‘Brutal in the extreme’: one woman’s courage to stand up for herself against the odds


It is probably fair to say that the marriage of Albert and Martha Sykes was doomed to fail. Albert was a labourer when the couple first got together and began to cohabit. Getting married may have been desirable, especially for working class women keen to uphold their reputations, but it was not always an inevitable consequence of cohabitation.

At some point in 1887 Martha gave birth to a baby girl but by then Albert was nowhere to be seen. Like many men he’d decided to shirk his responsibilities and deserted his partner. Martha though was a strong woman and insistent that her daughter should have a father to support her, so she went to law and obtained a summons to bring Albert to court.

When next she saw him in the dock at Marylebone Police court he was dressed as a sailor and stated that he was now an able seaman in the navy. The court determined that as he was  girl’s father he was obliged to pay towards her keep. However, Albert attempted to dodge this responsibility as well and never paid a penny. Martha stuck to her guns and summoned him for non-payment, so Albert found himself back in front of a magistrate in October 1889.

He promised to make good on the arrears and the case was adjourned for him to make a first payment. That never materialized (surprise, surprise) and so back to Marylebone he and Martha went. This time she had new offer for her estranged sailor: if he would agree to marry her and return home she would ‘forgive him the amount he was in arrears’. I think this tells us something about Martha, if not more about the reality of some working-class relationships in the late Victorian period. She had a small child and limited opportunities to bring in income. Therefore, as unreliable as Albert was he was of use to her. His wages would put food on the table and pay the rent and marriage would give Martha the respectability she felt she needed having born a child out of wedlock.

Albert agreed and the couple were married but they didn’t live happily ever after. Within months he’d deserted her again and she had summoned him back to court. That forced him to return to the marital home but he was a reluctant husband and things only got worse.

In May 1890 Albert was brought up before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone and charged with assaulting Martha, who was pregnant again. He was serving with navy at Chatham, attached to H.M.S Forte (which was under construction)¹, but was brought in on a warrant that Martha had taken out against him. Once again we can admire her determination to use the law to  prosecute her husband and to try to bring him to book, however futile it seems to have been.

Martha testified to his cruelty saying that she had putting her daughter’s boots on in the morning at their rented rooms at 3 Dickenson Street, Kentish Town when the little girl had started crying that she was hungry. Albert was annoyed at the noise and hit the child. Martha told him he had no right to strike the girl and an argument flared. The couple was poor despite Sykes’ navy salary and Martha was often obliged to pawn items. It seems she’d recently pawned a firearm belonging to Albert simply so she could pay the rent.

The argument escalated and he grabbed her by the throat and began to strangle the life out of her. Martha managed to fight back and free herself but he pushed her to the floor and knee’d her in the stomach. She screamed, in pain and in fear of losing her unborn baby, and the landlady came running upstairs. But Albert was already on his way out, running away from trouble as he always did.

He was back that night though and the fight started again. He took the hat she was wearing and threw it in the fire; Martha had to run from the house, in fear of her life, taking her little girl with her. It was a sadly typical example of male violence in the late 1800s but here we can see it escalate over time. Most women killed in the period were killed by their spouse or partner and often after years of non-fatal attacks. Abused women rarely went to court early in the cycle, choosing instead to believe they could calm or amend violent behavior. In reality once a man started hitting his wife he didn’t stop until the pair were separated by legal means or by the woman’s death.

In this case Martha was a strong woman who stood up for herself and her daughter in court, refuted the counter claims of antagonizing Albert which were leveled by his lawyer, and she convinced the magistrate that he was guilty as charged. Mr De Rutzen described Albert Sykes (who seemed destined to live down to the behaviour of his fictional namesake) as ‘brutal in the extreme’. Albert was sentenced to two months in prison, an outcome that seemed to surprise him. As he was led away he was heard to ask to see his mother.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]

¹ HMS Forte was launched in 1893, one of eight cruisers commissioned by the navy in the 1890s. She saw service off the coast of Africa but was decommissioned in 1913 as the navy needed a very different class of warship for the coming fight with Imperial Germany. 

Two deserters and a lad that upset an apple cart


Three prisoners appeared at the North London Police court in early May 1899 and each of their cases was affected by new legislation, passed the previous year. According to the reporter from The Standard this was the Criminals Act of 1898 but I’m struggling to find the exact piece of legislation referred to.

1898 did see the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act which allowed defendants to testify (and which allowed wives, for example, to give evidence against husbands) but I don’t believe that is the act in question. That act was mostly concerned with the veracity of witness testimony but in the report I’ve selected today the magistrate was more concerned with discriminating between ‘habitual and casual’ criminals.

None of the prisoners were named but two of them were accused of deserting their wives and children, leaving them chargeable to the parish (and thus making them a burden on the ratepayers). Mr Cluer, the sitting magistrate, made a point of saying that while he intended to send both men to prison this was a much ‘more lenient punishment than probably they deserved’.

They owed money for the non-payment of maintenance to their wives and that was why they would be locked up but even then they would probably enjoy a better lifestyle behind bars than their wives and children and even by comparison to many of the poorer ratepayers in the area who lived honestly. He was clearly disgusted that he couldn’t throw the proverbial book at them.

The third prisoner mentioned in this report was a young man who had upset a costermonger’s cart and assaulted a policeman. As a result he’d been charged with a breach of the peace. On this occasion however, the police officer who had had his coat torn by the young man’s act ‘of ruffiansim’ was in forgiving mood and have the lad a good character.

In consequence of this the magistrate said he would treat him as a ‘second-class misdemeanant’ and that while he would also go to gaol, it would be for a shorter period and without some of the attached conditions (presumably hard labour) that he would have handed down had he ‘absolute control’ of the law.

So it seems that this new law tempered the ability of magistrates to exercise discretion and signaled another turn in the longer move towards allowing more and more offences to be dealt with summarily and with more lenient sentences. Arguably this process began in the 1840s and 1850s with Summary Jurisdiction Acts that removed petty thieves and younger offenders from the jury courts. It continued into the twentieth century and our own 21st. If someone can send me a link to details of the Criminals Act (1898) I will be grateful.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 2, 1899]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here

Sharp practice by a Bermondsey landlord is averted by a sensible application of the law


A brush-maker drilling holes in the backs of brushes

The Police courts weren’t there just for the prosecution of petty criminals, they could function quite well as a court of redress for ‘ordinary’ people. The magistrate’s courtroom  became a sort of  unofficial advice centre for London’s poor; quick, inexpensive, and accessible. Men like Mr Partridge at Southwark offered their opinions on a range of day-to-day problems and sometimes, in cases like this, upheld the law in favour of the ‘little man’.

Thomas Clark was a brush maker who supplied a number of businesses in the Bermondsey area. It was a family affair, his wife helping him to make and repair brushes. The couple lived in Hunter Street, off Dover Road, renting a room there. 50 years later this was a dreadfully run down and poor area, and in 1869 it was hardly a fashionable address.

The Clarks were struggling to make ends meet and had fallen behind with their rent. This was fairly common in nineteenth-century London and landlords were often quick to move in and evict tenants. Equally tenants were known to do midnight flits, packing up their belongings and moving in with relatives or friends while they found somewhere else to live. The frequency with which people abandoned homes when they were in arrears is celebrated in the popular early twentieth-century music hall song, ‘My Old Man’ (popularised by Marie Lloyd):

We had to move away,
‘Cos the rent we couldn’t pay
The moving van came round just after dark
There was me and my old man
Shoving things inside the van
Which we’d often done before let me remark
We packed all that could be packed
In the van, and that’s a fact
And we got inside all we could get inside
Then we packed all we could pack
On the tail board at the back
Till there wasn’t any room for me to ride.

Written & Composed by F. Leigh and C. Collins, performed by Marie Lloyd

One of the strategies landlords applied was to seize the goods of tenants who hadn’t paid them. This ‘distraint of goods’ was legal but only after they had served notice and given the tenants time to pay.

Thomas Clark was 11s behind with his rent and his landlady was making threats to evict them.  Thomas now decided to lock up his room and move his family elsewhere while he worked out what to do. Was is going to try and avoid paying what he owed? Or was he genuinely hoping to find a solution? It is impossible to know from such a distance but his landlady wasn’t keen to take the risk.

Since he’d left all his tools in the room Clark sent  girl to fetch some of them. But when she arrived she was met by the landlady who ‘took the key from her and bundled her out’. When Thomas visited on the following day all his possessions were gone, cleared out by Thomas Farrell, a ‘sworn broker’ called in by the landlady.

The Clarks had now lost their home and the tools they required for their livelihood. It was a disaster and so Thomas turned to the courts for help. He summoned Farrell to the Southwark Police Court and appeared their to prosecute him for illegal distraint in November 1869.

Thomas Clark complained that Farrell (and his son) had seized his goods but given no notice and left him no inventory. He calculated that they had taken £7 worth of items when he owed just 11s in rent. Mrs Clark supported her husband’s claim. She said she was there  when Farrell had arrived at the property demanding the rent arrears and told him her husband would deal with it when he got home in the evening. Farrell refused and demanded and extra 5s costs on top of the rent that was owed. When she was unable to pay the pair began to remove the brush-making tools from the room.

Farrell’s son said he had left an inventory and claimed not to know that he had to give notice of distraint of goods. Mr Partridge ignored his excuses and told the pair that they had acted illegally. He ordered that they return the goods as soon as the rent was paid, and only the 11s, nothing more. If they failed to do so they would be liable to pay the Clarks the full value (£7) of the tools less the rent, in other words a sum of £6 9s plus 21 costs.

In the end it was a compromise that applied the law fairly. Thomas Clark did owe 11s rent and the magistrate acknowledged that. But he could hardly be excepted to find the money if he couldn’t work to earn the money to pay it. The Farrells had been too eager to make a profit from the brush maker’s difficulties and now the law was holding them to account. In this way the Police Court magistrate was regulating daily life in the capital and doing it quickly before a worse situation arose.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 27, 1869]