‘Sisters’ show solidarity as their bigamist husband is gaoled

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One of the more unusual crimes to reach the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey was bigamy. I say ‘unusual’ because amongst all the violence, theft and fraud it appears to represent a more ‘civil’ offence (legally speaking). Like divorce, or breach of promise, we might have expected it to be dealt with by the civil courts rather than the criminal. But unusual also, because it was rare.

Bigamy was contained within the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 (14 and 15 Vict. c.100) which stated:

Whosoever, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife, whether the second marriage shall have taken place in England or Ireland or elsewhere, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for any term not exceeding seven years.

 In 1878 Walter Horace Bartlet, a 22 year-old carpenter living in Friern Park, North London, appeared at Hampstead Police court charged with that offence. Both his wives were in court to witness the hearing but Emma Bartlett (his first and only legal spouse) was not permitted to give evidence under the terms of the legislation on bigamy.

Bartlet’s sister was also present, having been subpoenaed by the police, and she told the court that her brother had married Emma ( neé Hughes) at Handsworth Old Church in  Birmingham in May 1878. Walter had left the midlands and come to London for work and had found digs in Finchley where he met Emily Young. Emily was a domestic servant who lived with her mother in North Finchley.

The pair had courted ‘for three or four months’ before Walter popped the question. He never once told Emily he was already married and on the 7 December the couple were wed at St John the Baptist’s church, Hoxton. Poor Emily was informed on her wedding night that her husband was already married and it was her that got in touch with Emma in Birmingham.

In court the women stood side by side in solidarity, both having been wronged by a man that had deceived them. Mrs Emma Bartlett signed the charge sheet and the magistrate formally committed the young carpenter to take his trial at the Old Bailey. On the 13 January Walter pleaded guilty as charged and was sent to prison for twelve months.

The law has changed little since 1861: it is still an offence that carries a prison sentence (although there is now an allowable defence for the person that genuinely believed their former spouse was dead). In 2008 Roderick Sangster (a former Church if Scotland minister) was sent to prison for three years for marrying one woman while still being married to another. He probably didn’t help his case by skipping bail and going on the run, he also ran up large debts in his wife’s name, forging her name on a loan agreement.

As with the Victorian case it was Sangster’s wives that were the victims here, which perhaps help explain why this offence is dealt with alongside others which leave someone hurt, emotionally, physically or financially.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 29 December, 1878]

Bigamy was rare but for other articles in which it features see:

Is it better to plead guilty to bigamy than risk prison for debt?

The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)

‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London

Is it better to plead guilty to bigamy than risk prison for debt?

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It is fairly unusual to find a case about bigamy in the summary courts of the capital. Accusations that an individual was already married must have been reasonable common given the reality that working class men and women cohabited quite frequently in the 1800s, and the Old Bailey heard over 1500 trials for bigamy between 1800 and 1900. Of those close to 85% resulted in a conviction and most (515 out of 1305) took place in the last two decades of the century.

In 1846 there were 12 cases and only Robert Furness escaped a guilty verdict. You may be surprised to discover that a conviction of bigamy could earn you a sentence of transportation overseas for no less than seven years. All of the accused in 1846 were men but women could also be prosecuted.

However, as I suggested they don’t often appear in the newspaper reports unless, as in the case of Charles Brindley, they were unusual. Brindley, a Spitalfields silk manufacturer, was brought up at Worship Street Police court in September 1846 and accused of several counts of bigamy. The court was told he had no less than four wives but little detail was produced.

Brindley then confessed to marrying twice without either wife being aware of it. This should have led him to face trial but the magistrate released him, so why did do this? It seems that along with the accusation that he was a polygamist Charles Brindley was in serious debt. An officer from the Sheriff’s court was after him and he seems to have confessed to bigamy to avoid being thrown into debtor’s prison.

If that was his ruse it didn’t work; as he left the court the Sheriff’s man was waiting for him and he was led away to face his creditors. Should we feel sorry for him? It seems that he made a lot of promises he couldn’t keep, both to those he traded with and to the women he formed relationships with. In the end it all unraveled and Brindley would be ruined. So I have some (limited) sympathy.

Just two years before Brindley was arrested by the Sheriff’s man the liability that would lead you to debtor’s prison was set at £20 (a significant amount) and this went some way to saving thousands from the horror that Dickens’ experienced as a child. Following a change in the law in 1869 the number of people in debt was cut significantly but individuals could still be sent to gaol for up to six weeks (if not indefinitely any more). Even in the early twentieth century there were still close to 12,000 in prison for debt. Theoretically you can still go to prison for debt but it is thankfully highly unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 03, 1846]

The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the 1800s

On Sunday the 4th February 1855 Mary Ann Falconer was preparing dinner in her home just off the Ratcliffe Highway. There was a loud rap at the door and the sounds of people in the street outside. Mary described the crowd as a ‘mob’ and noticed one woman stood out from the crowd.  Her name was also Falconer (Jemima Falconer) and she demanded that Mary hand over her husband, whom she believed was inside, or let her in. When Mary refused Jemima smashed five of her windows.

The police were called and soon Jemima was in custody, arrested by PC Joseph Duble (95H) and taken to the nearest police station. On the Monday Jemima Falconer was up before Mr Yardley, the Thames Police Court magistrate on a charge of criminal damage.

Given that Mary and Jemima shared a common surname the magistrate wanted to know if they were related, they were not he was informed. So was Mary living with Jemima’s husband as the prisoner suggested?

‘She claims him’ said Mary ‘but she has no right to him, for she has another husband living’.

At this point an ‘elderly weather-beaten sailor’ stepped forward and announced that he was Mr Falconer and was ‘lawfully married’ to Mary. Jemima now piped up to complain that he was also married to her. ‘You married me first’, she insisted.

‘What business had you to have two wives?’ Mr Yardley asked the old seaman. Falconer now tried to explain that he’d known Mary was some years and she’d told him she was a widow. While he was at sea she’d posted the banns for their marriage and on his return he’d felt pressured (by her and some of the community) to go through with it.

He soon regretted his decision however:

‘She helped me spend all my wages, and then another man claimed her as his wife, and I found out she had another husband, to whom she’d been married 8 or 10 years before’.

It was now a scandalous case of bigamy, and Mr Yardley warned Mary she could face a sentence of seven years’ transportation if she was convicted. Mary tried to protest that the sailor had taken her from her husband against her will and ruined her but the old seaman denied this vehemently, pointing out that it was her who had put up the banns for their forthcoming marriage, not him.

‘Plenty of people can prove what I say’ claimed Mary but the magistrate’s patience was running out. He was trying a case of criminal damage, not a complex affair of bigamy and he wanted to no more lies in his court. Why had she smashed the Falconer’s windows ?

‘I wanted bread sir, and where could I go but to my husband?’

‘He not your husband, woman’, said the justice, ‘You have no claim on him whatever’.

The gaoler said he knew the woman to have been in court before and the policeman confirmed it. ‘I believe she has three husbands living’ PC Duble added, ‘I known her to be a most desperate and disorderly prostitute’.

‘I thought so’ commented the magistrate, ‘A very pretty character we have of you, woman. I sentence you to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for 14 days, as a disorderly prostitute’.

At least she avoided the more serious accusation of bigamy.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, February 06, 1855]

A cheesemonger runs, but he can’t hide

Ludgate Hill by Camille Pissarro, 1890

John Alfred Smith worked for a cheesemonger in the City of London (who had premises on Ludgate Hill), but in October 1890 Smith was summoned before Mr Denham at Wandsworth Police Court, to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and family.

The prosecution was brought by the Poor law Guardians of Clapham and Wandsworth and therefore fell under Denham’s jurisdiction. Prosecuting, Mr Charter explained that Smith’s wife and her five children had applied for relief on the 30th August of that year.The circumstances of her application are not made clear, but it would seem that at some Smith simply didn’t come home.

What was established was that Smith had run his own business in Battersea but this seems to have collapsed and forced him to seek work elsewhere. With his business in tatters it the man appears to have decided his family was just too much for his pocket to maintain, and he abandoned them to the parish. However, there may have been another reason for his flight: in short, another woman.

Answering the summons before the magistrate Smith made the bold move of denying that he was married to the woman at all. He said no proper marriage had taken place and added that they had never lived together long enough for the relationship to be established as such. One wonders then how she managed to produce no less than five children.

Mrs Smith’s sister was called to give evidence and she described how Smith had taken her sibling, aged just 16, to Brighton ‘on the pretense of marrying her’. While no record of the marriage could be found it seems that there was at least anecdotal evidence of the union. Smith had, his sister-in-law swore, declared on their return that they were married. Mrs Smith also appeared in court to confirm that she was indeed married to the man in dock.

This was good enough for Mr Denham. Regardless of the veracity of her statement or that of her sister he thought it appalling that a woman and five children could be abandoned  in such a way. Smith ‘was morally guilty, whether she were his wife or not’. Moreover now it emerged that Smith had taken a new wife since his desertion, ‘a young woman who was suffering from nervous prostration brought about by his arrest’.

So it would seem that Smith had simply had enough of his former life. Abandoning Battersea, his failing business and its debts, and his wife and kids he relocated to the City and found work and a new (and younger) partner. Unfortunately for his attempt to disappear completely failed just as his business had, the state (in the person of the Clapham and Wandsworth Poor Law Union) caught up with him. The magistrate, angered both by Smith callousness towards his family and his blatant disregard for his responsibilities sent him to prison for six weeks at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 17, 1890]

Late Victorian humour in the Police Courts

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The London Police Courts were the equivalent of today’s magistrates’ courts although they dealt with considerable more ‘civil’ and non-criminal business than the modern courtrooms do. In London Police magistrates (not members of the Police it should be said) sat alone not as  bench of three, and had considerable power to punish offenders. This was quick and faulty rough justice but it had its amusing moments and so the newspapers despatched their reporters daily to record the goings on in these summary courts.

The Illustrated Police News (which was not an official ‘police’ paper) was ‘one of Britain’s very first tabloids and one of the first periodicals to tap into the British public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation’.* It had dramatic printed covers and carried news from all over Britain about murders, robberies, accidents and disasters.

When the infamous Whitechapel murderer struck in the late summer of 1888 the IPL was on hand to provide a gruesome commentary on the horrors and alert its readers to possible sightings of the suspect.

It was a sensational newspaper in a period in which ‘sensation’ came to the fore in popular culture; the papers began life in the 1840s and benefitted from the rise in newspaper consumption, the development of ‘New Journalism’, as well as the Music hall, melodrama and much faster communications (with railways and the telegraph).

In February 1897 the IPN reported on the daily round of cases at the Police Courts as usual. There was a case of domestic  violence at Guildhall in the City, one of child neglect at Marylebone; violence between neighbours in the Borough was dealt with at Southwark; and a jealous lover was jailed for a week for beating up a young woman who spurned his attention.

All of this was fairly typical of the sorts of hearings magistrates conducted during the 1800s and, as again was normal, the press were careful to place some light relief amongst all these tales of human misery.

On 20 February 1897 there were two cases that served this purpose.

Patrick Sweeney was a 27 year-old comedian who was of ‘no fixed abode’. He had been charged with stealing a ‘safety bicycle’ belonging to an actor named George Power. Sweeney had taken the bike and then tried to sell it to a cycle manufacturer in Battersea for £5.

He was arrested by Detective Stephens and when asked his name he handed over his calling card. On this was printed: Patrick Sweeney: The Champion Clog and Jog Dancer’. In the South West London Police court Power testified to being the owner of the bicycle but when it was pointed out that Sweeney was a fellow entertainer he said: ‘Really? I don’t know him’, drawing considerable laughter from the public gallery. Poor Patrick clearly wasn’t as famous as Dan Leno.

The clog dancing comedian was committed for trial for the theft despite his protests that he had bought the bike in Scotland and knew nothing of what he was accused of.

Meanwhile over at Thames another case tickled the editor of the Illustrated Police News.

A man (unnamed) was summoned for an unspecified offence (probably domestic violence). The defendant (who was the husband of the complainant), told the magistrate – Mr Mead – that his stepfather had married his wife’s mother and that they had had a family.

‘Then you are married to your sister?’observed the magistrate.

‘Well I suppose its something like that; its a kind of dual relationship’ the man replied.

‘And you sister is your wife?’ Mr Mead continued, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and so playing to his audience. ‘It seems so’ came the ‘despairing’ response.

‘And you married your father’s daughter?’ Mr Mead continued, ‘I suppose I did – in law’.

‘Then your stepfather’s daughter is your sister, and she is also  your wife?’ concluded the justice.

‘Oh I don’t know. It beats me’ declared the defendant to raucous laughter.

We all need some cheering up from time to time and, as the Victorians knew, nothing beats laughing at the discomfort of others.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc,  Saturday, February 20, 1897]

*’The Illustrated Police News: “The worst newspaper in England”’, by BNA (http://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/author/violetmacdonald/) [accessed 20/2/2017]

A bigamist is finally cornered

   “Now come, you gentleman soldier, and won’t you marry me?”
“Oh no, my dearest Polly, such things can never be,
For married I am already and children I have three;
Two wives are allowed in the army but one’s too many for me.”

The Gentleman Soldier, Traditional

William Henry Brinsden Hinder had quite a handle* and seemingly quite  a number of wives.  It was (and is) an offence in law to marry multiple people in England and when he was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police Court William denied the charge. The evidence however, suggested he had married at least two, if not three women in his lifetime and had try to fake his own death to get out of at least one relationship.

Mr Henry Gwilliam, a newsagent and pork butcher from Cirencester deposed that he had been present when Hinder had married Fanny Sterry at the Baptist Chapel in Cirencester on 3 September 1887 (two years previously). A marriage certificate proved the veracity of his statement and the court was told the couple now had two children.

However the next witness was Jane Burns, a resident of Canning Town, who claimed to have lived with the accused in April 1880. She knew him as Henry William Brisden and he told her he was unmarried. Jane and Henry were married at Henley-on-Thames on 16 July 1881 in the local parish church. Jane said they had split up and he had gone to live with another woman, but he had then returned to her; she added that they had three children from the union.

The police constable that had arrested him told the court that when he had presented Hinder with Jane he declared ‘she is not my wife’. The prisoner had failed to provide sureties for his appearance in court and so was currently residing in Holloway Prison (which later became a women’s prison in 1903  and is now set to close).

It emerged in court that Hinder had appeared at Thames before, some three months earlier, charged on that occasion with threatening behaviour towards a women who claimed the pair were engaged to be married. He had told her he had been to a seance at which her dead father’s spirit had blessed their intended  marriage. At the time it was ‘stated that Hinder had three wives, and had been in the army’. While he was stationed at Aldershot he had paid for a newspaper advertisement to announce his death by drowning, and posed as a detective to write to his grieving wife adding ‘some hints as to obtaining a livelihood for herself and children’.

It seems he was a serial liar and bigamist and it had taken some time to bring him in as he had been traveling on the Continent. Now he had him the magistrate fully committed Hinder for trial. Life finally caught up with Hinder and on 24 June 1889 the judge at Old Bailey sent him to prison for five years penal servitude.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, June 16, 1889]

  • English slang for ‘name’