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

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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. 

A hero of the Peninsula and Waterloo meets the ‘terror of Chelsea’: who comes out best?

Napoleon

I’ve just been revisiting the rise and fall of Napoleon in case I need to step in and provide some teaching cover for a colleague who is temporarily unwell. We all need to be prepared to teach outside of our specialism from time and as long as its not too far removed most jobbing historians can do it.

While Napoleon and the French Wars might seem a long way removed from my research area he is someone I have studied and be interested in for most of my reading life. As a child I quickly went from a love of Nelson to the man Nelson dedicated almost his entire career to thwarting. I saw Bonaparte as a brilliant mind, flawed by vaunting ambition, and ultimately let down by those closest to him and his inability to recognize when he had overstretched himself.

Of course while most of France adored him in the early 1800s much of the rest of Europe hated and feared him, most especially the English. He represented a challenge to British dominance and to the institution of hereditary European monarchy; he was a child of the revolution for all his abandonment of democracy. Most of all he wasn’t an aristocrat, he was – like so many of the men that rose through the ranks of the Imperial Army – a self-made man and the crowns of Europe had little time for that sort of success story.

The wars against France left a deep scar on Europe and on Britain and so those that served at Napoleon’s final defeat in Flanders were held in high esteem. Charles Miller was one such veteran of Waterloo – he had served throughout the whole of the Peninsula Campaign in Spain and Portugal, a war that did so much to undermine Napoleon’s grip on the European continent.

In 1838 (twenty years after Wellington’s victory at Waterloo) Charles Miller was serving with the Royal Veteran Battalion in Chelsea. He was quartered at Chatham and on Friday 12 October he had traveled to the Chelsea College to pick up some money that was owed to him. As he looked around for somewhere to spend the night he ran into a man named Thomas Ivey who promised to guide him to a suitable lodging house.

Unbeknown to the old soldier however, Ivey was a crook. He was well known to people in Chelsea as a thief and a rogue and Miller was exactly the sort of easy ‘mark’ he preyed upon. As Miller drew out his purse to buy some apples from a street seller Ivey pounced, snatched it, and ran off.

Miller raced after him but Ivey knew the streets and alleys around Jew’s Row much better than the outsider and he easily avoided him. The solider was persistent however, and eventually, with the assistance of the police, Ivey was captured and brought before the magistrates at Queen Square Police court.

Ivey tried to pretend that while he had met the veteran of Waterloo he hadn’t robbed him; there had been a misunderstanding and he ‘make it all right’. For his part Miller was at pains to say he’d not been drinking (often a charge leveled at those that had their purses lifted when visiting the capital). He had lost everything he had – a sovereign and four half crowns – and so was on his uppers.

The magistrate was determined that Ivey should face trial for this offence but was informed that the man had only recently bee released from Clerkenwell prison for a similar crime. That would surely count badly against him and the justice wanted to make sure they had all the details before sending him in front a judge and jury. So Thomas Ivey was remanded in custody for two days to get the report on his previous conviction.

Ivey paid dearly for his actions that day and I’m sure his choice of victim played a part. On 22 October he was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and sentenced to transportation. He remained in England until February 1840 when he sailed for Van Dieman’s land to start a 10-year term of exile. Thereafter he seems to have kept his nose clean and in 1846 he earned his ticket of leave. He was freed three years later on the 9 April 1849. He was still just 29 years of age, (being born in 1820, just a year before Napoleon died on St Helena).

What did he do next? Sadly the records don’t tell us that but perhaps he embraced his new start ‘down under’ and put his past life as ‘the terror of Chelsea’ behind him. Nor do we know what happened to Charles Miller, the old soldier that Ivey robbed. I doubt he got his purse back (certainly not the contents) so his immediate circumstances were difficult. Hopefully his regiment supported him because in 1838 he must have been at least in late 40s if not older, and it is likely that in all those years of service he would have picked up one or more injuries.  There was no ‘help for heroes’ in early Victorian England and precious little state support for veterans, despite the supposed affection in which the victors of Waterloo were held. Not for the first time I’m left wondering whether the criminal, in being transported to Australia had the better outcome here?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 15, 1838]