‘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]

‘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]

‘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

 

‘I always tire of a woman in a week’: a charmless husband at Bow Street

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Whilst I live in the capital I work in Northampton and yesterday I had a meeting with some members of local history and community group who wanted to discuss the preservation and dissemination of the history of the Delapré Abbey estate, which sits next to our university campus.

Delapré Abbey (pictured above) has its roots in the medieval period but today there stands a beautifully restored English country house in acres of grounds, all open at times to the public. In the late 1800s it was the seat of the Bouveries, a prominent Northamptonshire family who acquired it in 1756. It stayed in the family until just after the Second World War when Northamptonshire Corporation bought it.

We had an interesting chat about the estate and its history and the problems of capturing and conserving information about the past before in disappears under the diggers and concrete mixers of modern day developers. Hopefully we’ll find ways for local historians and staff and students at my university to work together on this in the near future.

Given that I knew almost nothing about the Bouveries of Delapré it was something of a surprise to randomly alight on a court report from Bow Street in late April 1888 where a junior member of the family was mentioned. Mrs Blanche Minnie Bouverie appeared with her solicitor, a Mr Churchley, at Bow Street Police court to request a summons against her husband for desertion.

Blanche was the third wife of Francis Kenelm Bouverie, who had recently been the subject of a fraud case heard at the Old Bailey. The young Bouverie had already been married three times despite only being 26 years of age and was considered something of a rogue.

He’d been divorced twice for adultery Mr Churchley told the magistrate (Mr Bridge) and Blanche had tried to divorce him herself, again for adultery but had not yet succeeded. In the 1800s the laws on divorce were weighted in favour of the man: a wife had to prove two things against her partner, while he had only to prove one. Mrs Bouverie had alleged adultery and cruelty  but had not proved the latter charge.

She was only 20 years old and they had been married for just a year when Francis left her. She said he started beating her after just a week. Bouverie had apparently told her that it would be better if she left him then and returned to her mother as ‘he always tired of a woman in a week’.

Mr Bridge granted the summons against Francis but queried why, given his reputation, Blanche had entertained the idea of marrying him in the first place. No answer was forthcoming but sadly we often believe that we can change those we fall in love with or believe it won’t happen to us. The young self-styled heir to the Delapré estates was ‘living in great style’ in London the court was told, and one imagines that he played the eligible bachelor card to the full. Hopefully this exposure of his character in the press served to warn other women against falling for his ‘charms’.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 30, 1888]

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

‘I’ll teach you to have a little hussy here while I’m away’: The troubles of a broken marriage are aired in public

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Map of Bethnal Green (from Cross’ London Guide 1844)

The marriage between Thomas and Lucretia Gates was not a happy one. The relationship had soured with the passing of time and Thomas’ poor treatment of his wife had provoked her to move out of the marital home in Bethnal Green. Thomas,  described in the press as a ‘tradesman’, had then employed a female servant to look after him. This seems to have been a bone of contention for his estranged wife.

On the 14 April 1852 the consequences of that broken marriage reached the Worship Street Police Court as Thomas summoned Lucretia to answer a charge that she had assaulted him. This was rare; whilst many men might have been attacked by their wives and partners, very few were prepared to risk the damage to the reputations by admitting so in public.

Thomas Gates arrived with a police escort. He had so stirred up the community that a ‘great crowd, chiefly of women,  followed him to court’. This probably reflected both a show of solidarity with Lucretia by the ‘sisterhood’ and a degree of contempt for Thomas for running to the authorities instead of asserting his patriarchal rights and position.

The scene certainly enlivened the court reporter’s morning, however, and he must have regarded it as a welcome, if unexpected, bonus.

Thomas started by declaring that: ‘this woman is my wife, but we live apart, she in fact, having run away with another man‘.

Lucretia was not having this; having vehemently denied this version of events she ‘reproached her husband with having taken a  young hussy home to supply her place‘.

Thomas rejected this accusation and described how the assault he had accused her of had happened. He was at his home in Turk Street, Bethnal Green, when Lucretia had called on him. She took him by surprise and rushed in, shouting abuse at him and the young serving girl, Sarah Hartlett. Both were assaulted by the angry wife before Lucretia turned her rage on the room.

She ‘swept all the china and glass from the shelves and cupboards, and having smashed them to pieces, set to work to demolish the furniture and everything she could lay her hands on‘.

But she didn’t stop there, he said.

She tore the shirt entirely to pieces from his back, and tore the dress of the other woman also, exclaiming, “I’ll teach you to have a ____ here while I’m away,” and accusation which he assured the magistrate was quite unfounded‘.

It was quite a display of anger and Lucretia did not deny it. Instead she explained that her husband had driven her away with his abuse and violent threats. On one occasion, she said, he ‘had stood over her with a knife, threatening to kill her’. She also repeated her accusation that Hartlett was his mistress.

It was now the servant’s turn to be questioned by the justice (Mr Ingham)  and she denied any impropriety on her part. She only worked there during the day and always left him alone  in the night. Thomas may have been having an affair but Sarah claimed it was not with her.

Several of the woman that had accompanied the couple to court testified to seeing or hearing Thomas’ abuse of his wife. One recalled her being thrown out of a window, while another said she had seen Thomas Gates chase his wife down the street brandishing an iron poker. Mr Ingham turned to the pair and told them that it was clear their relationship was in tatters but that did not give either of them to right to turn to violence or to disturb the public peace. He cautioned them both and dismissed Thomas’ charge against his wife. They then presumably left the court and returned to their, separate, lives.

Divorce was not really available to the majority of people in the 1850s. The government (through a Royal Commission established in 1850) were looking at a reform of the law to allow the upper middle class to gain a full divorce, whilst at the same time making the cost of judicial separations prohibitively expensive to everyone else. In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act which removed divorce from the church (ecclesiastical) courts to the civil. The new law, not surprisingly (since it was created by men) favoured men over women. A man could sue for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery whereas a woman would have to show an additional cause (such as as incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion) or prove cruelty on its own.

Thomas and Lucretia could not hope to get divorced, they simply could not have afforded it. Instead the best they could aim for was either to patch up their broken marriage or live apart and agree to ignore each other’s infidelities. Given Lucretia’s passion and temper, I think this might have been unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 15, 1852]

Jealousy, divorce and vitriol throwing in late Victorian Paddington

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Divorce was a not at all an easy thing to obtain in the nineteenth century. This meant that many couples either stayed together long after relationships had broken down or separated to live with someone else, but were then unable to remarry. For women this was a particular problem as it was harder for them to be seen as ‘respectable’ if they lived, unmarried, with a man. It was even worse should they have children by him, and that, in age before effective contraception, was fairly likely.

The breakdown of any relationship is traumatic and rarely entirely mutual so there is almost always an ‘injured party’. This sometimes leads today to long drawn out divorce cases, to jealousies, feuds, and even violence. So I imagine this might have been even worse in a society where divorce was much rarer than it is today. In the Victorian period then, there was much more scope for long lasting jealousies between jilted and abandoned wives and husbands and their new paramours.

This was the situation that Margaret White, a 44 year-old shopkeeper found herself in in March 1886. Margaret was married but her husband had left her 11 years previously, complaining about her ‘immorality’.  This may have referred to an affair or simply her behaviour (perhaps her drinking and staying out late in the evening). Of course it may have been a false accusation, we have no proof that Mrs White was in any way ‘immoral’.

Whether White left his wife for another woman in 1875 or not by 1886 he was living with Rose Simpson in her rooms at Burlington News in Paddington. Margaret had discovered this and on more than one occasion in 1886 she had confronted Rose and, supposedly threatened her. On the 3 March she had visited the property and called on Rose.

When she opened the door she allegedly produced  a small bottle which she claimed contained ‘vitriol’ (acid) and said she would throw it in the face of her rival if she ever stepped out of the house. She then stood outside for three hours while Rose cowered inside.

As this was the culmination of a series of threats to her, Rose decided to go to law to get protection or redress. On 13 March Margaret was brought, by warrant, to the Marylebone Police court to answer a charge of threatening her husband’s lover with an acid attack. Margaret pleaded not guilty and claimed that she’d never threatened Rose. She did admit that she had met her husband at open of their daughter’s house, by accident not design, and that he had told her he would never go back to her. This may have prompted her to  confront Rose but she steadfastly rejected claims that she had produced a bottle or vitriol or had ever ‘had anything to do with it’ in her life.

Rose Simpson, perhaps persuaded by her husband,  told Mr Cooke that she didn’t want to press charges and would be content so long as her rival was bound over to keep the peace towards her. She merely wanted, she said, for the threatening behavour to stop. The magistrate agreed, noting that there was no evidence that Margaret ever owned let alone threatened to throw acid at her. He accepted Mrs White’s sureties of £20 for six months but warned her that she faced a month in prison if there was any further intimidation of Ms Simpson.  Throughout this case involving his previous and his current object of affection, Mr. White was nowhere to be seen.

Acid throwing was not unusual in the 1800s and has resurfaced in modern Britain, as this report from the Guardian in February 2017 shows. If you would like to read more about this disturbing phenomena I can suggest no better source than Dr Katherine Watson at Oxford Brookes University.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 15, 1886]