This week my masters students at the University of Northampton will be looking at the subject of domestic violence. This 14 week module concentrates on Violence and the Law and we discuss all forms of violence (including state violence inflicted as punishment). Historians and criminologists have shown that, in history, the vast majority of all violent crime (homicide, assault, wounding, and robbery) was committed by men.
It is also true that the most likely relationship between murderer and victim was domestic or at least involved parties that were known to each other. Despite the concentration of ‘true crime’ histories and television dramas on ‘stranger’ murders, the reality was (and is) that most people know the people that injure or kill them.
Many of the domestic murders that were eventually prosecuted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century started their journey in the summary courts. Moreover, these courts heard countless incidents of male violence towards their wives and partners, some of which may well have been steps on the way to a later homicide. Working-class women in the victorian period put up with a considerable amount of abuse before they went to law since the consequences of involving the police or magistracy could make a bad situation worse.
Several of the Police Magistrates who wrote about their careers expressed their frustration at the abused wives who continually summoned their spouses for their violence only to forgive them or plead for leniency when they appeared in court. This is one such example of the almost impossible situation some married found themselves in in the 1800s.
William Collins was described as a ‘powerful and ruffianly-looking fellow’ when he stood in the dock at Lambeth before Mr Norton. His wife, Elizabeth, was unable to appear at first, so injured was she by her husband’s violence. In her place the constable dealing with the case told the magistrate what had happened.
He explained that he was called to a house in Caroline Place, Walworth Road where the couple lived. He found Elizabeth ‘in her night dress, with two or three deep wounds on her arms and one on her chest, from each of which the blood was streaming’.
Collins had apparently attacked his wife with a broken wine bottle, ripping her flesh with the jagged edges of the glass. The PC arrested Collins and put Elizabeth in a cab so she could be taken to hospital to have her wounds dressed. The court heard from the surgeon that treated her that she was ‘within a hair’s breath’ of dying from her wounds; fortunately for her the cuts had avoided any major organs.
The constable reported that when he had gone to fetch Mrs Collins to appear he was unable to find her and believed she was unlikely to press the case against her husband. Mr Norton chose to remand Collins in custody until Elizabeth could be found and encouraged to appear.
A few hours later she did come to court, but was clearly (the paper reported) ‘under great terror of the prisoner’. To no one’s surprise despite the horrific attack Collins had inflicted on her she ‘used every possible effort to get her husband off’. The magistrate was hamstring by her reaction and did as much as he could to help her by bailing Collins to appear ‘on a future day’.
He was presumably hoping that this brush with the law would serve as session to the man, effectively warning him that if he hurt Elizabeth again in the meantime he would face the full force of the law. Sadly, I doubt this would have had much, if any affect on someone who was prepared to slash his wife with such casual cruelty.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, November 5, 1855]
Since it is November 5th, ‘bonfire night’, you might enjoy this blog post I wrote for our ‘Historians at Northampton’ blog site which looks at the BBC drama series about the Gunpowder Plot.