After yesterday’s light diversion into the music halls we return to the grim reality of the Metropolitan Police courts in the middle of the nineteenth century. Here we find Henry Kirby Turton stood in the dock at Lambeth Police court accused of a brutal attack on his common-law wife.
The case – which is typical of many others I’ve written about – was flagged by the newspaper reporter because the magistrate was empowered to act using recently passed legislation to protect women. Mr Elliot, presiding, took full advantage of this, and applied the maximum sentence.
In June 1853 parliament had passed an ‘Act for the better Prevention and Punishment of aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children’. This was directly concerned with attacks on females and on children under 14 and was aimed at punishing men that committed these sorts of domestic assaults.
The legislation allowed a Police Court magistrate (or two JPs sitting outside of the capital) to deal with aggravated assault summarily (i.e without sending it to jury trial) and this was much more likely to result in a conviction. It was also much easier for a wife to go before a magistrate than to have to cope with the expense and inconvenience of attending the sessions.
So this power was very new in July 1853 although I suspect magistrates had been exercising a similar power unofficially for some time. One of the realities of criminal justice history is that practice usually preceded policy changes, something I try to get my undergraduates to understand.
Elizabeth Lambert was in a dreadful state when she appeared at Lambeth to evidence against her partner. Her face was:
‘one entire mass of swollen purple coloured flesh, presenting fearful proofs of the most savage ill-usage’.
Elizabeth said she had lived with Turton as his wife (although they’d never formally married) and he’d mistreated her for years, and had recently knocked out one of her teeth. On the previous Monday she’d come from work and he had attacked her. Without the ‘slightest provocation’ she said, Turton had ‘struck her with his clenched fist on her face, and knocked her down’. When she rose, he hit her again and again until she passed out.
‘Had he used anything but his fists?’ the magistrates wanted to know. At first she said he hadn’t but when prompted by Mr Elliot she testified that while she couldn’t recall him kicking her (which aggravated the assault) he ‘trampled on me, and I am suffering from pains all over me, as well as internally’.
The couple’s landlady appeared to support Elizabeth describing Monday’s attack as ‘wanton and brutal’. Finally the justice turned to Turton and asked him to explain himself. The man seemed surprised to find himself in court and tried to justify his actions. He had come home to an empty house, ‘without a fire, and neither dinner nor tea prepared for him’. In his mind then he was perfectly entitled to beat his wife for her neglect of her responsibilities.
Mr Elliot was disgusted by the man and said so. He then sent him to prison for six months at hard labour. Turton, ‘who seemed somewhat astonished at the sentence, was removed from the bar’ and taken to the cells to begin his imprisonment. Elizabeth would then had had six months of peace and perhaps an opportunity to find a better person to share her life with.
[From The Morning Post , Saturday, July 16, 1853]