A ‘ferocious looking woman’ and a distraught wife: female violence in 1840s Clerkenwell

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White Horse Alley, Clerkenwell  in the 1800s

Domestic violence (however it is defined) was a depressingly regular occurrence in nineteenth-century London. Most of the victims were women; beaten, kicked, and sometimes stabbed by (invariably) drunken husbands or common law partners, in the midst of arguments usually caused by the return of the man from the pub having spent the household budget on beer.

There were occasions when the woman was at fault (even if this did not justify the violence meted out on her body), through being drunk herself. Not that most men needed much of an excuse – a cross word from a ‘sharp tongue’, or dinner that was cold or ‘late’ – could earn you a beating.

Only a handful of these acts of assault ended up in the police courts and most of those were resolved quickly when the victim spoke up for her abuser or chose to forgive him. A working class woman (married or not) had more to lose than her partner if he was separated from her by imprisonment, or made to pay a fine.

Taking ‘your man’ to court might earn you respect amongst your long-suffering sisters, it might alert family and friends to his mistreatment of you, it might even shame him into behaving better (for a time). But it risked reprisals as well.

It was even rarer for men to take their spouses to court. For a man to stand up in court and declare that a woman had bested him was a humiliating experience. If things got that far then the situation at home had to be very bad.

Or the violence had to be very serious.

Women did instigate violence though, and were prosecuted for it. Most often their victims were other women. But here are a couple of examples – both from Clerkenwell in May 1844 – where female violence resulted in a court hearing.

On Tuesday 7 May Margaret Kelly was accused of stabbing John Dimmock. Dimmock lived with his wife at 13 White Horse Court in Turnmill Street. Kelly shared an address with the Dimmocks, living in a room below them. One the Monday night Kelly had argued with Mary Dimmock and it turned nasty.

Mary ran upstairs to her rooms where her husband was in bed, and Margaret followed her. She ran over to the bed, seizing a knife from the table as she did. Before John could raise himself she attacked, stabbing him just below the eye.

Horrified, Mary ran downstairs to fetch help.

Soon afterwards PC 38G arrived and found John Dimmock in bed, ‘bleeding profusely from a dreadful wound o his face’, the bed, he reported, was ‘saturated with blood’. Dimmock was taken to hospital (St Bart’s) but despite the surgeon’s efforts his life was still in danger.

In court Margaret Kelly admitted she had rowed with Mary and that she had thrown a basin of water at John but denied using a knife. The policeman said he had a witness that would swear she did. Kelly scoffed at this prompting the magistrate to tell her that this ‘was no laughing matter’. Mr Combe added that if Dimmock died she’d be on trial for her life.

She was remanded for a week.

Just under a week later – on Monday 13 May a different woman was accused of violence at Clerkenwell Police court. In an unconnected case Caroline King was charged with cutting and wounding her husband George at their lodgings in Little Warner Street.

The incident happened around midnight on Saturday 11 May. George –a  brassfounder – told the magistrate that they had quarreled. Caroline was drunk and she threw a ‘glass goblet at his head’. As the goblet smashed ‘several pieces of the glass entered close to [his] jugular, and severed a number of the smaller blood vessels’.

He (and Caroline) were lucky that his injuries were not more serious.

She didn’t try to deny her actions and the justice remanded her in custody for a few days while he decided what to do with her. In this it is probable that he would have been guided by the wishes of her husband, but he also would have wanted to make sure that the brassfoudner’s injuries were not any more serious than they appeared.

Three days later she was brought back to court. George was there but quite weak, so he was offered a seat in court. Caroline King was ‘convulsed in grief’ the paper reported, clearly distraught that she had so nearly killed her husband. She ‘begged his forgiveness’ and he told the magistrate he didn’t wish to press charges against her. They ‘went away arm in arm, apparently on affectionate terms’.

In this case then, all’s well that ends well.

Meanwhile Margaret Kelly reappeared on remand at Clerkenwell on the Monday (13 May). She was described as a ‘ferocious looking woman’ and a little more detail of the argument she’d had with Mary (or Anne as she was now called) Dimmock was provided. The pair had met in Sutton Street and Kelly had called her names. She ignored her but when she got home Kelly was there, and confronted her.

There was no more detail on the assault although the argument was apparently ‘a grudge’ carried over from Easter. Since John Dimmock (Or Dymmock) was still too weak to attend court Kelly was again remanded. On Monday 27 May  Dimmock was fit enough to attend. He gave his side of things and Kelly was committed to trial.

In June the case came before a jury at the Old Bailey. The court heard that Mary and Margaret had ‘been quarrelling for months’. Kelly accused John Dimmock of kicking at her down but he, Mary and some other witnesses all denied this. She aslo said she reacted when Mary threw a basin at her. No one denied that Margaret had been drinking, and it is likely that many of the rows had occurred when both women were under the influence.

In the end the jury found the prisoner guilty and she was sentenced to twelve months in prison. She was 42 years of age.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday 8 May 1844; The Standard, Tuesday 14 May 1844; Morning Post, Friday 17 May 1844; Lloyd’s Illustrated Paper, Sunday 14 May 1844; Morning Post, Tuesday 28 May 1844]

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