Divorce was a not at all an easy thing to obtain in the nineteenth century. This meant that many couples either stayed together long after relationships had broken down or separated to live with someone else, but were then unable to remarry. For women this was a particular problem as it was harder for them to be seen as ‘respectable’ if they lived, unmarried, with a man. It was even worse should they have children by him, and that, in age before effective contraception, was fairly likely.
The breakdown of any relationship is traumatic and rarely entirely mutual so there is almost always an ‘injured party’. This sometimes leads today to long drawn out divorce cases, to jealousies, feuds, and even violence. So I imagine this might have been even worse in a society where divorce was much rarer than it is today. In the Victorian period then, there was much more scope for long lasting jealousies between jilted and abandoned wives and husbands and their new paramours.
This was the situation that Margaret White, a 44 year-old shopkeeper found herself in in March 1886. Margaret was married but her husband had left her 11 years previously, complaining about her ‘immorality’. This may have referred to an affair or simply her behaviour (perhaps her drinking and staying out late in the evening). Of course it may have been a false accusation, we have no proof that Mrs White was in any way ‘immoral’.
Whether White left his wife for another woman in 1875 or not by 1886 he was living with Rose Simpson in her rooms at Burlington News in Paddington. Margaret had discovered this and on more than one occasion in 1886 she had confronted Rose and, supposedly threatened her. On the 3 March she had visited the property and called on Rose.
When she opened the door she allegedly produced a small bottle which she claimed contained ‘vitriol’ (acid) and said she would throw it in the face of her rival if she ever stepped out of the house. She then stood outside for three hours while Rose cowered inside.
As this was the culmination of a series of threats to her, Rose decided to go to law to get protection or redress. On 13 March Margaret was brought, by warrant, to the Marylebone Police court to answer a charge of threatening her husband’s lover with an acid attack. Margaret pleaded not guilty and claimed that she’d never threatened Rose. She did admit that she had met her husband at open of their daughter’s house, by accident not design, and that he had told her he would never go back to her. This may have prompted her to confront Rose but she steadfastly rejected claims that she had produced a bottle or vitriol or had ever ‘had anything to do with it’ in her life.
Rose Simpson, perhaps persuaded by her husband, told Mr Cooke that she didn’t want to press charges and would be content so long as her rival was bound over to keep the peace towards her. She merely wanted, she said, for the threatening behavour to stop. The magistrate agreed, noting that there was no evidence that Margaret ever owned let alone threatened to throw acid at her. He accepted Mrs White’s sureties of £20 for six months but warned her that she faced a month in prison if there was any further intimidation of Ms Simpson. Throughout this case involving his previous and his current object of affection, Mr. White was nowhere to be seen.
Acid throwing was not unusual in the 1800s and has resurfaced in modern Britain, as this report from the Guardian in February 2017 shows. If you would like to read more about this disturbing phenomena I can suggest no better source than Dr Katherine Watson at Oxford Brookes University.
[from The Standard, Monday, March 15, 1886]