The Police Courts as citizen’s advice bureau


Two cases today which show how the police courts of the metropolis could be used by members of the public seeking legal advice. Both are from Westminster Police Court in November 1888, just days before the final ‘canonical’ murder in the Whitechapel series took place.

A ‘lady-like person’ first approached the sitting justice, Mr D’Eyncourt, to ask for help in preventing her estranged husband from visiting her place of work and causing trouble.

The unamed woman worked at the home of a naval officer in Eaton Square, in fashionable Belgravia, where she acted as a sort of live-in nurse for the officer’s invalid wife. Her husband had left some time before, leaving her to fend for herself.

Even before he left she had been used to supporting the pair of them for he was a ‘lazy fellow’, much given to drink. Before he left he had ruined them, spending her money and selling their furniture to buy more drink and pay his debts.

Finally rid of him she must have been devastated when he found out her new address and started turning up in Eaton Square demanding money. On Saturday the household’s butler had turned hm away but he at first reused to budge until he was given something for his trouble. She begged the magistrate to help her. Mr D’Eyncourt advised her if she got her mistress’ assent she could prosecute him for ‘coming there without lawful excuse’.  The lady thanked him and said she do as he suggested.

The next case before the court was brought by a ‘well-dressed young woman’ who also asked for advice, this time about a boy. Her parents had brought up their grandchild ‘from eleven months of age’. The boy was ten years old now and his father had appeared to demand custody. Yet the elderly couple had maintained and educated the boy at their own expense and clearly felt he ‘belonged’ to them.

Mr D’Eyncourt was interested in how the boy had come to live with them in the first place. ‘Because the father was given to drink’ he was told, and ‘it was the mother’s – my sister’s – wish that he should be properly looked after’.

The magistrate advised her that the couple should stick to heir guns and refuse to give up the child because the father would then have to go before a judge and make his case for custody, and show supporting evidence.

Both examples show these courts working to regulate and mediate family life and social relations in the late Victorian capital. The magistrate was a respected figure and clearly people felt him to be a person’s whose legal and other advice was worth listening to.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 06, 1888]

keywords: advice, Jack the Ripper, D’Eyncourt, Eaton Square, Navy, Begravia, adoption, childcare.

One thought on “The Police Courts as citizen’s advice bureau

  1. I liked both these stories; good to see that people could seek the advice and assistance from a law figure in that way. It would appear that magistrates and judges were respected, then, in a way that, in the last few days, does not seem to be the case for many people in 2016.


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