‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’: self-defence, vitriol, and exile to Australia

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George Day was passing along Lucas Place, Coram Street in the parish of St. Pancras, at about 2 in the morning when a woman hailed him from a house there. Day was in his cab and assumed the woman required a cab. It was pretty clear the house was one of ‘ill-repute’ (in other words a brothel) but George went inside anyway.

Once there the woman demanded that he stand her a drink and have one himself. There was no fare and Day soon realized that he’d been tricked, and started to leave. But the young woman kicked up a fuss and a heated exchange ensued, which was loud enough to be heard Mary Ann Murphy who lived nearby.  She described it as ‘a little bit of a bother’ and heard a woman’s voice say:

‘Don’t let him go, he wants to bilk her’.

‘Bilk’ was underworld slang for cheat, and as Murphy looked in through the open door she saw another woman run towards Day and throw something at him.

This woman was Elizabeth Cleveland she had thrown vitriol (sulphuric acid) in the cabbie’s face. The police arrived and Cleveland was arrested while Day was taken away for treatment.  The case came about before the magistrate at Hatton Garden but it was far too serious to be dealt with there. Cleveland was committed to Newgate and took her trial at the Old Bailey on 17 August 1840.

It may be that Day was economical with the truth that morning. Perhaps he knew it was a brothel and he’d gone in deliberately but then changed his mind. However, having crossed the threshold he was expected to pay something, if only for gawping at the girls that worked there. When he refused a fight broke out and that resulted in Elizabeth choosing the first weapon she could find. She didn’t deny throwing acid but claimed she did not know it was so concentrated; it was used for cleaning brass and was usually diluted. There was also some confusion as to whether it was a liquid or a powder (like lime) that was thrown.

It didn’t affect the outcome:  George Day had lost the sight of one eye completely and the surgeon that testified in court said there was little chance he’d ever regain the use of it. The jury convicted Elizabeth and the judge sentenced her to be transported to Australia for 15 years.

Elizabeth Cleveland had been born in Peterborough in 1787 and so, like many Londoners then and now, was a migrant to the capital. In 1840 she was 53 years of age (considered ‘old’ by one witness). She was finally put on board a ship (the Rajah) and sent to Van Dieman’s Land on 1 April 1841, landing on 19 July that year. Her record reveals that she claimed to have acted in self-defense (‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’).

It also noted that she was a widow with one living child. Elizabeth could read but not write, she was 5’ 2” high, had brown eyes, greying dark brown hair, and was fresh faced with freckles. She gave her occupation as a cook and laundress, which is probably the role she had played in the brothel, looking after the prostitutes there.

Her instincts were to protect the young women worked with but in this case it had gone terribly wrong with awful consequences for George day and for her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 20, 1840]

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