A man lays about his wife with an iron poker, ‘saying he would have her life’: an everyday domestic trauma in Mile End

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Nowadays we have a number of organizations (state run and charitable) that look out for the interests of women and children, especially those caught up in abusive relationship or poverty. The laws protecting women are also much more stringent and the support mechanisms (if nowhere near perfect) much better than they were in the nineteenth century. Any regular (or even causal) readers of this blog will have seen that domestic violence was a daily event in Victorian London and something many of the Police Court magistrates railed against.

Charities did exist to help, one of which was the Associate Institute for Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children (AIELPWC). Organizations such as this were often run by well-meaning members of the middle class, who saw it as their mission to intervene in the ‘savage’ lives of the working class. The AIELPWC were run by Henry Newman and based at 30 Cockspur Street, just off Trafalgar Square. In September 1869 William Moore, a member of the charity, followed a case that was of interest to them at the Worship Street Police court in Stepney.

Benjamin Briggat, a ‘looking-glass frame maker’ from Mile End was up in court, accused of a violent assault on his wife. Mrs Briggat appeared in the witness box swathed in bandages. She was able to give chapter and verse on her husband’s serial abuse of her in the five years they had been married.

Many women suffered for months or years before they built up the courage to take their spouse before a magistrate as Mrs Briggat had done. It took determination and resignation in equal measure, and the outcomes were rarely positive anyway. At best the husband would be locked up and the household deprived of the principal bread-winner, or he was fined (reducing the family budget even further), and worse he’d be reprimanded and she’d have to go back home with him, angered and embittered.

Mrs Briggat told the bench what had happened on the previous Saturday when Benjamin had come home late from work, clearly ‘three sheets to the wind’ (i.e. drunk). She’d made him a stew but he said he didn’t want it.

They argued and he started to kick at her as she was bent over the stove. At this she tried to get away, running to the bed but Briggat ‘seized the iron pot off the fire and beat her about the head with it’.

There was more, she said:

She was soon covered with blood and fell to the floor. The prisoner again kicked her repeatedly while she was down, He also got the poker from the fire-place, and struck her over the back and arms with it, saying he would have her life’.

She must have been terrified and with good reason, most homicide victims in the nineteenth century were wives, children or in some other way relatives or friend of their killers. Her neighbours were too scared of Benjamin too come to her aid but they did call for the police and she was then able to escape from the room. Her husband’s last act was to throw a pail of water over her as she ran out of their home.

It took PC 187H a long time to contain Briggat and get him to the station. It took Mr Newton a few moments to send him to gaol for four months at hard labour. Presumably Mr Moore made a point of recording the incident in his notebook to discuss with his colleagues. Would it make a difference? Sadly, I doubt it.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 07, 1869]

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