a most savage manner, knocking her down’.
I suspect this must have been the last straw for the poor women who sought the help of the association. The magistrate now acted to separate the couple (by ‘judicial separation’) and sent Ganay to gaol for 10 weeks with hard labour. He added that when related he would have to support his wife (but not live with her) to the tune of 5s a week.
We have no idea of course whether this maintenance was ever forthcoming or for how long it lasted.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 2, 1879]