‘He’s a good man, when he’s sober your worship’: Little support for an abused wife at Guildhall

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As many posts on this blog and research elsewhere, including recently published work on the victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ have detailed, violence against women was a depressingly familiar aspect of daily life in late Victorian London. Everyday, women were abused, beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed by men and a great deal of this violence went unprosecuted and unpunished.

Very many women were in a perilous position with regards to confronting their husbands or partners when it came to domestic violence. If they chose to fight back, they could expect not only more and worse violence, but were likely to lose the tacit support of their communities. If they went to law they risked not only a beating, but the economic hardship of losing the family’s main breadwinner or his being fined, another charge of the domestic budget.

As a consequence few women prosecuted their spouses unless they were desperate or recognized the relationship was unrecoverable; they went to law as a last resort, and often, once in front of magistrate, retracted their charges or spoke up in mitigation of their abuser’s actions: ‘he’s a good man, when sober your worship’, was familiar refrain.

Honora Rush decided to go to law when her husband, John, beat her up for the umpteenth time. Honora knew what her laboring spouse was like when he was in his cups and on Sunday night, the 11 March 1888, when she heard his staggered boots ascending he stairs to their room she barred the door with the bed. ‘She knew that he was drunk, and would most likely knock her out’ she told the alderman at Guildhall Police court, and she was right.

John barged his way inside, breaking through the wooden door, and confronted her. He ‘knocked her about’ with his fists and she ran past him but he grabbed her and threw her down the stairs. As she struggled to her feet and began to dust herself down he came out of the room holding a paraffin lamp. Alarmed she asked him to put it down. Instead he came down to her, kicked her in stomach and threw the lamp at her. The flames set her petticoats on fire and ignited the stairs. The other residents of the building rushed out to fetch water and a police constable and John was arrested.

It took some time to put out the fire, PC Cooper explained, but then he questioned the man and the woman and their 11 year-old son. The boy supported his mother’s account but the magistrate was keen to enquire whether she’d given him any provocation for the assault.  Had she been drinking, he wanted to know? Honora said she hadn’t (and the boy confirmed this) but  John said otherwise and Alderman Knill was inclined to believe him.

Both the court’s gaoler and the police confirmed that John Rush had been prosecuted previously for abusing his wife, although on several occasions Honora had not pressed charges, perhaps hoping that the shock of being arrested would do the trick. Sadly she was mistaken. The magistrate seemed not to be inclined to throw the book at this brutal specimen of a husband but he had to do something. Turning to the prisoner in the dock the alderman told him that:

‘it was a most outrageous thing that he, a great burly fellow as he was, should assault his wife in the way I which he had done’. However, the court recognized that since in his opinion, she was ‘not a temperate woman’ there ‘might have been some slight provocation’. He bound Rush over to keep the peace towards her for six months on pain of having to find £5 if he did not. The only person satisfied with that outcome was the labourer himself who tipped his cap to the bench and said, ‘thank sir, I am very much obliged’

Poor Honora must a have been left fearing the worst and any woman reading this would surely have thought that the law offered her no protection whatsoever. This was 1888 and within eight months at least six women in the capital would have been brutally murdered by an unknown killer.  In dingy rooms all over the capital brutish husbands threatened to ‘do for their wives’ like the ‘Ripper’ had. The Whitechapel murderer killed at a time when working-class were cheap, and those of the poorest and most vulnerable, mostly women, were considered cheapest of all.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 13, 1888]

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