‘Your husband can take everything you have and sell it’. Why the right to vote really mattered.

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1882 saw an important breakthrough in women’s rights. Not quite as important as the vote perhaps, but more practical, at least for women who worked for a living (as most working-class women did). The Married Women’s Property Act (45 & 46 Vict. c.75) fundamentally changed the prevailing principle under which women who married became subservient to their husbands in law. The legal term of ‘feme covert’ effectively removed the rights of married women to any property they owned, including those they brought into the marriage or those they acquired afterwards, even if those goods were purchased with money they had earned themselves.

It was a disgraceful state of affairs that the 1882 act swept away. Women now had a legal identity; they could buy, sell and own property, and could sue and be sued in law. They were also now liable for any debts they ran up (so the new legal status has some drawbacks!)

However, while the act was passed in 1882 it was not applied retrospectively. This meant that women who married before the act became law were not protected by it. This led to the following situation at Westminster Police court in September 1888.

Two women came to see Mr Biron to ask for his help. Neither were named by the court reporter who seems to have been using their examples to highlight the limitations of the law in this area. The first applicant was a ‘decently dressed’ if poor woman whose husband had left her six months previously. She came to beg the magistrate for a separation order because he’d come back suddenly and had started to sell the contents of her home.

He didn’t work, she said, and chose instead to sell the things she’d bought with her own money. He had a history of violence towards her and she was now afraid that as well as stripping the family home of furniture and clothes he would start hitting her again.

‘You could have brought him here for the assault’, Mr Biron told her.

‘I did’, she said, breaking down in the witness box, ‘but, like a fool, I did did not go against him’.

She had brought him to court before for his violence but when asked to testify had, like so many women before and since, refused to give evidence against her abusive partner.

‘Can he take my bit of furniture?’

Having ascertained that she had married 18 years ago (in 1870) Mr Biron told her:

‘Your husband can take everything you have and sell it’.

‘It cannot be so cruel’, the woman exclaimed, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

The magistrate assured her that he would put a stop to any violence but there was nothing else he could do for her. ‘That is the law, madam’.

The second woman had a similar tale to tell. Her husband had lost a good job and didn’t seem inclined to look for another one. Instead he had started to sell their marital property, much of which she had scrimped and saved to acquire. He had even removed the children’s bed while they had been sleeping in it!

She too had been married since 1870 and so she too was unable to benefit form the 1882 legislation. Through her tears this woman told the magistrate that she could see no future for her and her children but the workhouse. ‘She bought the furniture, and if her husband could sell it, that was a bad law’.

Mr Biron agreed, ‘that is possible’ he said. The law had been altered he added, ‘but it doesn’t affect you’. This was little comfort to the poor woman who shuffled out of the box and made her way out of court.

It was ‘bad law’ and now I believe we wouldn’t legislate in such a way that only protected women after a certain point. There is an acceptance that retrospective legislation is sometimes necessary to redress long-standing grievances and legal wrongs. I cant imagine why this wasn’t done in the 1880s unless we are to understand that the male dominated political system didn’t think that women mattered that much, especially the wives of working-class men. Which is why, of course, women needed the vote. Once women had the vote men could no longer ignore their voices and their rights.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 10, 1888]

‘Take me back to prison; take me to my dungeon and my chains!’

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In most assault cases heard before the Metropolitan Police courts the magistrates had the option to fine or to imprison defendants. There was clear class bias in operation  and not simply because wealthier defendants could afford fines while poorer ones could not. There seems to have been an unwritten understanding that ‘respectable’ persons would be fined for their indiscretions while the ‘rougher’ element needed to be taught a harsher lesson.

Fines were levied on a sliding scale that also appears largely to have been at the discretion of the magistrate. For disorderly behaviour and drunkenness you might receive a penalty of a few shillings, for assault this could rise into towards a few pounds. If a justice wanted to punish someone severely he could impose a fine that he didn’t expect the prisoner to be able to pay, meaning that the culprit would end up serving a prison sentence by default.

Mr Schmidt (of the firm of Schmidt and Co. music publishers) was not your usual drunk or street brawler but in August 1869 he found himself facing a charge of assault at Marlborough Street Police court. What will quickly become clear is that Schmidt, while a respectable businessman, was clearly not in full command of his senses. This was to have dire consequences, especially so given his social rank.

The publisher was attending a performance (of what is not stated) at the Judge and Jury club in Leicester Square. This club (or these, as I think there might have been more than one in the capital) were gatherings where you might enjoy a fairly disreputable evening’s entertainment as this clipping describes:

‘The one I speak of met in an hotel not far from Covent-garden, and was presided over by a man famous in his day for his power of double entendre. About nine o’clock in the evening, if you went up-stairs you would find a large room with benches capable of accommodating, I should think, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty persons. This room was generally well filled, and by their appearance the audience was one you would call respectable. The entrance fee entitled you to refreshment, and that refreshment, in the shape of intoxicating liquor, was by that time before each visitant.

After waiting a few minutes, a rustle at the entrance would cause you to turn your eyes in that direction, when, heralded by a crier with a gown and a staff of office, exclaiming, “Make way for my Lord Chief Baron,” that illustrious individual would be seen wending his way to his appointed seat. […] the Lord Chief Baron called for a cigar and glass of brandy and water, and, having observed that the waiter was in the room and that he hoped gentlemen would give their orders, the proceedings of the evening commenced. A jury was selected; the prosecutor opened his case, which, to suit the depraved taste of his patrons, was invariably one of seduction or crim. con. Witnesses were examined and cross-examined, the females being men dressed up in women’s clothes, and everything was done that could be to pander to the lowest propensities of depraved humanity. 

These Judge and Jury Clubs after all are but an excuse for drinking. They are held at public-houses – there is drinking going on all the time the trial lasts, – nor could sober men listen unless they had the drink.’ 

                                       The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858

The emphasis on the heavy consumption of alcohol might explain Schmidt’s behaviour that night. According to the chief witness against him – Mr Brooks, the ‘Chief Baron’ himself – the publisher was acting in a very disorderly way, so much so that the Baron had to have a word with him. However, if he hoped that this would calm him down he was sadly mistaken. Schmidt leaped up from his seat, grabbed Brooks by the throat and screamed ‘I’m the vulture, I’m the vulture!’ at him.

It was a bizarre display and as Brooks tried to wrestle himself away he was knocked to the floor and his watch was trampled on. Eventually half a dozen other people rushed in to help pull the music publisher off him and Schmidt was subdued and handed over to the police.

The magistrate had heard enough to declare that this was a case that demanded a prison sentence not a fine and was about to hand that down when a man came into court waving his hands to get the justice’s attention. Edward Lewis said he was a friend of the accused and said that Schmidt was ‘labouring under a temporary aberration of intellect’.

In other words he was not himself and Lewis promised that he and others would take him under their care and look after him while he recovered. He was, he added, a ‘most respectable man’. Mr Knox turned to the wronged party to ask his opinion on the matter. The ‘Chief Baron’ was gracious: he said he would ‘very sorry to press severely on a respectable person under such circumstances’. He would leave to the magistrate to decided what to do with Mr Schmidt.

Mr Knox relented and ordered that  a fine of £5 be paid. Schmidt was removed to the cells while a messenger was sent to fetch his business partner and his cheque book. When he returned Schmidt was brought up and asked to make his payment to the court. This is where it could have all ended reasonably happily but Mr Schmidt was still possessed with whatever rage had caused him to overact in the Judge and Jury club.

He ‘seized the cheque book, flung it to the end of the room, shouting, “Take me back to prison; take me to my dungeon and my chains”.’

His wish was granted and the gaoler led him away to start a month’s incarceration in the local house of correction. It was a dreadful fall from grace and one, I fear, he will have struggled to recover from, despite the best efforts of his friends.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 16, 1869]

‘a malicious and vindictive woman’: Oysters and domestic abuse on the Portobello Road

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Domestic assault was endemic in late Victorian London. The summary (Police) courts were full of men being prosecuted by their wives or partners for acts of violence. In many cases the victim stopped short of following through with the prosecution, wanting to bring her errant husband to court but not to have him sent to gaol or fined. She knew that would have repercussions for her and her children, had she any. In some instances though the woman’s motivation was to gain a legal separation; divorce was difficult and expensive and effectively out of the question for the working classes. The alternative was a judicial separation, which, it was widely believed at least, was at the gift of the magistracy.1

Of course not all victims of domestic violence then (or now) were women. Women assaulted their husbands and not always in self-defense. It was rare by comparison but probably more common than court records suggest. If women were reluctant to prosecute their spouses then men had even more to lose, namely their reputation as a man. For a man who had to resort to the law to control his wife in the nineteenth century was no man at all.

However this is exactly the situation that John Spurgin found himself in in late July 1886. Spurgin and his wife ran oyster stalls, one on Portbello Road and one near Westbourne Park. Harriet Spurgin suddenly announced that she was leaving him to live with another man. The couple rowed and she left their home at 3 Carlton Bridge at four in the morning.

They may well have fought that night, as Harriett ended up with a black eye, which she claimed, had come from John. As far as he was concerned however, she was gone and he was on his own. Her property – her clothes and effects – were still in his rooms however, and under the law of the day he probably regarded them as belonging to him.  Harriett thought differently.

A dew days later she turned up at his oyster stall and demanded he return her things. He refused, they argued and she threw a large oyster and then a vinegar bottle at him. As he struggled with her she kicked him in the groin and declared she would ‘ruin him’ and that one or both of them would find themselves in a police cell that night.

He called a policeman over but because he hadn’t seen what happened he refused to intervene. Harriett went away but then returned a little while later to continue her abuse. Now she hit and kicked at him, drawing blood from a wound to his head. This time, fortunately, a constable did see the fracas and intervened. Harriett was taken into custody and the next day she was brought before Mr Cook at Marylebone Police court.

She protested her innocence, claimed that her ex had started it, and that he was withholding her property from her. All she wanted ‘was a separation order and her clothes’. Not surprisingly the magistrates sided with the man. He told her she was ‘a malicious and vindictive woman’ and sent her to prison for seven weeks with hard labour. I suspect that in the meantime John Sprrgin would have ruined her business and secured the oyster trade from both stalls. Harriett would have to hope that her new man was just as keen to live with her when she got out of gaol or her life was about to take a precipitous turn for the worse.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 03, 1886]

  1. This was probably an erroneous belief. Until 1895 and the passing of the 1895 Summary Jurisdiction (Married Women) Act, magistrates did not have any legal power to order couples to part. It seems they may have exercised some discretionary power though andperhaps, as with many changes to English law, the 1896 act simply legalized something that was already being practiced.

A deserted wife takes advantage of a change in the marriage laws

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In 1857 Parliament passed a landmark act that fundamentally altered the ability of married couples to obtain divorce. The Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) was only one step on the pathway to modern divorce law but it was an important one. In essence it enabled divorce to be dealt with by the civil not the ecclesiastical (church) courts so long as the grounds were adultery. It wasn’t equal (the nineteenth century was a deeply patriarchal society after all) so while men only had to prove that their wife had committed adultery women had to show an additional cause (such as cruelty or desertion).

One extra clause in the act allowed a woman to protect any earnings she had from falling into the hands of her husband if he deserted her. Previously men were deemed to own everything on marriage and so could walk away and take everything with them. This important legal change brought Louisa Lichfield to Clerkenwell Police court in July 1858 to ask for Mr Tyrwhitt’s help.

Mrs Lichfield was a ‘respectably dressed and very lady-like female’ who gave her address as 4 King Street, Lower Road, Islington. She applied to the magistrate for an order under section 21 of the  Matrimonial Causes Act to protect her property from Henry Lichfield, a greengrocer of Cross Street, Lower Road, Islington.

Louisa’s solicitor (Thomas Wakeling) explained that in February 1855 she had arrived home with her husband who, ‘without any provocation’, assaulted her and threw her out of their home, dislocating her shoulder in the process. He told her that ‘she had no business there, and that she should never enter his place again’.

She had pleaded with him and returned to him several times only to be shunned and rejected again and again. With no income or saving Louisa fell into poverty and went to ask help from the parish authorities of St Marylebone. They were unwilling to help and passed her to St Mary’s, Islington and even though Henry was well aware of her desperate situation he did nothing to help her.

Since that time she ‘had been partly supported by her friends and partly by her needle’ (in other words she earned money by sewing). In the meantime she had managed inherited some money and property from a deceased relative and now was frightened that Henry would claim it and take it from her. The new law enabled her to protect it and she was therefore seeking an order from Mr Tyrwhitt to do this. The magistrate was happy to oblige her.

I think this shows that Louisa, and/or her friends, well aware of the change in the law and how it might benefit her. She was lucky to have such allies in this situation as few women would have been to organize an effective legal challenge without them. Louisa was not a rich woman from a privileged background, she was the deserted wife of a small businessman, a member of the aspiring middle class. She was disadvantaged by the system but the 1857 act did at least go some way to protecting her from the worst her husband could do, and Louisa was an early beneficiary.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 29, 1858]

A second chance for the lad that strayed

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Augustus Harris (1852-1896)

It seems as if young John Davenport was trying to escape his environment and make a better life for himself. For a 14 year-old working-class lad like John there were few opportunities to scale the social ladder or win any kind of wealth or fame. An entrepreneurial boy might strike lucky and make a fortune in business; by contrast serious crime was a pathway out of poverty (albeit a rocky and precarious one).

I once had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with the Strictly Coming Dancing judge Len Goodman. Len told that growing up in East London he knew that his passport out of the area was dancing. It was that, he said, or football or becoming a gangster. While he loved football, dancing was his passion and what he was best at.

Entertainment was also John Davenport’s thing and he got a break, being selected as part of the touring company performing Augustus Harris’ Human Nature (written in 1885). Augustus Harris was a big name in late Victorian theatre. Dubbed the ‘father on modern pantomime’ Harris was manager of the Drury Lane Theatre and co-wrote a number of plays and pantomimes. Several of these will be familiar to modern readers including Babes in the Wood (1888), Beauty and the Beast (1890) and Cinderella (1895).

So it was a ‘big thing’ to be chosen by Harris and should have meant to start of a long career in show business. Unfortunately John found himself on the wrong sort of stage in June 1888, after being caught in the wrong sort of act.

At the beginning of June he was brought into the Bow Street Police court and charged with stealing a pocket-handkerchief. He was first remanded so enquiries could be made and these revealed his links to Harris and the theatre company. It also revealed that his father – a costermonger –  wasn’t keen to see his boy fly the nest, at least not if it meant he would be excluded from his son’s earning potential.

As a 14 year-old thief with a previous unblemished record the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, was minded to be lenient. A member of the St Giles’ mission appeared and said he would be happy to find the boy a temporary home so long as the father would ‘give an undertaking not to interfere with him in future’. Mr Wheatley (from the mission) was clearly keen to remove the old bad influences from John and set him on a better road. Mr Davenport however refused to play along and said he would rather see John imprisoned for month instead.

Mr Vaughan told the father that he was extremely selfish and saw through his attempt to conceal his avaricious desires on his son’s earning under a cloak of parental indignity. Now it transpired that Augustus Harris had heard about John’s arrest and far from abandoning the lad as yet another wastrel that had failed to take the opportunity offered to him, ‘interested himself on the boy’s behalf’. The court was informed that Harris had found him a job in domestic service, would pay for a new suit of clothes and the fare to get him there.

It was a kind and generous offer and presented a viable solution to the magistrate. John was released to begin his new life. Let’s hope he took full advantage of this second chance the impresario had given him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 3, 1888]

P.s Augustus Harris was a lover of food and drink as well as the theatre and there is a bust of him on the corner of Catherine Street in Covent Garden, where he might have enjoyed a glass or tow. There’s even a smart Italian restaurant named after him.

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

‘It was an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy’: the sad fall of an unemployed clerk

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Robert Stevens been out of work for some time when he entered a baker’s shop in Mile End in May 1859. Stevens had previously earned a living as a clerk, a gateway situation for someone hoping to move up the social ranks from the working to the middle classes.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of the middling classes as the solid centre of Victorian life with their values of hard work, education, thrift, and family life. The social climbing of members of the middle classes were gently mocked in the 1892 novel The Diary of a Nobody where the character of Mr Pooter struggles to be taken seriously by superiors, friends and tradesmen alike.

In an unfortunate coincidence another clerk was in Mr Bradbrook’s  bakery that day and he was collecting money on behalf a firm of coal merchants. The baker had opened his till and placed four gold sovereigns on the counter just as Stevens approached to buy some bread. As the collections clerk and the shopkeeper discussed the account Stevens dashed in and swept the money from the counter and ran out of the shop.

The baker and John Griffiths (the clerk) recovered from their initial shock and rushed off after him, catching him up a few streets away. He had one coin on him having lost the others in his haste, these were picked up by Griffiths  in the chase. The unfortunate young man was handed over to the police and brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court to be dealt with by the law.

Robert Stevens pleaded guilty and apologized for his crime. ‘I went into the shop to buy’, he told Mr Hammill, ‘but but catching sight of the gold lying close to my hand, was seized with an irresistible desire of appropriating it to my own service, and unfortunately did so.

It was, I assure you, an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy, having long been out of employment as a clerk’.

John Griffiths spoke up for the prisoner and urged the justice to show mercy and be lenient. As a fellow clerk he perhaps understood better than most how easy it was to lose a ‘respectable’ position whether because of the precarious state of the economy or the capricious  nature of employers.

It did little or no good however, Mr Hammill ignored the request for compassion and sent Stevens to prison for four months at hard labour. Having served a sentence in a mid nineteenth-century goal I doubt that Robert would have found white-collar work easy to come by afterwards. He was dogged by a criminal record, albeit one of his own making, and the stain of the prison would be on him. Hopefully he recovered and found a new path but this is another example of how a lack of real support for those that find themselves unemployed can have catastrophic and life changing consequences.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, May 23, 1859]

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:

A rapist offers ‘atonement’ to buy off his victim’s father

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A warning, this is a most unpleasant case, because it concerns the alleged rape of a 14 year-old girl.

Rachael Potts worked as a domestic servant in a household at 30 Grosvenor Park South, Camberwell, south London. In mid April her mistress went off to her country home for a few days so it was decided that Racheal would lodge with her father in Camberwell and travel the short distance to work each morning, not staying there overnight. Her father was a tradesman, a furniture broker on Southampton Street and probably saw his daughter’s employment as a respectable occupation and education for a young girl. He also expected her to be safe there, but he was wrong.

While Rachael’s mistress was away Montague Musgrave, her brother, was not. He lived with his sister at number 30 and one Wednesday evening he noticed that the young serving girl had scratched her arm. He offered to bandage it and as he was doing so he pulled her towards him onto his knee. Rachael wriggled free and ran off into the kitchen but Musgrave followed.

With no one about in the kitchen (presumably because most of the staff had gone to the country) Musgrave was able to catch Rachael, force her to the floor and rape her. He then made her a present of some ribbons and urged her to say nothing of what had happened. The teenage girl went home to her mother and kept her silence until she realized she had contracted a sexually transmitted infection or, as the press at the time put it: ‘a loathsome disease’.

The mother complained, Musgrave was arrested and the whole sordid affair came before Mr Elliott at Lambeth Police court. Musgrave was represented by his attorney but Rachael had to give her evidence herself. The prejudice of the papers was apparent as she was described as ‘precocious’ and ‘indifferent’, while Musgrave was ‘gentlemanly’. The accused lawyer argued that no jury would convict his client based on the evidence of a young girl (and by implication at least, a young girl of lower social status) and so offered some ‘atonement’.

In reality he was probably offering Rachael (or rather her father) some financial compensation in the hope that the charge would be dropped and further embarrassment could be avoided.  Unfortunately for Musgrave the magistrate did not feel that ‘atonement’ was an appropriate thing to discuss at this stage and bailed the suspected rapist to appear a week later.

At this point both Rachael and her alleged abuser vanish from the records. I doubt a trial took place; it is much more likely that an out of court settlement was made and Rachael left her position as a domestic in Camberwell and returned to her father. No doubt he received some money and the girl received some medical care but Musgrave would have walked away without any further taint on his reputation.

One expects however, that his sister may well have recognised that  her brother was not to be trusted with the young female staff and that is why she tried to keep Rachael away when she was not at home to supervise him. Let’s hope she was more careful in the future for leopards rarely change their spots.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 7, 1856]