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]

Beware the sleepwalking arsonist!

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John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist, 1871

Police constable Dowding (198E) was pounding his beat in the early hours of the morning of July 15th 1878 when he smelt fire. He could hear the ‘crackling noise of something burning’, and rushed over to the rear of 23 Great Coram Street. There he could see that there was pile of burning clothes on top of the conservatory which seemed as if they had been thrown out of a window above.

PC Dowding ‘sprang his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles) to call for help and quickly moved to alert the residents in the house. He ran straight upstairs towards the fire and found a room about to be engulfed in flames. Some clothes, the bed sheet and the lower part of the mattress of the bed were all on fire, but there was thankfully no one inside. He looked in the next room and found a 15 year-old girl cowering under a bed quilt.

He grabbed her and escorted her out, asking her what had happened. She told him that a man had entered her room, stayed briefly, then ran out and downstairs. PC Dowding was skeptical; he’d not seen anyone run past him, or run out of the building and he suspected the girl was lying.

He interviewed the landlady, Maria Goodhall who told him the girl’s name was Matilda Hayes and she worked for her as a maid of all work. She’d been with her for four months and ‘was a very good girl’. However, she also suspected that Matilda might have been responsible for the fire. She’d seen the clothes on fire by the bed and thought it likely that the girl had thrown some of the window in panic before being forced back by the flames.

In court at Bow Street Matilda was charged with arson and the source of the fire was found to be a spirit lamp which she kept with her when she went to bed. The lamp had been knocked over and the handle had come off. When Matilda had been found she seemed to be half asleep, as if she’d just woken in a panic. It was also suggested that Matilda and her sister (who often stayed with her) would walk in their sleep. So perhaps this had happened when the girl had been sleepwalking? Mrs Goodhall told the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, that she was sure that Matilda meant no ill will towards her or any of the other residents. It was accident, and nothing more.

Mr Vaughan was probably minded to agree but he decided to remand the serving girl for a week, just to be sure. When she appeared again Mr Vaughan was satisfied she was innocent and discharged her. This drew praise from one newspaper that used the case to write a longish piece on somnambulism and its perils. They also hinted that the young man that supposedly ran out of the girl’s room might have been there as her guest, and it was probably just as well that he was not discovered or it might have damaged her reputation.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 16, 1878]

A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]

A close encounter on Holborn Hill: two young women have a narrow escape

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Holborn in the mid Victorian period 

This blog has noted before that violence towards women was endemic in the Victorian age. The court reports are full of husbands and partners hitting, stabbing, burning, and otherwise beating their wives and lovers, and casual violence towards women in the streets is also a reality of daily life in the nineteenth-century city.

None of this should come as a surprise of course; violence towards women remains a serious social problem alongside the sexual abuse that has precipitated the Me Too movement in recent years. Some men it seems believe they have a ‘God given’ right to abuse women or, at the very least, to treat them as inferiors. I place ‘God given’ in inverted commas but note that it is the great religious texts that created the idea that women are in some way second-class citizens under a system of male domination. I don’t necessarily believe that religion is ‘bad’ but this element of religion continues to provide an excuse for discrimination and violence.

In 1855 two sisters were walking through Holborn and got lost. It was late and as they wandered the streets they saw a man standing on Red Lion Street and asked him the way to Haverstock Hill. He agreed to show them and they set off together.

The man was well dressed, gave his name as Thomas Reddington, a jeweler, and so they had no fears about walking with him. At some point one of the sisters, Mary McKay, said felt tired and needed to rest. Reddington said he had rooms nearby in Holborn Chambers and she was welcome to sit down their for a while before continuing her journey. The women agreed and followed the jeweler to a building in Union Court on Holborn Hill.

These rooms were not lawyers chambers however, they were quite ‘low and dirty’ and the women immediately felt uncomfortable there. The elder sister (Susan Hale, who was married) complained and said they should leave and was about to go when the man seized her and punched her in the face. Shocked she grabbed her sister and they ran out. They soon found a policeman on Holborn Hill and told him what had happened. PC Swinscoe (Sity 216) said he found Reddington at ‘an ice shop’ near Union Court and arrested him based on the women’s description.

The case came up before Mr Corrie at Clerkenwell Police court and one the face of it was a fairly straightforward incident of assault, perhaps with a darker sexual motive. Reddington’s key defense was that he was drunk at the time. ‘I’d been drinking all day long’ he told the magistrate, as if that was justification of his actions.

Incredibly, Mr Corrie seems to have taken this as mitigation and turned his ire on the young women, especially on Susan Hale as she was married. He told she had ‘acted most indiscreetly in accompanying a complete stranger into a house, even if what he represented to them was true, that he had chambers there’.

He ascertained that Reddington earned 30s a week and because the offence was serious he fined him £3. Reddington didn’t have the money (presumably because he’d drunk it all away) so he was sent to gaol for three months. The ‘young ladies quickly left the court’ chastened no doubt both by their narrow escape from a possible worse crime and the rebuke they had received from the magistrate. This was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a rape victim being told that her choice of clothing was to blame for the assault she suffered. Corrie may have been punishing the drunken jeweler but he was asserting the dominance of the patriarchy as he did so.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 04, 1855]

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 here