‘a malicious and vindictive woman’: Oysters and domestic abuse on the Portobello Road

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Domestic assault was endemic in late Victorian London. The summary (Police) courts were full of men being prosecuted by their wives or partners for acts of violence. In many cases the victim stopped short of following through with the prosecution, wanting to bring her errant husband to court but not to have him sent to gaol or fined. She knew that would have repercussions for her and her children, had she any. In some instances though the woman’s motivation was to gain a legal separation; divorce was difficult and expensive and effectively out of the question for the working classes. The alternative was a judicial separation, which, it was widely believed at least, was at the gift of the magistracy.1

Of course not all victims of domestic violence then (or now) were women. Women assaulted their husbands and not always in self-defense. It was rare by comparison but probably more common than court records suggest. If women were reluctant to prosecute their spouses then men had even more to lose, namely their reputation as a man. For a man who had to resort to the law to control his wife in the nineteenth century was no man at all.

However this is exactly the situation that John Spurgin found himself in in late July 1886. Spurgin and his wife ran oyster stalls, one on Portbello Road and one near Westbourne Park. Harriet Spurgin suddenly announced that she was leaving him to live with another man. The couple rowed and she left their home at 3 Carlton Bridge at four in the morning.

They may well have fought that night, as Harriett ended up with a black eye, which she claimed, had come from John. As far as he was concerned however, she was gone and he was on his own. Her property – her clothes and effects – were still in his rooms however, and under the law of the day he probably regarded them as belonging to him.  Harriett thought differently.

A dew days later she turned up at his oyster stall and demanded he return her things. He refused, they argued and she threw a large oyster and then a vinegar bottle at him. As he struggled with her she kicked him in the groin and declared she would ‘ruin him’ and that one or both of them would find themselves in a police cell that night.

He called a policeman over but because he hadn’t seen what happened he refused to intervene. Harriett went away but then returned a little while later to continue her abuse. Now she hit and kicked at him, drawing blood from a wound to his head. This time, fortunately, a constable did see the fracas and intervened. Harriett was taken into custody and the next day she was brought before Mr Cook at Marylebone Police court.

She protested her innocence, claimed that her ex had started it, and that he was withholding her property from her. All she wanted ‘was a separation order and her clothes’. Not surprisingly the magistrates sided with the man. He told her she was ‘a malicious and vindictive woman’ and sent her to prison for seven weeks with hard labour. I suspect that in the meantime John Sprrgin would have ruined her business and secured the oyster trade from both stalls. Harriett would have to hope that her new man was just as keen to live with her when she got out of gaol or her life was about to take a precipitous turn for the worse.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 03, 1886]

  1. This was probably an erroneous belief. Until 1895 and the passing of the 1895 Summary Jurisdiction (Married Women) Act, magistrates did not have any legal power to order couples to part. It seems they may have exercised some discretionary power though andperhaps, as with many changes to English law, the 1896 act simply legalized something that was already being practiced.

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