‘He said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

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It took a lot for women to stand up to their husbands in the Victorian period. Theoretically the law protected victims of abuse but this often meant that violent men were fined, bound over to the keep the peace, or imprisoned if they beat their wives or partners. None of these options was ideal for the women involved; two of them directly impacted the family budget and the third was often deemed to be ineffectual. Poor Londoners believed that magistrates could enforce separation orders or sanction a divorce of sorts but this wasn’t in their power however much they might have liked to use it.

This didn’t stop women bringing their partners to court however and throughout the 1800s they came in their droves. One such woman was Mary Norris. Mary was a bricklayer’s wife living in the East End of London. She was probably in her late 30s (as her husband Henry was 40 in 1879) and she was regularly abused and beaten by him.

Women put up with a lot before they went to law. This was very much a last resort because taking your husband to court was a drastic move that often had unwanted consequences. Quite apart from the financial consequences of losing a breadwinner or incurring a fine, or the public shame of admitting that your marriage was in trouble, a woman could expect retribution from her partner immediately or soon after the return to the family home.

So Mary was not only desperate for the abuse to stop she was also brave. She explained to the Worship Street magistrate that Henry had come home on Monday night late from work, having been out drinking for several hours. As soon as he stepped through the door the abuse began.

‘he took up a knife and threatened to stab her; said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

It was nothing new, she told Mr Newton (the magistrate), she

was dreadfully afraid of him doing her some violence, as he had repeatedly beaten and threatened her with the same knife. She went in bodily fear’ she added.

Other witnesses testified to Henry being drunk that night, and to his threats and an officer of the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children appeared. Mr Moore stated that he believed Norris already carried a previous conviction for assaulting Mary. This is interesting because it tells us that there were organizations involved in prosecuting violent husbands and father at this time, charities that took on a role that is now performed by social services.

His evidence was confirmed by an officer at the court who said Norris had been up before the justice on four previous occasions, ‘three times sent to prison’, and once bound over. The message was clearly not getting through to him and Mary was still at risk. But there was little the magistrate could do. He ordered the bricklayer to find two sureties to ensure he kept the peace for three months (at £10 each) but Henry refused. He opted for prison and was taken away.

Mary’s best option was to leave him and get as far away as possible, but that was almost impossible. The law would only really act when things had gone too far. If Norris did his wife more serious harm – by wounding or killing her – then he would be locked up for a long time, for life or be executed. Not that those outcomes were likely to be of any use to Mary if she was dead.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, May 21, 1869]

Class wars in Hampstead as a dog gets amongst the model boats

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Whitestone Pond, Hampstead Heath in the 1920s

Mr Horace Lister was a member of the respectable middle class. He lived in Kilburn with his wife and family, and practiced as a barrister. On Sundays he enjoyed nothing more than taking his kids up to Hampstead Heath so they could sail their model boats on Whitestone Pond.

On the 29 April 1893 Lister was up at the pond with his children enjoying the spring sunshine and joining in with all their other families floating their yachts and other craft. I can picture the scene because in the 1970s I can remember my father taking myself and my brother to watch the boats and walk on the heath.

It was there he told me tales of Dick Turpin and his famous ride to York, and how the notorious highwayman had shot at his pursuers, leaving holes in the walls of the nearby Spaniard’s Inn. It was a tall tale, but I didn’t discover this till much later.  Perhaps Mr Lister was equally inventive, or shocked his children with stories from the courts he attended. I doubt he expected to feature in one that day.

As he watched his children play he saw a dog launch itself into the water and chase the boats. The animal was ‘fetching’ the boats “without being asked to do so” (as he later observed). When it grabbed hold of his daughter’s with its teeth Lister shouted at it to drop it. He had already noted who owned the dog and so he called across to him to keep better control of his beast.

His attempts to make the dog drop his child’s toy were as ineffectual as his attempt to get the animal’s owner to intervene so he decided to take the law into his own hands.

Taking his umbrella he struck the poor dog several times across its neck and back, to force it to dislodge the boat. Seeing this, the animal’s owner rushed over and caught hold of the barrister by the arm. Arthur Smith was a coachman and strongly built, and he remonstrated with his dog’s attacker. Smith threatened to ‘duck’ him in the pond if he didn’t leave his pet alone.

There were several witnesses to the skirmish and at least one, a gentleman horse rider who was passing by and saw the whole episode, was happy to corroborate Lister’s version of events when the case came before the justices at Hampstead Police Court. Mr. O’Connor, the equestrian, said he was worried that the rougher man was about to throw his victim right into the water. Lister’s ten year-old son also testified to the veracity of his father’s story, as we might expect him to.

As for Arthur Smith, well he was outnumbered and quite literally, outclassed. As a member of the working class, and not a very well respected one at that (coachmen and cab drivers had a reputation for being ill-mannered and surly) he was never going to win this battle. He claimed his dog had only gone into the water the once, and that he’d ‘called it out immediately’. He described the attack as unnecessarily violent and the charge as ‘wicked’; his dog was valuable and it had been badly hurt he added.

Not surprisingly the bench sided with the barrister and fined Smith 10or seven days imprisonment if he couldn’t pay. He paid up and left, and hopefully chose a different route to walk his dog in the future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 11, 1893]

‘She had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’: violence and crime in the St. Giles rookery

PC Baker (108G) was on duty in Buckeridge Street, St Giles in mid April 1844 when he heard a shout of ‘murder!’ In the mid nineteenth century Buckeridge Street (also known as Buckbidge) was a part of the notorious St. Giles ‘rookery’. aaa445A place full of  ‘lodging-houses for thieves, prostitutes, and cadgers’ (according to Henry Mayhew) and somewhere the New Police generally proceeded with caution.

Shouts of ‘murder’ were hardly uncommon here, and were probably often ignored (as they were in Whitechapel in the 1880s). However, PC Baker chose not to ignore this and entered the yards of number 26, following the noise he’d heard. There he found a man and a woman grappling with each other, and saw that the man had a life pressed to the woman’s throat.

Seeing the policeman the man turned and ran into the house and Baker followed as fast as he could. He could see the woman was bleeding from two cuts on her neck but the wounds weren’t too serious.

Inside he found her assailant in the apartment and immediately noticed a frying pan on the fire in which it seemed that metal was being melted. ‘You have been melting pewter pots’, PC Baker accused the man. ‘Yes, that is the way I get my living’ the other admitted. Pewter pots were frequently stolen from the numerous pubs in the capital and once melted down they were very hard to identify, so it was the normal practice of thieves to dispose of them this – turning stolen goods into saleable metal.

Looking across the dark room Baker now noticed that a woman was in bed there. At first she seemed asleep but then he realised she was merely drunk and lying in a comatose state. Her name was Bishop and the man he had caused (and arrested) was called James Robinson. Robinson was searched and the knife was found on in.

On the following day (the 16 April 1844) Robinson was up before the ‘beak’ at Clerkenwell Police court. He was charged attempted murder by the girl he’d attacker, Mary Ann Macover  ‘a well-looking, but dissipated’ nineteen year-old. She alleged that the three of them (Robinson, herself and Bishop) and been drinking before a quarrel had broken out. Robinson had dared her to drink half a pint of gin in one go and when she’d refused he abused her.

He chased her out into the yard with the knife, nearly bit off her ear in the struggle, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the policeman ‘she had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’. The wounds to her throat were visible to all those watching in court but I don’t get the feeling that the magistrate had that much sympathy with her or was that interested in the assault.

What was interesting to the law however was the melting down of (probably) stolen pewter pint pots. Moreover Robinson was familiar to the police and courts in the area having been previously convicted. He also went under the name of Lewis and this made it very likely that the justice, Mr Combe, would take the opportunity to lock him away.

Robinson denied the assault but it was much harder for him to explain away the pan of pewter melting on the fire. Mr Combe decide to send him to the Clerkenwell house of correction for two months at hard labour adding that he would grant Mary Ann a warrant for his arrest for the assault. This was not to be executed until he had served his full sentence however, meaning he would be rearrested as he was released from the gaol. It was then up to her to prosecute the supposed attempt on her life at the Sessions.

This seems the wrong way around for us today. The desire to punish a man for an implied property crime (the theft of pewter pint pots), instead of what seems very clearly to have been an actual violent crime (assault or attempted murder), is the opposite of what a magistrate would do now. But in 1844 assault had not been codified and the term covered a wide range of actions and was invariably prosecuted as a ‘civil’ action at the Sessions (or before a magistrate if it was less serious). It was the 1861 Offences against the Person Act that brought in the offences (such as GBH, wounding) that we are familiar with today and ushered in a less tolerant attitude towards casual violence.

St Giles was also a dreadful place with a terrible reputation for violence, crime, poverty and immorality. I doubt Mr Combe was as bothered by the violence (which he probably thought he could do nothing about) as he was by the property crime. By locking up Robinson for a couple of months, and putting him on notice thereafter, he at least took one thief off the streets  for a while and gave the local landlords some relief from the loss of their drinking vessels.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 17, 1844]

The unwanted dinner guest

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Let’s not beat about the bush, James Bull was an alcoholic. In 1840 the papers referred to him as ‘dissipated’ by they meant that he was a drunk. Bull was, technically at least, a married man with an eleven year old child, but he had separated from his wife some time ago.

Mrs Bull was a ‘woman of steady and trustworthy principles’ and whether she had thrown him out or he had simply left isn’t clear. What is evident is that James was on his uppers; out of money he needed to rely on his long suffering wife to support him. She worked as a domestic servant in the Earl of Darlington’s London home at Upper Brook Street.

James was in the habit of visiting his estranged spouse and demanding money with menaces. He had developed a strategy of calling when he knew the house had guests for dinner, forcing his way into the kitchens and threatening to prevent her from overseeing the dinner service.

This would not only have been an embarrassment to Mrs Bull, it could have put her employment in jeopardy. In mid April 1840 James went too far, and caused a disturbance at the house which was brought to the attention of the Earl (or the head of his household staff at least). James Bull was arrested and taken before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of creating a disturbance.

Mrs Bull told the justice, Mr Long, that she allowed her husband six shillings a week from her wages but it was ‘quite impossible’ for her to do more for him. She had her child to look after and James was perfectly capable of finding work. He was ‘strong, able-bodied , and capable, if so disposed, of keeping himself’.

In his defence James said he was ‘without money, and he had not tasted food for some time’ which was why he’d visited his wife at her work.

After all, he added, he ‘had a right to’ ask her for help.

That was as maybe but he had no right to abuse her, or impact her work and endanger her employment. And things were worse than this the court discovered. Mr Long pressed her and she admitted that in the past few weeks James had threatened and assaulted her.  Having ‘elicited’  this information from Mrs Bull the magistrate decided to intervene in this domestic squabble. He committed James to the Sessions where he would have to answer for his actions, and find bail in the meantime to avoid being remanded in prison.

It was a serious message to James to leave his wife alone and accept the small amount of charity she had volunteered. It was also an injunction to him to give up his ‘dissipated’ lifestyle and find honest work. If not he could expect to be seeing the inside of many more police and prison cells in the future and could kiss goodbye to seeing his wife and child ever again.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 16, 1840]

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]

‘They have treated my young lady shamefully’: a schoolmaster has his day in court

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In the early modern period the Church (consistory) courts were sometimes used to prosecute individuals for defamation. Tim Meldrum (who taught me when I was an undergraduate) discussed how the London consistory courts were used by women who wanted to defend themselves against accusations of sexual misconduct – the oft heard cries of ‘whore!’ By the eighteenth century libels such as this were being dealt with by the magistracy within a wider application of the laws surrounding assault. Assault, which we normally associate with violence, could also involve threats and words deemed to cause an offence.

There is a kind of logic here: insults and attacks on the character of individuals undermined good social relations and it was the key role of the magistrate in the long eighteenth century to preserve the peace within society. Libel is often deemed to be more serious because it usually involves written statements of defamation. In the late 1800s it carried the possibility of a hefty fine or imprisonment by default and so we are more likely to find these cases at the Old Bailey or pursued privately through the civil courts if the plaintiffs had the money to do so.

In 1878 Robert John Pitt placed an advertisement in the papers for a nurse. Pitt was an agent (we don’t know in what business) operating out of premises in Bread Street in the City of London. John Minton, a schoolmaster, saw the advert and called at the address listed to say that he knew of a suitable candidate for the post.

The young woman in question lived in Wales but was keen to come to the capital. The reason she was so eager to come it seems, was because she and Minton were in a relationship. Whether this was made clear to Mr Pitt at the time is unknown.

The woman was taken on but very soon dismissed on the grounds, Pitt said, that she ‘was not at all what he expected’. Pitt complained to Minton that:

‘she was dirty in her habits, and he asked her to remonstrate with her’.

She emerged in a hearing at the Mansion House Police court in April 1883, where it was reported in The Standard. The case was presented by Mr Nicholls, a lawyer engaged on behalf of Mr Pitt. The Lord Mayor was in the chair and he made it clear that it wasn’t his role to judge the case, simply to determine whether a libel had occurred and so the charge should be passed to be heard by a jury.

Following the dismissal of the unnamed Welsh girl from the Pitt household nothing had been heard from Minton or the woman Mr Nicholls told the court. Then, in late 1882 a number of letters began to arrive in Bread Street. These affected ‘the character of himself and his wife’ and at first he simply burned them.

When they started to become more frequent he took it more seriously and kept them. The letters contained statements that could not be repeated in court, the lawyer declared, so we might assume the language used was defamatory or the accusations made scandalous. The reading public probably did want to know but, like us, they were kept in the dark to preserve public decency and the good name of Mr Pitt and his spouse.

Mr Pitt appeared and proved the receipt of the letters by producing some of them in court. The case was serious enough for the police to pursue it and detective-sergeant Brett testified that he had been despatched to Wales to arrest Minton and bring him to London. He’d served a warrant on him at West Street, Pembroke Dock on the previous Wednesday and he had accompanied him back to the capital, he now produced him before the Lord Mayor.

Minton had come quietly and happily stating:

‘Yes, I have been expected this; I have the whole of my defence ready. I will fight it out, as they have treated my young lady shamefully’, adding, ‘I do not wish to evade the matter, two of the letters are signed in my own name’.

The nurse, it was revealed, was now Mrs Minton. The case was adjourned until the following week while the Lord Mayor considered what he’d heard. A week later Minton was back up before the Lord Mayor and a handwriting expert confirmed that the letters and postcards sent were written by the schoolmaster. After a lengthy cross-examination of the witnesses involved the Lord Mayor decided there was enough evidence to send this for a formal trial and committed Minton but bailed him on his own recognizances of £40.

He appeared at the Old Bailey on the 30 April that year where he pleaded guilty to libelling MRs Elizabeth Pitt. He was sent to prison for a month, fined £30 and ordered to enter into recognizances (of a further £30) not to repeat the offence again. Imprisonment must had meant that he too would lose his job, and his reputation – important for even a lowly schoolmaster – so the future for this married couple must have been an uncertain one. One does wonder what exactly he wrote about Mrs Pitt and what his future wife’s experience was of working there. What exactly were the ‘dirty habits’ that the Pitts complained of? Sadly, since he pleaded guilty and no details were therefore given in court, we can only imagine.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1883; The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1883]

‘I wish I had finished the pair of them’: dark threats at Clerkenwell

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The Three Counties Lunatic Asylum, Bedfordshire, (c.1871)

On the morning of the 22 February 1899 Eliza Williams and her husband Herbert were in bed at their home in Shepparton Road, Islington. Suddenly the door of the bedroom hurts open and a man sprang in armed with a large knife.

He rushed at the couple and aiming for Eliza,  he grabbed her arm and stabbed her in the side. He drove the blade in deeper and as she ‘slipped off the bed, he stabbed her in the breast’. Herbert roused himself and tried to protect his wife, charging at the attacker. But the man was in violent homicidal rage and was too strong for him. Herbert was brushed aside and thrown back onto the mantelpiece.

Herbert recovered his wits and wrestled with the maniac just as he was attempting to ‘rip open [Eliza’s] stomach’. Eventually the trio were dragged into the passageway as the fight continued and Herbert managed to get he knife out of the man’s hands. Soon afterwards the police arrived and the attacker was overpowered and taken away to the nearest police station. Eliza was badly hurt but lived and was rushed to hospital.

It took a while to come to court because the key victim, Eliza, was too ill to give evidence but in early April 1899 the case was heard at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr Horace Smith. Mr Smith now heard that the attacker was none other than Eliza’s father, Reuben Dunham, a 59 year-old carpenter from Wheathamstead in Hertfordshire.

Reuben was a troubled individual who had been residing in the Three Counties Lunatic Asylum near Stotfold before he’d absconded. At the time of the attack Eliza had applied for a summons to have him brought before a justice, perhaps for issuing threats against her. Was he unhappy about her marriage, or something else? Nothing is clear from the court report in The Standard but Dunham was clearly unhappy about something.

The detective dealing with the case, Inspector Collett, testified that when he had charged the carpenter with the attack he had exclaimed:

‘If a man is a man he can look at a man; if he is a scoundrel he turns his head away. This job has been going on for 18 months. I wish I had finished the pair of them’.

At Clerkenwell this level of brooding violence continued as Dunham was fully committed to trial for the assault and wounding. Turning to Herbert he told him:

‘You are a lucky man to be alive. I should like to have another cut at her’.

He was then led away to await the judgement of a jury in due course. He didn’t have long to wait. On the 10 April he was tried at Old Bailey and convicted of wounding and attempted murder. While he had been in Holloway Prison the medical officer there examined him and declared him to be sane, despite what seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary. Dunham apologised for attacking his daughter and son-in-law and blamed it on his drinking. He said ‘he thought his daughter was going to take all his things away’ but had no other reason for what he’d done.

Despite the jury hearing that Eliza was lucky to survive the assault on her they recommended Dunham to mercy. However, he now admitted several other offences and to being previously convicted. The judge sentenced him to seven years’ penal servitude.

Thanks to the Digital Panopticon we know what happened to Reuben after this. We also have a description:

Eyes bl[ue]. Hair gr[ey] (bald top). Complexion f[ai]r. Height 5′ 3″.

He was granted a prison license (parole) in June 1904 and released from Gloucester prison on the 4 July aged 64.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 03, 1899]