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

Three Counties Asylum central section seen from th

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]

Midsummer ‘madness’ at Marlborough Street

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There was much less understanding of mental health in the Victorian period than there is today. Public asylums were largely used as dustbins for the unwanted mentally ill poor, while private ones attempted to treat the ‘mad’ relatives of the better off. Some families simply locked their disturbed relatives away in the attic, too embarrassed to be seen to have insanity ‘in the family’.

But of course there was probably just as much mental illness in the 1800s as there is today, but while modern society has slowly become more accepting of it our ancestors saw sufferers as objects of pity, danger or ridicule. Just as casual racism is evident in reading the Victorian press, so are jokes at the expense of the mentally ill.

Jane Roderick (also known as Jane Waddy) was brought up before the Marlborough Street police magistrate charged with being drunk and disorderly. She had been arrested in Leicester Square a few nights before, proclaiming the health of the Queen and Royal family loudly to anyone in the vicinity.

She was still quite loud when she stood in the dock as she explained her behaviour to him. Jane told the justice that the reason she had undertaken her own public celebration was because she had heard the good news that the sons of Her Majesty ‘had been admitted into the House of Parliament to assume their rights as the Royal family without the consent of Parliament’, which she deemed a good thing.

It was such a good thing, she continued, that she felt duty bound to drink a toast (or two) in port wine.

She then entered into an elaborate story: she was, she said, born in Kent and was a ‘woman of Kent’. Her uncle worked in the Queen’s gardens, she claimed, and so she had brought a rose for him to plant for the Queen. Her father had made a communion table at Chislehurst, and now she heard the Queen was ‘ready to support her sons’. Finally she added that she was widowed and one of her sons lived in a vicarage at Greenwich under the Queen’s care.

It was probably a mix of fact and fantasy, but it was delivered in a chaotic manner that suggested that the poor woman was not in full control of herself. That is certainly how the press depicted her.

Mr Vine, the court’s gaoler, now appeared to give evidence to the fact that the same woman had been up in court on the same charge four months earlier, and had given exactly the same story in her defence.

At this Jane either affected deafness or really was unable to hear what the man said. On it being repeated to her she admitted to having been drinking: ‘I had a “little drop” then, of course, and unfortunately I have been given to it since my husband’s death’.

Mr Cooke, the magistrate, turned to her and asked her if she had any friends locally. She had claimed to have been born in Poland Street (which prompted titters of laughter in court, but why is not clear). In the 1880s it was quite a respectable place in Soho with a number of artisans and tradesmen living there. Jane replied that her sister-in-law lived nearby, and then told him (somewhat randomly) that she was the daughter of a carpenter, and that one of the guardians of the poor in Lambeth had a mortgage on her fathers house.

Again, this may well all have been true but it didn’t really answer the magistrate’s questions.

He declared: ‘I think you are not right in your mind. You will be sent down to..’

‘Sent down! Where?’ interrupted Jane.

‘To the House of Detention for a week; but they will not put you in the cell’.

She thanked him and added, ‘I shall charge you 13s for this; and if you have not money to pay, why, spout your ticker!’

This last remark brought the house down in laughter, clearly amusing the court reporter who added that she then left ‘with a  jaunty air’, calling the gaoler to ‘order her brougham [her carriage] to drive her to Hanwell’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 21, 1885]

Happy solstice everyone!