‘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 sorry tale of an old abuser who finally went too far

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Isaac Jones was a violent man when he was in his cups. He had that in common with very many in nineteenth-century London and his poor wife and family suffered for it.

On the 21 July 1860 he’d come home late, drunk as he often was, and belligerent with it. His wife and he had the usual exchange of words and a fight broke out. The exact details are not clear but at some point Isaac lunged for his wife Jane who, fearing for her life, grabbed the nearest weapon she could and defended herself.

She selected a poker but she might have easily picked up an iron, a saucepan or a rolling pin; when women fought with their menfolk it was often one of these they used (or had used against them). The poker connected with Isaac’s leg and he slipped and fell, unable to maintain his balance as he was so drunk after the evening’s excesses.

He cried out and his groans brought a policeman to the door of the house. PC 256M came into the room and found Isaac on his side his leg bent horribly under him and ‘the bone of the fractured limb protruding through the skin’. A cab was called and the injured man was ferried to Guy’s Hospital where his leg was amputated. Since it seemed evident that Jane was to blame she was arrested and taken into custody.

Events unfolded with some inevitability given the state both of Isaac’s general health (he was an elderly man with a drink problem) and Victorian medicine. The local magistracy were informed that the old man was dying so went to see him in hospital to ascertain who was responsible for his condition. Jane went along as well and he kissed her warmly saying ‘that it was the last time’.

Isaac was too ill to say anything else, and did not condemn his wife in the presence of the justices. He died a day later and so Jane was taken before Mr Maude at Southwark Police court accused of causing his death by striking him with the poker.

An inquest had concluded that he had died from the injury but ‘there was nothing to show how it was done’. Isaac’s daughter (also named Jane) gave evidence of the row and the fight but said she’d not seen her mother hit her father with the poker, adding that she’d told her she had not. She elaborated on the fight saying that Isaac had a knife and was threatening her mother with it.

Mr Maude heard a report form the surgeon at Guy’s which was pretty clear that the leg was broken by an impact injury not a fall but he was trying to find a way to clear Mrs Jones if at all possible. Isaac Jones had been a wife beater, she was a domestic abuse survivor and, on this occasion, the tables had turned on the old man. There was clear evidence that Jane had been defending herself and that the attack – if attack there was – had been spontaneous not premeditated.

There was also sufficient doubt over the exact cause of death to give Jane the benefit of the doubt. It is unlikely that a jury would have convicted her anyway and she was evidently remorseful at the death of her husband, however bad a man he was. It would do no one any good to see her go to trial much less go to prison so Mr Maude commented that it was ‘a very painful case’ but he would detain her on longer; she was free to go.

Mrs Jones, who had ben allowed to sit the clerk’s table instead of occupying the dock wept throughout the examination but was helped to her feet and led out of court on her daughter’s arm.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 28, 1860]

It is a year before the first ‘Ripper’ murder but the portents are visible in East End life

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In August 1887 London had little inkling of the terror that was to haunt the East End in just a year’s time. There was violence and crime aplenty of course, but no more or less than usual, and nothing to suggest that Whitechapel and the East End was soon to be the focus of world attention as a serial killer struck again and again with impunity.

Despite the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders being extraordinary by any standards I wonder if the foundations for the unknown killer’s actions were already well established in the community he later terrorised. Domestic violence was endemic; linked to alcoholism and poverty, and patriarchal attitudes towards women. With the campaign against contagious diseases and the well-publicized attack on vice and immorality prostitution was also in the spotlight with sex workers demonized as the carriers of diseases which had decimated the army in the Crimea.

But it was the causal, commonplace brutality eked out daily by working-class men towards their wives and common-law partners that really empowered the actions of the ‘Ripper’.

Men frequently beat and abused their womenfolk in the East End and while murders might have been relatively unusual, manslaughter and grievous bodily harm was not. Unless the police actually saw it happen they weren’t able to interfere and even then many if not most were reluctant to get involved in a ‘a domestic’.  The survivors were also reluctant to press charges against their abusers; in fear of retaliation or the loss of the main breadwinner. Magistrates were frustrated but there was little they could do save deal with offenders when they did come before them.

Frederick Smith was a 35 year-old milkman living in Britannia Street, off the City Road. In late August 1887, a year before the Ripper murdered Polly Nicholls in Bucks Row, Smith was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court. The milkman was accused of violently assaulting his wife.

PC 63G testified that he had been called to an incident at the defendant’s home and found Mrs Smith ‘lying insensible and bleeding on the pavement’. A few people had gathered and they told him that she fallen out of a window above. He got her into a cab and took her to the London Hospital to be treated. She regained consciousness on the journey and told him that he husband had attacked her and thrown her out of the window to the street below.

When he’d deposited her at the hospital he went back and arrested Fred who, he now realized, had been part of the crowd gathered around Mrs Smith’s body in the street. When he’d seen the policeman the milkman had quickly made himself scarce. Since Mrs Smith was still in hospital and unable to give evidence Mr. Bushby remanded the prisoner for a week and the gaoler locked him up.

We don’t know if Mrs Smith made a full recovery or, if she did, whether she pressed charges against her husband. There’s no record of a Frederick Smith being prosecuted at the Old Bailey for murder or manslaughter, which makes me hopeful that his wife survived.  Fred Smith is hardly an unusual name however, so newspaper searches are problematic.

I think it does indicate the casual nature of violence meted out to working-class women in the 1800s; when ‘ordinary’ me could do this and (mostly) get away with it then surely its not too far of a leap to understand why a disturbed individual could feel emboldened to take that violence much further.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 27, 1887]

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 on Amazon

A life destroyed by the ‘demon drink’

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Alcoholism is a debilitating addiction than ruins not only the life of the person affected but that of those around them. Since the Second World War most of the attention of the police, courts, and prison service has been on  drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and MDMA (with all the various derivatives and combinations) and with good reason. All these drugs have the capacity to destroy lives as well. But while all of the above are proscribed and subject to sanctions under the criminal law, alcohol remains legal and freely available. Like tobacco, alcohol is recognized as being harmful but is simply taxed, not banned.

In the 1800s the negative effects of drink were well understood; drink was blamed for all manner of society’s problems form unemployment to fecklessness, poverty to mental illness, domestic violence to mental illness and suicide. All of these social issues were linked to the excessive consumption of the ‘demon drink’. In the early years of Victoria’s reign the Temperance movement established itself; from small beginnings in the late 1820s it had grown into a significant lobbying group by the 1850s. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to  get parliament to pass a prohibition bill in 1859 but it continued to promote abstinence by urging working men and women to sign the pledge.

It was recognized from the middle of the century that alcoholism was a disease and not simply a vice. Since it was not merely a weakness of character it was possible to treat it, and cure it and this was the beginning of modern efforts to deal with addiction to all sorts of substances.

Margaret Malcolm was a good (or perhaps ‘bad’) example of the evils of drink. She was brought before the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court in August 1878 for being found drunk and disorderly in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. She’d been carried to the local police station on one of the new Bischoffsheim hand drawn ambulances, being incapable of walking.

That was Friday 16 August and the magistrate fined her 8which her husband  paid to keep her out of gaol. On Monday (the 19th) she was back in court and this time Mr Woolrych fined her 21sand told her she was an ‘incorrigible drunkard’. Margaret pulled out a card to show that she had ‘joined the teetotalers’ and promised that she ‘would never drink again’.

Her pledge didn’t last the day: at around five in the afternoon PC Charles Everett (185B) found her drunk, ‘stopping the vehicles in the street, [and] making a great noise’. When he went to arrest her she threw herself to the ground and refused to budge. It took some time to get her up and into custody and in the meantime a large crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

Back in court before Mr Woolrych she had nothing to say for herself. The magistrate was told that Margaret had been in court on at least fifty occasions previously. Her long-suffering husband had paid nearly £200 in fines in just a few years. To put that in context £200 in 1878 is about £13,000 today. It would have represented almost two years wages for a skilled tradesman, or you could have bought 7 horses with it. Margaret must have had a loving husband (more than many working-class women had in the 1870s) and one who was, whenever possible, determined to keep her out of prison.

He hadn’t always succeeded; she’d been to prison several times when magistrates like Mr D’Eyncourt had refused the option of a fine in the forlorn hope that it would curb her drinking. On this occasion the law continued to be a blunt instrument: with no option available to him to send Margaret for treatment (as a court might today) she was fined 25(£80) or three weeks’ hard labour. The court report doesn’t tell us whether Mr Malcolm dipped into his pocket this time.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 25, 1878]

‘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]

‘You answered him back and used your tongue pretty freely’: patriarchal dismissal of domestic abuse

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Here are two cases of domestic abuse from 1875, both handled slightly differently by the magistrates involved, but both revealing of contemporary attitudes.

Daniel Lambert had run his own pub but the business had failed and he’d been forced to sell up and move to a house in Notting Hill where he lived with his wife. It seems he blamed his wife for their misfortune and consoled himself by going out and getting drunk alone.

One evening he returned home after a session at the pub and his wife, Amelia, was standing at the gate, ready to scold him for his drinking. He told her to go inside. She carried on her critique and he threatened to ‘kick her to pieces’ if she didn’t stop. Amelia gave in and went upstairs but Lambert followed and beat her anyway. The couple ended up in court at Hammersmith before Mr Ingham.

Lambert’s barrister (Mr Whitty) argued that his client was provoked by her constant nagging. So ‘you abused him?’ the magistrate asked her, ‘you answered him back’, and ‘used your tongue pretty freely?’

‘No, sir’ she responded. ‘He struck me, pinched me, and kicked me […] I got away from him and called a constable, but he would not take him, as he did not see any blow struck’.

The police were reluctant to interfere in a ‘domestic’ unless they saw clear evidence of violence. This cooper wouldn’t examine her either, because the bruises she had were under her clothes and he said he could not see them without a doctor being present. This drew laughter in the court, as had the justice’s remarks about Amelia using ‘her tongue pretty freely’.

However, despite being ridiculed by a male dominated court Amelia did have one ally, the landlady that ran their house. She told the court that Mrs Lambert was a ‘most sedate woman’ and not the monster that Lambert and his brief wanted to make her out be. Daniel Lambert said she had sold all his goods when the business failed and had threatened to poison him, but there was no evidence for any of this. In the end Mr Ingham ruled that Lambert would have to find tow sureties in £20 each to ensure he behaved himself, for just two months. It was a legal slap on the wrist and reflected the reality that the magistrate thought that Amelia was to blame for her husband’s violence.

On the same the say the newspapers reported another case of domestic violence, this time heard before Mr Cooke at Clerkenwell. On Friday 16 July Mrs Badcock was making breakfast and getting her children ready for school. She picked up a pair of her husband’s trousers and heard money rattling in a pocket. The children had no shoes and Benjamin Badcock was lazy and rleucatnt to go out to work. The family were in poverty and Mrs Badcock suggested that since Ben had boots on his feet he might go out and earn some money so his children had some of theirs.

This sent the 47 year-old causal labourer into a rage and he turned on his wife, hitting her and throwing her onto the bed. She’d been holding a knife while she made breakfast and he seized this and threatened her with it. Fearing that he would kill her the couple’s eldest daughter, Mary Ann (16), rushed between them.

Badcock turned his anger on her now and thumped her in the face several times. When he had gone they left the house and applied for a warrant to bring him before a magistrate. Now, in court, Badcock denied the assault merely claiming he’d ‘slapped’ his daughter’s face for insubordination, as he was entitled to. Mr Cooke didn’t comment on the violence (or at least his comments were not recorded) but he also required Badcock to find two sureties (in this case for £25 each) to keep the peace towards his wife and daughter for six months.

In both cases a man had abused his wife (and daughter in the second example). This was routine, common and often punished similarly at the time. Would the sanction have worked? It is very hard to say but I strongly doubt it. There was an existing culture that tolerated male violence towards females (wives, partners and children) and we have struggled to leave that culture behind. Domestic violence and abuse (for abuse takes many forms, not all of which are physical) is notoriously difficult to quantify. However, there are currently an estimated 2,000,000 victims every year. Over a quarter of women aged 16-59 have reported some form of abuse from partners or other family members, and the figure for male victims runs at around 15%.

So this is not a Victorian problem, it is a very modern issue and while it increasingly affects men as well as women, boys as well as girls, it is predominately a problem related to male anger and male violence. History shows us that ignoring it, or pretending that it is a small isolated group of ‘bad’ people that are responsible, is not going to solve the problem. When we factor in the reality that around 35-45% of all homicide victims are killed by someone close to them then perhaps we see just how serious a social issue this is.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 19, 1875]