Limehouse, Tower Hamlets. This photo is early 1900s but the scene would have been quite similar in the 1880s
There were two reported cases from the Thames Police court in the Morning Post on the 15 June 1881. The first was an awful case of domestic abuse that I will consider shortly, while the second was a case of fraud.
A compositor (someone that worked in the printing trade) named Jacob Marks was brought up before Mr Saunders charged with obtaining money by false pretences. It was alleged that Marks pretended to be a broker ’employed by the Inland Revenue to levy distress when the Queen’s taxes were not paid’.
He went around Tower Hamlets suggesting that he had some influence in registering people as tax collectors, a steady form of employment. He demanded a registration fee of 1 to 2 guineas but it was a scam. Several people parted with money but no one was appointed as a result and Marks promptly disappeared. Mr Saunders committed him for trial for fraud.
It was the other case that was more shocking however. Thomas Leigh , a 23 year-old ship’s cooper who lived in Limehouse, was accused of assaulting his wife, Ellen. Mrs Leigh was so badly hurt that she was unable to attend the court in person and there were fears over her life as a result of the injuries she had sustained.
I suspect no one is any doubt of how difficult the Victorian period was for women; domestic violence was a daily experience for many women and men resorted to violence in a routine manner. Moreover much of this was simply accepted by society as appropriate or even necessary. The law did little to protect females from abuse by fathers, husbands, lovers or employers and the prevailing rhetoric of patriarchy validated a man’s ‘correction’ of his ‘disobedient’ or ‘bad’ wife.
Proportionally very few women ever tried to prosecute their husbands in court and when they did it was probably after suffering silently or meekly for years. When they did go before a magistrate it was often because they feared that the ‘next time’ they were were assaulted might be the ‘last time’; and given the strong correlation between domestic violence and domestic murder this is not at all surprising.
Thomas Leigh was probably a man that sent considerable time away from home. As a ship’s cooper he may have worked on land at the docks but it is more likely he traveled often, leaving his wife to cope at home and coming back periodically to (hopefully) share his wages.
The couple lived at Fuller’s Rents, Cotton Street in the East End and on Monday 13 June they rowed. We don’;t know what about but Leigh claimed that he was provoked into hitting his spouse.
‘She tore my shirt, and gave me a great deal of provocation before I struck her’, he told Mr Saunders in his defence.
The row and subsequent fight was loud enough to alert the neighbours (and presumably violent enough for them to not simply ignore it as many routinely did). One aspect of the later ‘Ripper’ murders (in 1888) was the fact that no one seemed to hear anything, or if they did, they chose not to intervene. One witness supposedly heard Mary Kelly shout ‘murder’ but that was so common in the dark courts of Whitechapel that she thought nothing of it.
When PC Robert Wells (346D) arrived he found Ellen in a terrible state. Her husband had beaten her and kicked her ‘five times about the body’. She was, the court heard, ‘enciente at the time’. In other words she was pregnant. Was it his child, did he even know? Was that what they had rowed about? At this stage we can’t know.
It was clear that this was serious but Thomas Leigh seemed ‘indifferent’ in court. PC Wells told Mr Saunders that two women had stayed up with Ellen all night but she was in a ‘dangerous’ condition. Leigh asked for bail which was refused; Saunders remanded him for a week and told him that he was facing a charge of assault that might easily become worse if his victim failed to recover.
[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 15, 1881]