A remarkable woman challenges the patriarchy

380px-Georgina_Weldon_portrait

Mrs Georgina Weldon

In August 1883 a woman appeared at the Bow Street Police court to ask for a summons against a psychiatrist whose name is perhaps family to researchers interested in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case. Lyttelton Forbes Winslow was born in London in 1844 and trained as a physician, like his father. He became a psychiatrist like his father but was a controversial figure, falling out with his family and making seemingly spurious claims about his knowledge of who the Whitechapel murderer was.

Winslow believed the killer was the Canadian born G. Wentworth Smith who had arrived in London for work and lodged with a couple in Finsbury Square. Smith was apparently overheard declaring that ‘all prostitutes should be drowned’ and this was reported to Winslow by Mr Callaghan, the Canadian’s landlord.

Illustrated_Police_News_-_Jack_the_Ripper

Winslow told the police, who investigated and dismissed his thesis, but the doctor persisted to talk it up at every opportunity. When he was eventually interviewed by Chief Inspector Swanson Winslow crumbled and said he’d been misrepresented in the press (which had carried the story). One Ripper theorist (Donald McCormick) suggested that the police even suspected Winslow himself of being the murderer.

Forbes Winslow’s real notoriety however, and his rejection by the mainstream medical community, was down to events before 1888 and linked in fact to this case at Bow Street. In 1878 he had attempted to commit Mrs Wheldon to a lunatic asylum at the request of her husband. This ended up in a long running court battle of which this request for a summons seems to have been a part.

Georgina Weldon was an opera singer who led a colourful life and become estranged from her husband Harry, a former officer in the Hussars. She’d filled her house with orphan children and when Weldon became increasing exasperated at the expense of keeping his ex-wife (at £1,000 a year) he tried to do what many Victorian men did and have his wife put away as a lunatic on account of her interest in spiritualism (which was increasingly popular at the end of the 1800s).

Her examination was conducted in an underhand manner by doctors who pretended they were interviewing her about her orphanage and Georgina soon realised something as amiss. She couldn’t sue her husband directly until the law changed in 1882 but seems to have sued everyone involved at some point and to have been a champion of litigation (‘the Portia of the Law Court’s as she was dubbed).

At this appliance in August 1883 Georgina had requested a summons to bring Dr Forbes Winslow to court to prove she was not insane. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate, declined her a summons but stated that he was entirely satisfied she was not mad. He added that she could of course apply at a higher court to bring Dr Winslow to book, which of course she went on to do.

Georgina Weldon went to prison, gave public lectures, wrote a number of books and articles about her experiences and sang and published songs. She died just over six months before the outbreak of the First World War and perhaps deserves to be better known than she is. She certainly stands out as a woman who was not prepared to accept the lot that life dealt her; that is (or was) to be a submissive wife of a Victorian military man.

She carved out her own destiny and challenged the medical and legal patriarchy at every turn and its a shame she didn’t make it to the end of the war to see the sisterhood win the right to vote. She was a quite remarkable Victorian lady.

[from Morning Post, Monday 13 August 1883]

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’: a man’s grief drives him to suicide.

155561946856c0ec2a38ed2088ffdcc1

Finsbury Square, c.1828

I am breaking, ever so slightly, with the normal pattern of these blog posts today. This story concerns the police courts but is not a report from one of them. Instead it came under the headings for London’s coroners courts, which detailed the inquests into those that died in suspicious circumstances.

On the 22 January 1838 an inquest jury sat at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to listen to the evidence in case of a retired police court officer who had died at the age of 60. Thomas Van had worked at the Worship Street Police court ‘for nearly 25 years’ and was ‘an active officer’.

Each of the London police courts were served by half a dozen officers, modelled on the system set up by the Fieldings at Bow Street in the mid 1700s. Officers ran messages, brought up prisoners from the cells, kept order in the court and may well have played a role as active investigators in some instances. This was how the Bow Street officers (dubbed ‘Runners’ of course) operated.

Van’s wife had died in last year and he missed her very much. He lived with his son in rented rooms at 13 Queen Street, Finsbury Square and his landlord, Benjamin Watkins, gave evidence to the inquest. At about 9 o’clock a week earlier Watkins had heard a loud thud from Van’s room above and rushed upstairs to see what had happened. There he found the man stretched out on the floor with blood flowing from a gash in his throat.

There was ‘a large table knife on the floor besides him’ and while Van was not quite dead, he could not speak. Watkins called a carriage and took his lodger to St Bart’s where he died soon afterwards.

It was a tragic tale. Van had only recently been given a pension by the Worship Street office in recognition of his service, and because his grief made it impossible for him to carry on. He seems to have fallen into a deep despair and was quite unable to cope without his wife. His son testified to his father’s grief and told the coroner that Thomas Van ‘had been lately deranged’.

A suicide note was produced which read:

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’.

The inquest jury duly brought in a verdict of ‘temporary mental derangement’. Van probably had little to leave his son but suicides supposedly had their estates forfeited. They were also supposed to be buried at night, and not in consecrated ground. Perhaps the jury’s verdict allowed the family some license here.

Let’s hope so anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 23, 1838]