A ‘ferocious looking woman’ and a distraught wife: female violence in 1840s Clerkenwell

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White Horse Alley, Clerkenwell  in the 1800s

Domestic violence (however it is defined) was a depressingly regular occurrence in nineteenth-century London. Most of the victims were women; beaten, kicked, and sometimes stabbed by (invariably) drunken husbands or common law partners, in the midst of arguments usually caused by the return of the man from the pub having spent the household budget on beer.

There were occasions when the woman was at fault (even if this did not justify the violence meted out on her body), through being drunk herself. Not that most men needed much of an excuse – a cross word from a ‘sharp tongue’, or dinner that was cold or ‘late’ – could earn you a beating.

Only a handful of these acts of assault ended up in the police courts and most of those were resolved quickly when the victim spoke up for her abuser or chose to forgive him. A working class woman (married or not) had more to lose than her partner if he was separated from her by imprisonment, or made to pay a fine.

Taking ‘your man’ to court might earn you respect amongst your long-suffering sisters, it might alert family and friends to his mistreatment of you, it might even shame him into behaving better (for a time). But it risked reprisals as well.

It was even rarer for men to take their spouses to court. For a man to stand up in court and declare that a woman had bested him was a humiliating experience. If things got that far then the situation at home had to be very bad.

Or the violence had to be very serious.

Women did instigate violence though, and were prosecuted for it. Most often their victims were other women. But here are a couple of examples – both from Clerkenwell in May 1844 – where female violence resulted in a court hearing.

On Tuesday 7 May Margaret Kelly was accused of stabbing John Dimmock. Dimmock lived with his wife at 13 White Horse Court in Turnmill Street. Kelly shared an address with the Dimmocks, living in a room below them. One the Monday night Kelly had argued with Mary Dimmock and it turned nasty.

Mary ran upstairs to her rooms where her husband was in bed, and Margaret followed her. She ran over to the bed, seizing a knife from the table as she did. Before John could raise himself she attacked, stabbing him just below the eye.

Horrified, Mary ran downstairs to fetch help.

Soon afterwards PC 38G arrived and found John Dimmock in bed, ‘bleeding profusely from a dreadful wound o his face’, the bed, he reported, was ‘saturated with blood’. Dimmock was taken to hospital (St Bart’s) but despite the surgeon’s efforts his life was still in danger.

In court Margaret Kelly admitted she had rowed with Mary and that she had thrown a basin of water at John but denied using a knife. The policeman said he had a witness that would swear she did. Kelly scoffed at this prompting the magistrate to tell her that this ‘was no laughing matter’. Mr Combe added that if Dimmock died she’d be on trial for her life.

She was remanded for a week.

Just under a week later – on Monday 13 May a different woman was accused of violence at Clerkenwell Police court. In an unconnected case Caroline King was charged with cutting and wounding her husband George at their lodgings in Little Warner Street.

The incident happened around midnight on Saturday 11 May. George –a  brassfounder – told the magistrate that they had quarreled. Caroline was drunk and she threw a ‘glass goblet at his head’. As the goblet smashed ‘several pieces of the glass entered close to [his] jugular, and severed a number of the smaller blood vessels’.

He (and Caroline) were lucky that his injuries were not more serious.

She didn’t try to deny her actions and the justice remanded her in custody for a few days while he decided what to do with her. In this it is probable that he would have been guided by the wishes of her husband, but he also would have wanted to make sure that the brassfoudner’s injuries were not any more serious than they appeared.

Three days later she was brought back to court. George was there but quite weak, so he was offered a seat in court. Caroline King was ‘convulsed in grief’ the paper reported, clearly distraught that she had so nearly killed her husband. She ‘begged his forgiveness’ and he told the magistrate he didn’t wish to press charges against her. They ‘went away arm in arm, apparently on affectionate terms’.

In this case then, all’s well that ends well.

Meanwhile Margaret Kelly reappeared on remand at Clerkenwell on the Monday (13 May). She was described as a ‘ferocious looking woman’ and a little more detail of the argument she’d had with Mary (or Anne as she was now called) Dimmock was provided. The pair had met in Sutton Street and Kelly had called her names. She ignored her but when she got home Kelly was there, and confronted her.

There was no more detail on the assault although the argument was apparently ‘a grudge’ carried over from Easter. Since John Dimmock (Or Dymmock) was still too weak to attend court Kelly was again remanded. On Monday 27 May  Dimmock was fit enough to attend. He gave his side of things and Kelly was committed to trial.

In June the case came before a jury at the Old Bailey. The court heard that Mary and Margaret had ‘been quarrelling for months’. Kelly accused John Dimmock of kicking at her down but he, Mary and some other witnesses all denied this. She aslo said she reacted when Mary threw a basin at her. No one denied that Margaret had been drinking, and it is likely that many of the rows had occurred when both women were under the influence.

In the end the jury found the prisoner guilty and she was sentenced to twelve months in prison. She was 42 years of age.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday 8 May 1844; The Standard, Tuesday 14 May 1844; Morning Post, Friday 17 May 1844; Lloyd’s Illustrated Paper, Sunday 14 May 1844; Morning Post, Tuesday 28 May 1844]

Charges of pomposity, adultery and theft are levelled at a couple from the East End, but little sticks

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Anne Ferrell (or possibly Varrell) had only a short interval between her twin appearances at the bar of the Worship Street Police court in 1844. On the first occasion she’d been accused of pledging the contents of a room she shared with William Smelt in Blue Anchor Alley in the parish of St Luke’s, east London.

On 1 November her partner abandoned her and the landlord, finding the room emptied of his property, took her to court. She admitted that she and Smelt had pledged the items but pleaded poverty. She said her legal husband (another William) had run out on her and their four year-old daughter some months previously and she was close to starving when she set up with Smelt.

This story had elicited considerable sympathy from the court and ‘several subscriptions’ were raised to help her. The parish officers were also asked to look into her circumstances to see he was eligible for their help.

They discovered that while William Farrell had indeed left her it was on account of her own behavior. He alleged (and others agreed) that she was ‘a woman of most profligate habits, who had pledged and sold every article belonging to her husband that she could lay her hands on’.

When she had finished with him she moved in with Smelt instead. The magistrate commiserated with Farrell and ordered that the monies that had been paid to her be repaid into the poor box. He’d not long finished with her when she was called back into court to answer a charge of conspiring with Smelt to rob their lodgings in Blue Anchor Alley.

Mr Broughton was told that the room was let by a poor shoemaker named Thomas Howes and once the pair’s guilt was clearly established he asked Smelt if he had anything to say for himself. He certainly did.

Smelt ‘with great pomposity’ declared himself to be ‘a socialist, and that he had been actuated by principles, the perfect rectitude of which would, he felt satisfied, be made truly manifest to the whole world’.

The justice asked him if his so-called ‘principles’ extended to ‘living in open adultery with another man’s wife?’

Smelt had an answer for this too.

He said that ‘on the day of resurrection there would be neither marrying nor giving in marriage; and that the ties of mutual attachment would be held as scared as any bonds sanctioned by mere human institutions’.

He had launched into his own sermon when Mr Broughton cut him short. Was he attempting to justify robbing a poor man of his property he asked.

Smelt replied that he was only ‘borrowing’ the items and fully intended to repay the ‘debt’ he accrued.  He followed this up with a long winded diatribe against everyone that had ever slighted him or done him wrong, saying that his talents and virtue had ‘utterly been lost’ as the country had gone downhill in recent years.

Mr Broughton had heard enough. Silencing him again he said his words were ‘utterly subversive of every principle of morality and religion’, and he committed them both to Newgate to face trial for the thefts.

They did face trial, on the 25th November 1844. Both were cleared.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 27, 1844]

A mother’s grief as her son’s rejection condemns her to the workhouse

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Having just formally committed William Herbert to the Old Bailey to face trial for murder the Clerkenwell magistrate then had to deal with a string of applications from impoverished petitioners who needed help.

One of these was an elderly widow who said that her son had abandoned her. She wanted to know if Mr Barstow (the magistrate) could compel her son to support her?

The justice asked her to explain the situation, which she did. Her son had recently married, and that had been the start of ‘her troubles’ because at almost the same time her husband had died. Except that he wasn’t actually her husband. In common with many working-class couple in the 1800s they hadn’t officially married.

But no one knew this, not even her children, so it must have come as something of a shock to the young man when his new wife (‘through her inquisitiveness’) found out and told him. Up until then the widow had been allowing her son ‘to have what part of the house he pleased’ and he had agreed to pay her 26a week in maintenance.

However, as soon as he discovered the family secret he changed; he called her a ‘fallen woman, a woman of sin’ and refused to have anything more to do with her. She didn’t complain or censure him but simply reminded her son that he ‘had been brought up respectably’ and she hoped he would at least continue to pay her the weekly allowance.

He refused outright and (and here was the clue to his change of heart) told her that ‘his wife ashamed of her past conduct, and would not allow him to do anything for her’.

‘In fact’, he continued, ‘he had got orders from his wife not to speak to her’.

She had come to terms with his rejection of her but she needed that money which was why she had come to see the magistrate for his help. Unfortunately Mr Barstow told her that there was nothing he could do for her; ‘an illegitimate son was not bound to keep his mother’. With that the ‘poor woman, who seemed much affected’ left the court probably knowing that her next port of call must be the parish workhouse.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 15, 1880]

‘She’s a bad woman and no wife of mine’: the man with five wives finally meets his match

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‘Trial for Bigamy’ by Eyre Crowe A.R.A. (1897)

On Christmas day 1890 Ann Riley married Charles Valentine Smith, a 40 (or possibly 36) year-old saddle and harness maker in North London. It wasn’t a great success; the couple quarreled constantly until in the middle of April 1891 they agreed to separate.

Ann had her doubts about Charles from the start and suspected he’d been married before. She had asked him (it may well have been one of the things they argued about) and he denied it, but admitted living with a woman for a few years before he met Ann.

On the 28 April, while Ann was out, Charles visited his old familial home and retrieved a silver pocket watch which he said he’d been given as a wedding present. When Ann discovered the watch was missing however, she flew into a rage and determined to get even with him.

Acting on her hunch that the saddler was a bigamist she took herself to Somerset House to consult the marriage registers. After some searching she found him. Her suspicions confirmed, Ann now took her husband to court, for the theft of the watch and for deceiving her into believing he was free to marry her.

The detective that arrested Smith, DS Couchman, testified that the prisoner had admitted that he’d been married previously but said that his ex-wife was ‘a bad woman’ and ‘no wife’ to him.  It didn’t excuse the reality that they were still legally wed however, divorce being a much harder (and more expensive) process in 1891 than it is today.

The magistrate quizzed Ann on whether she knew her new husband was already attached to someone else. This was the line that Smith took, claiming he’d told her very early on so she knew what she was getting into. Ann said he had initially told her he was married but had later denied it. I guess she ended up choosing to believe her own marriage was legitimate, when it clearly was not. Charles was remanded in custody for week while investigations continued.

On 4 July he was back before the beak at the North London Police court and now it was revealed that Charles was a repeat offender. He had been successfully prosecuted for bigamy by the family of Ann Connolly who he’d married over 20 years earlier. At that time he’s already been married to another woman for five years. He got nine month’s in prison but didn’t learn his lesson from it.

After he got out of gaol he joined the army (that would have been in 1870 probably) and he married once more. This new wife quickly discovered his history, left him, and married someone else. His first wife died and in October 1882 he married his fourth, at St Mary’s, Islington.

The justice, Mr Haden Corser, having listened to this disreputable man’s story, sent him back to the Central Criminal Court to be tried for bigamy once more. At his trial, on 28 July 1891, the jury was told that not only had he married five women, he had fathered at least two children who he had left destitute when he abandoned their mother. The common sergeant sitting as judge sent him to prison for 15 months at hard labour.

By modern standards his record of relationships might not seem too bad. It is not uncommon for someone to have multiple monogamous relationships or even to marry several times. What Smith did wrong (very wrong in fact) was to neglect to divorce one wife before he married the next. For women in the Victorian period this was a particularly callous and uncaring crime because it robbed them of the respectability that legitimate marriage ensured. It meant they had no rights and their children were rendered illegitimate.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 22, 1891; The Morning Post, Monday, July 6, 1891]

For many working class women living in the roughest parts of late Victorian London marriage was an unaffordable luxury. Nevertheless women were keen to demonstrate that they were in a  serious relationship and so common law marriages – recognised but he community if not by church and state – normalised things. Women like Catherine Eddowes (who sometimes used the name Kelly) or Annie Chapman (who was occasionally Sivvy) would use their partner’s name just as a bonafide spouse would. For more on the reality of life in 1880s Whitechapel and the two sets of murders that dominated to news stands of the time why not try Drew’s new history of the Jack the Ripper case, published by Amberley Books this June.

This new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 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

 

‘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. 

Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

‘I will go faster to ruin if I go with my mother’: teenage defiance as tensions run high in Westminster

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I am not sure what Margaret Brown hoped to achieve when she prosecuted Matthew Max Plimmer for an assault at Westminster Police court. Margaret (a 32 year-old woman who lived in a property on the Brompton Road), explained that her daughter had run off with Plimmer, who was already married, and had been living in sin with him. Anxious to ‘rescue her’ as she put it, Margaret turned up at the house and demanded that her daughter come home with her. Plimmer refused to allow this, remonstrated with the woman and then assaulted her. According to the prosecutrix he ‘seized her, and bit her wrist so it bled’.

The daughter was in court and was interviewed by the magistrate, Mr Paget. She told him she had left Plimmer (a Belgian national who had apparently worked, briefly it seems, for the C.I.D) and had set herself up at digs on the Marylebone Road. She wasn’t doing very well however, and was surviving only by pawning her own clothes.

Mr Paget advised her to go back home to her mother but the headstrong nineteen year-old refused. She would ‘do as she liked’ she told him. In that case ‘she was going fast to ruin’, the magistrate said; why on earth would she not return home?

The young woman offered an ‘insolent’ (but unrecorded) response and said ‘she would go to ruin faster if she went with her mother’.

Ouch.

That was a telling comment on Mrs Brown’s character and her relationship with her daughter. If she had hoped to use the leverage of the court to separate her daughter from a married man (and a foreigner to boot) in an effort get her to return to the fold she had failed. Plimmer was initially remanded for further examination but then released on sureties of £50 to reappear if required.

Mother and daughter went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 11, 1879]