Margaret Clayton was 50 years of age, or so she thought, when she appeared at Worship Street Police Court in June 1847, seeking the magistrate’s help and advice. Margaret was married to a soldier but she wanted a divorce.
Divorce was no easy thing in mid-Victorian England, particularly for a working-class woman of limited means. Until 1857 the Church of England conducted divorces and were very reluctant to grant them, and only on the grounds of adultery. As a result the number of divorces were small, around 300 a year even as late at the 1870s.
In some parts of the country working class men and women got around this by conducting ‘wife sales’ (as described by Thomas Hardy in the Mayor of Casterbridge). This form of plebeian divorce, which Hardy’s novel exposed to a disbelieving and shocked public, were often the only way for couples to legitimately separate and move on.
There was little the magistrate at Worship Street could do for Margaret, but he was interested in her background because she was not not like most of the women that came before him.
Margaret Clayton was ‘a woman of colour’. She was black, and Mr Broughton wanted to know her history.
She had been a slave she told him. She born into slavery as her mother was a slave also, and was first sold at 15 years of age, to ‘a captain’s lady at St Helena’. This would have been in 1812 during the long wars between the French 1st Empire and the Allies, led by Britain. These had ended at Waterloo in June 1815, and the French emperor, Napoleon, was sent into exile – on St Helena.
Margaret recounted how the lady had bought her for £50 to serve as a nurse for her children. Her mistress was good to her, she ‘was kindly treated but she was thoughtless and giddy, she said, as girls would be, and she ran away’.
She was soon found and brought back but sold on to another mistress who was far less considerate. She was treated ‘brutally’, she explained, before she was again sold – this time for £33 – to a soldier. He married her and set her free.
Sadly her husband, who seems to have cared for her, died and so she was free but without any support, and already having a family, she married another private in the St Helena Regiment. When this husband decided to return to England, Margaret and her children went with him. By 1847 they were living in London and he was working at the London Docks, and clearly they were not getting along very well. The eldest of Margaret’s five children was a man of 20, the youngest a baby just18 months old.
The magistrate was curious to know if she had known or met Napoleon. The Corsican ‘Ogre’ had been a prisoner on the small South Atlantic Island from October 1815 to his death (rumored to have been hastened along by his captors) in May 1821. Yes, she said, she had seen him but added nothing further the reporter could embellish his article with.
Napoleon remained a powerfully iconic figure in European history and politics. When he had died there were calls to repatriate his ashes (‘cendres’) to France but the ruling monarch Louis XVIII and his government feared a popular uprising of Bonapartist sentiment. Napoleon’s supporters would have to wait until 1840, seven years before Margaret appeared at Worship Street, to see their hero’s remains entombed in the magnificent structure at Les Invalides in Paris, where they rest to this day.
Having satisfied his curiosity about the woman there was nothing much more Mr Broughton could do. He asked one of the warrant officers present to enquire into the case and speak to the husband, to see if anything could be done to reconcile the (or perhaps even arrange a mutually acceptable separation) and ordered that Margaret be given some money from the poor box.
The Standard‘s reporter wrote it up as the ‘adventures of a slave’ as if it was somehow a tale of a woman’s exciting life upon the high seas. But in reality of course Margaret – who had been ”sold many times’ (as she had told the court) – had very little choice in where these ‘adventures’ led her. She had been taken to St Helena as a slave, sold again as a slave, and then bought against her will as a wife. Free or enslaved it made little difference; as the wife of a serving soldier she went where he went.
Her appearance (at 50) in a summary court in the capital of the nation that had abolished slavery and the slave trade was probably her first real opportunity to declare her independence. Unfortunately as a poor woman, legally married with no rights to property of her own, she found there was nothing the law could do for her except to hope that her husband ‘let her’ go, or treated her better in the future. We might ask ourselves then, from Margaret’s perspective, whether she was ‘free’ at all?
[from The Standard , Monday, June 28, 1847]