‘Your husband can take everything you have and sell it’. Why the right to vote really mattered.

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1882 saw an important breakthrough in women’s rights. Not quite as important as the vote perhaps, but more practical, at least for women who worked for a living (as most working-class women did). The Married Women’s Property Act (45 & 46 Vict. c.75) fundamentally changed the prevailing principle under which women who married became subservient to their husbands in law. The legal term of ‘feme covert’ effectively removed the rights of married women to any property they owned, including those they brought into the marriage or those they acquired afterwards, even if those goods were purchased with money they had earned themselves.

It was a disgraceful state of affairs that the 1882 act swept away. Women now had a legal identity; they could buy, sell and own property, and could sue and be sued in law. They were also now liable for any debts they ran up (so the new legal status has some drawbacks!)

However, while the act was passed in 1882 it was not applied retrospectively. This meant that women who married before the act became law were not protected by it. This led to the following situation at Westminster Police court in September 1888.

Two women came to see Mr Biron to ask for his help. Neither were named by the court reporter who seems to have been using their examples to highlight the limitations of the law in this area. The first applicant was a ‘decently dressed’ if poor woman whose husband had left her six months previously. She came to beg the magistrate for a separation order because he’d come back suddenly and had started to sell the contents of her home.

He didn’t work, she said, and chose instead to sell the things she’d bought with her own money. He had a history of violence towards her and she was now afraid that as well as stripping the family home of furniture and clothes he would start hitting her again.

‘You could have brought him here for the assault’, Mr Biron told her.

‘I did’, she said, breaking down in the witness box, ‘but, like a fool, I did did not go against him’.

She had brought him to court before for his violence but when asked to testify had, like so many women before and since, refused to give evidence against her abusive partner.

‘Can he take my bit of furniture?’

Having ascertained that she had married 18 years ago (in 1870) Mr Biron told her:

‘Your husband can take everything you have and sell it’.

‘It cannot be so cruel’, the woman exclaimed, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

The magistrate assured her that he would put a stop to any violence but there was nothing else he could do for her. ‘That is the law, madam’.

The second woman had a similar tale to tell. Her husband had lost a good job and didn’t seem inclined to look for another one. Instead he had started to sell their marital property, much of which she had scrimped and saved to acquire. He had even removed the children’s bed while they had been sleeping in it!

She too had been married since 1870 and so she too was unable to benefit form the 1882 legislation. Through her tears this woman told the magistrate that she could see no future for her and her children but the workhouse. ‘She bought the furniture, and if her husband could sell it, that was a bad law’.

Mr Biron agreed, ‘that is possible’ he said. The law had been altered he added, ‘but it doesn’t affect you’. This was little comfort to the poor woman who shuffled out of the box and made her way out of court.

It was ‘bad law’ and now I believe we wouldn’t legislate in such a way that only protected women after a certain point. There is an acceptance that retrospective legislation is sometimes necessary to redress long-standing grievances and legal wrongs. I cant imagine why this wasn’t done in the 1880s unless we are to understand that the male dominated political system didn’t think that women mattered that much, especially the wives of working-class men. Which is why, of course, women needed the vote. Once women had the vote men could no longer ignore their voices and their rights.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 10, 1888]

Panic on the river as a steamboat heads for disaster.

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Imagine the scene if you can. You are on board a Thames steamer heading towards Battersea Bridge, it is nighttime, on a Sunday, the ship is packed and it is quite dark on the river. Suddenly the boat veers off course and starts to head directly towards the piles of the new bridge, sticking up out of the murky waters of London’s river. As the crew tries to slow the boat or alter its course the passengers panic, screams are heard, and everyone rushes about blindly.

Inevitably the steamer slams into the bridge but fortunately only sustains relatively minor damage. No one is badly hurt and the ship stays afloat. This is no repeat of the Princess Alice disaster of 1878 when 650 people lost their lives. However, that was only 10 years previously and very many of those onboard would have remembered that awful event.

Having secured the ship and its passengers the crew’s next thought was to find out what happened. It quickly became clear that the boat had been sabotaged. The lock pin of the rudder had been unscrewed and removed, causing the vessel to become steer less. Suspicion fell on a group of young men who had been rowdy all evening, pushing and shoving people and generally acting in an anti-social manner as gangs of ‘roughs’ did in the 1880s.

One youth was blamed and brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. Remanded and then brought up on Monday 3 September 1888 Sidney Froud, an 18 year-old grocer’s assistant, was accused of ‘maliciously and wantonly interfering with the steering gear’ of the Bridegroom, a Kew steamer. He was further accused of endangering life and causing £30 worth of damage (around £2,500 in today’s money).

The prosecution was brought by the Victoria Steamboat Association (VSA) who were represented by a barrister, Mr Beard. He asked that the case be dealt with under section 36 of the Merchant Shipping Act, where a fine of up to £20 was the penalty. Several members of the crew gave evidence describing the lads as ‘full of mischief’ and testifying to hearing the defendant laugh as the pin was removed.

Froud did not deny his action but his defense brief claimed he had not acted maliciously, saying he had no idea that the consequences would be so severe. His conduct was ‘stupid’ but the ship’s company was negligent in allowing the youths to get so close to such an important part of the ship’s steering mechanism.

Mr D’Eyncourt, presiding, rejected any negligence on the part of the crew or the VSA and found against the lad. The only thing to be considered was his punishment. Mr Dutton for the defense, said he was only being paid 5sa week at the grocers so couldn’t possibly afford a huge fine like £20. His friends were ‘very respectable’ and several persons would testify to his good character. Perhaps a sound thrashing would have sufficed if he was younger he added, but at 18 he was past that.

Mr D’Enycourt listened to all of this carefully and in the end awarded the company 23scosts and fined Froud a further 50s. In total that amounted to almost 15 weeks’ wages for the grocer’s boy, if indeed he kept his job after such a public display of recklessness. I suspect he did because the fine was paid up on the day and he was released to his friends. He was lucky, as were the 100 or more souls that his stupidity had endangered the lives of.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 04, 1888]

Of the hidden curriculum, ignorance and prorogation

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Having just dealt with two gentlemen who had been found drunk and drawing a crowd around them near Cremorne Gardens, Mr Arnold’s Westminster Police court was now filled with a motely collection of working class men and women. They answered summons for not sending their children to school. The cases were brought by the Chelsea School Board in the person of Mr Cook the board officer.

In most of the cases the magistrate agreed that their had been neglect of duty on the part of the parents, and he fined them small amounts and extracted promises that in future they would ensure their children went to school. In one case however, he had to take a different line. This involved a very poor woman who said that despite her best efforts her son kept playing truant and there was nothing she could do about it. Her husband left for work very early in the morning and she too worked, so she could not make sure that when he set off for school he didn’t sneak back later on while his parents were out.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic and called the boy to the dock to explain himself. The lad said he was sent to school but didn’t go. The justice now ‘explained to the little fellow the advantages of going to school’.

He added that ‘poor people who had to work hard for their living could not be expected to to take their children to school and sit on a door-step to see that they remained there; and in cases where the parents did their utmost to comply with the law he should not convict them, because their children were rebellious’.

He went on to say that in some instances ‘those children were proper subjects for an industrial school’, where education would be combined with more severe discipline. This might have been a veiled threat to the boy to not play truant again but he wrapped it up in a wider warning to parents that thought sending their offspring away was an easy solution to avoiding prosecution and a convenient means of having them educated and cared for at the state’s expense.

Parents of children sent to industrial schools (or reformatories) were expected to contribute to their upkeep he reminded the court (and the reading public of course). For ‘those children ought not to be easily got rid of by their parents and become a burden to the ratepayers’ and he instructed Mr Cook to make his views clearly known to the School Board. The reporter finished his account by stating that:

‘The system of parents getting rid of their children by complaining that they are beyond their control is becoming very prevalent’.

The education offered to working-class children in the second half of the nineteenth century was basic and not designed to lift them up above their social status. Children were taught to read and write but also not to challenge their superiors and to learn to accept ‘their place’ in society. It has taken a very long time for this to change in Britain, arguably it is only from the 1960s or later that education has really affected the status quo, and some might reasonably suggest the effect is limited at best.

Education – and the encouragement of independent thinking – is crucial if society is to develop and not simply replicate the traditional hierocracies of the past. It is not an accident that public (private) schools are given charitable status to enable them to prosper, or are excluded from the national curriculum taught to most children. It is no accident either that the children of the wealthy and ennobled are much more likely to go to our top universities, while children from disadvantaged communities – notably BAME ones – are largely excluded.

Education is political – it always has been – and it probably suits the ruling elite for the majority of the population to be under education, to believe what the tabloids tell them, not to challenge the words of their ‘superiors’. There has been a clear move to silence the voices of ‘experts’ in political debate recently – on climate change, on political democracy, and on brexit most notably.

‘Ignorance is bliss’ some say; I would say it is dangerous and plays into the hands of those that rule us, those – if you but scratch the surface – who went to private schools like Eton, Harrow and Westminster, before finishing their studies at Oxford and Cambridge, before proceeding into positions of wealth and privilege because their parents were rich and powerful already. The attack on the Westminster bubble by disenchanted members of the public is misplaced in my opinion. Today the ‘old school tie brigade’ is ripping up democracy in front of our very eyes to serve the old order’s desire for continued wealth and privilege. If you see the proroguing of our sovereign elected parliament by an unelected cabal of unrepresentative privileged individuals as anything other than a coup in all but name, then I respectfully suggest you look beyond the tabloids and read a little more history.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 29, 1873]

A life destroyed by the ‘demon drink’

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Alcoholism is a debilitating addiction than ruins not only the life of the person affected but that of those around them. Since the Second World War most of the attention of the police, courts, and prison service has been on  drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and MDMA (with all the various derivatives and combinations) and with good reason. All these drugs have the capacity to destroy lives as well. But while all of the above are proscribed and subject to sanctions under the criminal law, alcohol remains legal and freely available. Like tobacco, alcohol is recognized as being harmful but is simply taxed, not banned.

In the 1800s the negative effects of drink were well understood; drink was blamed for all manner of society’s problems form unemployment to fecklessness, poverty to mental illness, domestic violence to mental illness and suicide. All of these social issues were linked to the excessive consumption of the ‘demon drink’. In the early years of Victoria’s reign the Temperance movement established itself; from small beginnings in the late 1820s it had grown into a significant lobbying group by the 1850s. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to  get parliament to pass a prohibition bill in 1859 but it continued to promote abstinence by urging working men and women to sign the pledge.

It was recognized from the middle of the century that alcoholism was a disease and not simply a vice. Since it was not merely a weakness of character it was possible to treat it, and cure it and this was the beginning of modern efforts to deal with addiction to all sorts of substances.

Margaret Malcolm was a good (or perhaps ‘bad’) example of the evils of drink. She was brought before the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court in August 1878 for being found drunk and disorderly in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. She’d been carried to the local police station on one of the new Bischoffsheim hand drawn ambulances, being incapable of walking.

That was Friday 16 August and the magistrate fined her 8which her husband  paid to keep her out of gaol. On Monday (the 19th) she was back in court and this time Mr Woolrych fined her 21sand told her she was an ‘incorrigible drunkard’. Margaret pulled out a card to show that she had ‘joined the teetotalers’ and promised that she ‘would never drink again’.

Her pledge didn’t last the day: at around five in the afternoon PC Charles Everett (185B) found her drunk, ‘stopping the vehicles in the street, [and] making a great noise’. When he went to arrest her she threw herself to the ground and refused to budge. It took some time to get her up and into custody and in the meantime a large crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

Back in court before Mr Woolrych she had nothing to say for herself. The magistrate was told that Margaret had been in court on at least fifty occasions previously. Her long-suffering husband had paid nearly £200 in fines in just a few years. To put that in context £200 in 1878 is about £13,000 today. It would have represented almost two years wages for a skilled tradesman, or you could have bought 7 horses with it. Margaret must have had a loving husband (more than many working-class women had in the 1870s) and one who was, whenever possible, determined to keep her out of prison.

He hadn’t always succeeded; she’d been to prison several times when magistrates like Mr D’Eyncourt had refused the option of a fine in the forlorn hope that it would curb her drinking. On this occasion the law continued to be a blunt instrument: with no option available to him to send Margaret for treatment (as a court might today) she was fined 25(£80) or three weeks’ hard labour. The court report doesn’t tell us whether Mr Malcolm dipped into his pocket this time.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 25, 1878]

Outrage at the Houses of Parliament as a lunatic is let loose

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It was just before 5 o’clock on the 16 July 1894 when Mr John Sandys, the public orator (literally the voice) of the University of Cambridge, arrived at the Houses of Parliament with his wife.  He and his wife Mary were supposed to be meeting Sir Richard Temple, the Conservative MP for Kingston a privy councilor.

Mary stepped out of the cab and as her husband settled the fare a ‘rough looking man’ rushed up to her shouting incoherently. Some witnesses claimed to have heard him shout ‘I’ll do for you’, or ‘Now I’ve got you’, but none were clear. What was certain was that he was brandishing a clasp knife and seemed intent on doing her some harm.

He lunged forward and slashed at her, slightly damaging her dress but thankfully not Mrs Sandys’ person. A quick thinking passer-by came to her assistance and two police officers helped wrestle him to the ground before taking him into custody. He was marched to King Street Police station where Mrs Sandys officially identified him as her attacker and signed the charge sheet. The man refused to give his name and nothing was found on his person that might explain who he was or why he had attempted to stab Mary.

At his first hearing at Westminster Police court his name emerged. He was Watson Hope Scott, also known as Samuel Strange – which seems an appropriate nom de plume. The magistrate expected that Strange or Scott was quite mad and could discern no connection between him and Mrs Sandys. He remanded the prisoner for further enquiries.

On 24 July he was again brought before the Westminster magistrate and a certificate was handed over (by Detective Inspector Waldock) that established that Scott was indeed insane.  He had discovered that Scott had served in the army in China but had been discharged in 1884 after suffering a severe bout of sunstroke. This had left him mentally damaged and unfit to serve. On his return to England he had found work with a medical herbalist but that only lasted three years before his employer dismissed him, because of his mental health problems.

Scott then worked at a cement factory but they couldn’t cope with hi either and let him go. Just recently he had found work in a City factory (doing what isn’t clear) but he suffered from fits and so the manager sacked him, fearing he might fall into the one of the machines and injure himself.

Throughout his hearing Scott sat in the dock looking dejected, ‘his face buried in his hands’. The magistrate declared him to be a lunatic and sent him to the workhouse asylum in Poland Street.  It is a desperately sad story. I doubt the sunstroke (more properly heatstroke) caused Scott’s mental health problems but it may well have exacerbated them. Once he lost his military career he was on a downwards spiral and the state would have done little to support him. He clearly did try to support himself, this was someone who wanted to work, wanted to contribute to society. But no one it seems was prepared to do anything for him.

Perhaps that’s why he ended up at Parliament – the place where British citizens might hope to get their problems heard and dealt with. After all, as Mr Johnson said yesterday, politicians are there to serve us, not themselves. This is not to excuse his attack on an entirely innocent woman but more to understand that it was probably born of a deep frustration and therefore represented a cry for help not a serious desire to do anyone harm. Sadly he didn’t really get any help, just a bed in an workhouse asylum, a slow death sentence if ever there was one.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 25, 1894; The Standard  Tuesday, July 17, 1894]

‘Mother Needham in the dock’ : sex and exploitation in mid Victorian London

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If you are familiar with William Hogarth’s engravings for the Harlot’s Progress (1732) then you might remember the story of Mary ‘Moll’ Hackabout. Moll arrives in London on the coach (see Hogarth’s image above) in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker or a servant in a quality household. Instead she meets Mother Needham, a notorious procuress, who tricks young women like Moll into prostitution.

While this is very much an eighteenth-century trope there is little doubt that procuresses continued to operate in the Victorian age. Indeed, there is very little difference between the actions of Mother Needham in the 1730s and the people traffickers and grooming gangs of our century. Where there is money to be made by the exploitation of girls and young women for sex you will find people prepared to take advantage.

In 1855 Anne Alice Hudson was placed in the dock at Westminster Police court and charged with assault. In reality assault was the least of Hudson’s crimes for she was a nineteenth-century procuress. Her victim was Ann Prior, a 20 year-old woman who possessed ‘considerable personal attractions’. As we can see the Morning Post’s reporter was not above objectifying the poor girl in the witness stand that morning.

Ann explained that a few years earlier she had come to London from Nottingham with the intention of finding work as a servant. She had met Hudson back in Nottingham, by chance house said, and the older woman had promised her work if she came south. However, once she arrived in the capital it quickly became apparent that she would working in a much less respectable industry than she had planned. Hudson installed her in a brothel and sent her out to walk the streets as a prostitute. Her pay was limited and Hudson extracted her rent, food and the cost of her clothes from any small amount she did earn. As a result Ann Prior was almost constantly in debt to the other woman.

This was deliberate of course; by taking control of her earnings and providing everything for her Hudson had trapped Ann in a cycle of dependency that required her to sell herself to keep up her payments. When she decided she couldn’t cope any longer and ran away, Hudson came after her. It was this that provoked the assault charge.

In July 1855 Hudson tracked Ann down to her digs at 40 Walton Street, near Knightsbridge*. The old woman demanded the immediate repayment of the debt she claimed Ann owed and when this was refused she became violent, hitting her and scratching the younger woman’s neck. In court Hudson claimed Ann had robbed her of some silver plate but could bring no evidence to prove this.

Her own defense lawyer tried to undermine Ann’s testimony but the magistrate was clearly on the side of the young girl. ‘She was anxious to reclaim herself’, he said admiringly, and abandon the wretched life she had been leading for two years’. Hudson had no right to any money as far as he could see and certainly no right to go to Prior’s lodgings and demand it with menaces.

He fined Hudson £5 and said if she failed to pay up he would send her to prison for months instead. Regardless he ordered her to find two sureties to the value of £20 each to keep the peace towards the complainant for a year. It was hefty sentence and reflected Mr Arnold’s clear contempt for the ‘wretched-looking old hag’ in the dock before him.

Did this prosecution allow Ann Prior to ‘reclaim her life’ and find respectability after two years of prostituting herself? The odds are against it of course, but with luck and if she had escaped disease or pregnancy, then maybe she might have found a pathway out of it. Let’s hope so at least.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 11, 1855]

* in 1975 the IRA bombed Walton’s Restaurant on this street, killing two people and injuring several others. The IRA unit were nicknamed the Balcombe Street Gang.

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon

The prisoner who violently refused to accept her fate

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Although this story is not from one of London’s Police courts it does involve the magistrate system in London. It seems as if when crimes were committed inside prisons by serving prisoners it was possible for these cases to be heard (or at least assessed briefly) by visiting magistrates. Today we have a system whereby those held on remand in prisons or custody suites can be questioned by video link, so perhaps this was an early form of remote inquisition.

Elizabeth Heydrick was recidivist who had been in and out of court and the prison system on a number of occasions. None of her brushes with the law had any effect at all, unless it was to harden her resolve to be as obstreperous as possible.

In June 1870 she was in the Westminster house of correction serving a nine month sentence for assaulting the matron of the Bethnal Green workhouse. On that occasion as she’d left he dock she had turned to matron and vowed to kill her when she got out. As a result the magistrate ordered her to find sureties to ensure her good behaviour towards the woman on her release. This proved impossible however, so when her time was up she was kept inside and told she’d not be released until she did so (up to the period of sureties which was 12 months).

After three months Heydrick rang the bell of her cell, summoning a warder named Elizabeth Warwick to her. Heydrick told Warwick that she wanted to go to the exercise yard and the warder took her there. After about 10 minutes she said she wanted to return to the cell, but asked for some water first. She then turned on the taps but didn’t drink, just letting them empty into the yard. For this nuisance the warder rebuked her and told her to get back to the cell.

As they climbed the stairs to the level of Heydrick’s cell the prisoner turned around and punched Warwick in the face, blackening her eye, and then again twice to the chest. Other warders rushed to assist their colleague and so prevented Heydrick’s assault from being even more serious. As it was Elizabeth Warwick was badly injured and shaken up. The prison surgeon feared she’d broken two ribs and she was not fit to return to her duties – of even to leave her room – for nearly a month.

The magistrates that visited the prison fully committed Heydrick to stand trial for the violent assault at the next sitting of the Middlesex Sessions. On July 7 Heydrick appeared in court before a judge and jury who were told that when she had been taken to a ‘refractory cell’ (by which I presume they meant something like the ‘darks’ at Millbank, a solitary cell designed for punishment) she was searched. Male warders had helped subdue her after the assault on Warwick but only female warders could search her. As Amelia Newton was doing so she found a long pin in her jacket and was removing the potential weapon when Heydrick struck out and hit her in the face, cutting her lip and drawing blood.

The jury duly convicted her and the judge handed down an additional one-year sentence. Again this seemingly had little effect on Elizabeth who was led away from the dock laughing to herself.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 08, 1870]