Children are the victims as a mother who cannot cope lashes out


At around 5 o’clock on 25 February 1866 PC John Watkins (303) was called to attend at a house in Prince’s Row Square, Soho. In the 1860s this was a rough area of the capital and violence was part and parcel of everyday life.

When the constable arrived at number 23 he found a crowd gathered in front of it, a clear sign that something was happening within; something the community disapproved of.

As Watkins climbed the stairs he could hear sounds of violence and hurried into the bedroom where he found Eileen O’Leary ‘cruelly beating her children’. She had hold of the eldest of her two girls, Julia (14), and was banging her head against the bedpost.

Eileen was quite drunk and was threatening her daughter with a knife, screaming ‘I’ll do for you. I’ll do for you!’ PC Watkins intervened and managed to drag the child away from her mother, but in the process large clumps of Julia’s hair was pulled out. As soon as one child was rescued however, Eileen turned her anger on the second, pushing her away. She then picked up a third child, only a baby, and threw it to the floor.

He arrested Eileen and took her before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police Court on the following day. There the court heard not only his evidence but also that of a neighbour and the eldest daughter, Julia.

Mr Pennington said it was him that had raised the alarm. He lived downstairs at number 23 (most houses in working-class districts such as this were multi-occupied ) and had run upstairs when he heard Julia’s cries of ‘murder’!’ He found mother and daughter locked in a violent scene of abuse, as the former held her child down on the floor and held a knife over her.

Pennington succeeded in separating them temporarily and went to get help. He told the magistrate that O’Leary was ‘in the habit of ill-using the children every day, and I am sure she will, if not prevented, destroy the girl Julia before long’.

Now it was Julia’s turn to give evidence and she appeared in court as a ‘meek-speaking girl’ who was evidently very afraid of her mother.  She confirmed the evidence of the policeman and Mr Pennington and added the information that her brother was also involved, on the side of his mother. He had apparently joined in with the beating she had received.

She added that ‘I am afraid to be at home as my mother threatens frequently that she will take my life. My father took out a summons against her but forgave her’. This echoes many of the incidents of domestic violence I have studied across both the 19th and 18th centuries where women brought their husbands to court only to forgive their behaviour and take them back.

The justice, Mr Knox, turned to Eileen and told that since she had been before the court before on several occasions for violent behaviour she was ‘not fit to be trusted at large’ and so committed her for trial. She was only only committed for the attack on Julia however, not for pushing her other child or for throwing her baby to the floor. Today I imagine this would be a case for social services. Quite where the husband was in all of this I have to wonder, and whether he would be able to cope with the care of four children, one a babe in arms, is equally open to question.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 26, 1866]

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