‘When I come out I’ll have fifteen years for her.’

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Today living with someone you are not married to is almost as normal as being wed. There is no stigma attached to unmarried cohabitation and similarly little, if any, to having children outside of wedlock. This state of affairs (sometimes bemoaned by traditionalists) is often compared unfavourably to past societies, where marriage is presumed to have been universally accepted as the only way for couples to show commitment to each other.

Yet even a casual study of Victorian society reveals that amongst the working classes (by far the largest social group) the bonds of marriage were much more fluid. Men and women cohabited without being married, and had children, and no one (of their class at least) seemed to bat an eyelid about it. Perhaps we are not as ‘modern’ as we think we are.

Marriage can be expensive and divorce, in the 1800s, for most men and and women, was pretty much impossible. So I suspect many came together as lovers and stayed together as partnership being married in all but name.

Edward Chatfield and Elizabeth Wardle were an example of this type of ‘common law’ marriage. They had lived together at their home in Kent Street in the Borough, south London, for some time but their relationship was far from rosy.

Edward allegedly forced Elizabeth to prostitute herself when they had no money and beat her when she came home without any money. Their quarrels finally made it to the inside of the Southwark Police Court and the pages of the newspapers when, in 1863, Elizabeth took her ‘husband’ to law for an assault upon her.

She told the magistrate, Mr Coombe, that Chatfield had come home late and had attacked her. As she stood in court everyone could see the results of the assault:- she had ‘a cut on her under lip, and several marks on the arms’. Her man had beaten her and knocked her to the floor. He started kicking her and if a policeman hadn’t heard her cries and come to her rescue she feared for her life.

It was not the first time the couple had come before the magistrates. Three months earlier the very same justice had sent him down for two months for beating Elizabeth. He’d only been out for six weeks and he’d done it again.

No lesson learned there then.

Edward objected and offered this defence:

‘It is false’, he declared. ‘I should not have touched you this time, had you come home properly. Your worship, she did not come home till six this morning, and then she was half drunk and would keep the door open’.

When Elizabeth refused to shut the door and keep quiet he had pushed her out of the bed. This was the point at which Elizabeth accused her partner of pimping her out as a prostitute, something Chatfield vehemently denied. ‘Now, that’s a lie’ he said, ‘you know I go out a thieving to support you’. This admission caused a sensation in the courtroom provably at the self-declaration of offending and the very public disintegration of their relationship.

Mr Coombe was told that Elizabeth’s body was ‘covered in cuts and bruises’ and he sent Edward to prison for six months this time, at hard labour. The prisoner’s reaction was contemptuous, both of the court and his common law wife.

‘When I come out I’ll have fifteen years for her, as I want to get out of this ________ country’.

He may have been hoping to be transported to Australia but I doubt he got his wish. The numbers of convicts deported had slowed from the 1850s and the last ship sailed from England in 1867. Still possible but I can’t see him in the records of those sent so I suspect he minded his behaviour. Mr Coombe added a codicil to his six months, a requirement that he found bail against his good behaviour towards Elizabeth for a further six months on release.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 15, 1863]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

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