‘I trusted her and she has robbed me over and over again’; one father’s lament over a daughter gone astray.

default

If you follow this blog closely you may have noticed that I live quite close to the former Colney Hatch Asylum. Once the largest ‘lunatic’ asylum in Europe, it is now a private residential development with an onsite gym run by the Nuffield Health organization. The asylum was built in 1851 and the area I now live in grew up around it. Many of the occupants of houses in my street and those around it either worked in the asylum or its grounds, or were associated in some way with it.

In 1937 Colney Hatch asylum became plain Friern mental hospital (locals keen to lose the association with mental illness that the institution’s presence had implanted). A couple of decades later it was renamed Friern Hospital and in 1993 it closed its doors for good, and the developers moved in.

In 1865 the asylum was ‘home’ to the wife of John Nicholls, a Bromley based boilermaker. While his wife was confined in Colney Hatch John had to provide 4a week for her maintenance and continue to support their family. The couple had four children, and he looked to the eldest girl, Ann (17) to look after the younger ones and keep the home while he went out to work.

Unfortunately Ann didn’t seem inclined to accept her fate as a ‘housewife’ or unpaid domestic; like so many teenagers she craved adventure and independence.   And this got her into trouble with her father and eventually led to an appearance at the Thames Police court.

On 29 March 1865 a reluctant John Nicholls brought charges of theft against his daughter Mary Ann before Mr Paget, the sitting magistrate. He explained that she had been stealing from him for ages and despite his efforts to stop her, and her promises to reform, nothing had changed in the last few weeks.

Mr Paget asked him if he seriously wanted to prosecute his own child. ‘Would you not save her from a prison’, he demanded. John Nicholls answered that ‘she had robbed him so often that his complete ruin would result if he passed over her delinquencies any longer’.

‘I trusted her to look after my home and property, and she has robbed me over and over again and pawned my things’, the unhappy father told the justice.

‘I cannot keep a thing in place’, he continued. ‘She goes out when she likes and comes in when she likes. She went out last night and came in at half-past 1 o’clock this morning. I don’t know where she goes to or what company she keeps’.

On one occasion she took all his weekly earnings and spent it. The family had no fuel or food as a result. He showed the magistrate a series of pawn tickets as proof of his daughter’s offending. He gave her money he said, but she took everything else and he was now at his wits end, clearly struggling to cope with the loss of his wife.

‘I have lost her dear mother, and she has neglected me and the house, and I am afraid she is going to ruin fast’, adding: ‘What am I going to do, sir?”

Mr Paget was sympathetic. It was a sad case he said and he would remand Mary Ann for a week in the hopes it brought her to her senses.

I suspect that week in custody was enough to persuade Mary Ann that her father was serious about stopping her from descending into ‘ruin’. Whether it worked or not is impossible to discover. Mary Ann is not an uncommon name in the 1800s and there are several women of that name (though not that age) in the records held within the Digital Panopticon.

We might be able to find Mrs Nicholls in the records of Colney Hatch (which are held by the London Metropolitan Archives) and discover if she ever got out and went home to John and her children. It is a terribly sad story, as many of those I write about were. Support simply did not exist  in the 1800s for working class families which suffered as John Nicholls’ had. Even today mental illness can devastate families and seriously impact the lives of vulnerable young people like Mary Ann.

Who knows what she had seen  and heard as her mother deteriorated and was taken away to be effectively imprisoned behind the walls of a Victorian asylum. How can we begin to understand what effect it had on her own mental health and her relationship with her father and siblings?

Today I suspect we would be able to offer some professional help both to John and Mary Ann but in 1865 that help simply didn’t exist.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday 30 March 1865]

‘Sisters’ show solidarity as their bigamist husband is gaoled

north-finchley-1896-1913_hosm65693

One of the more unusual crimes to reach the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey was bigamy. I say ‘unusual’ because amongst all the violence, theft and fraud it appears to represent a more ‘civil’ offence (legally speaking). Like divorce, or breach of promise, we might have expected it to be dealt with by the civil courts rather than the criminal. But unusual also, because it was rare.

Bigamy was contained within the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 (14 and 15 Vict. c.100) which stated:

Whosoever, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife, whether the second marriage shall have taken place in England or Ireland or elsewhere, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for any term not exceeding seven years.

 In 1878 Walter Horace Bartlet, a 22 year-old carpenter living in Friern Park, North London, appeared at Hampstead Police court charged with that offence. Both his wives were in court to witness the hearing but Emma Bartlett (his first and only legal spouse) was not permitted to give evidence under the terms of the legislation on bigamy.

Bartlet’s sister was also present, having been subpoenaed by the police, and she told the court that her brother had married Emma ( neé Hughes) at Handsworth Old Church in  Birmingham in May 1878. Walter had left the midlands and come to London for work and had found digs in Finchley where he met Emily Young. Emily was a domestic servant who lived with her mother in North Finchley.

The pair had courted ‘for three or four months’ before Walter popped the question. He never once told Emily he was already married and on the 7 December the couple were wed at St John the Baptist’s church, Hoxton. Poor Emily was informed on her wedding night that her husband was already married and it was her that got in touch with Emma in Birmingham.

In court the women stood side by side in solidarity, both having been wronged by a man that had deceived them. Mrs Emma Bartlett signed the charge sheet and the magistrate formally committed the young carpenter to take his trial at the Old Bailey. On the 13 January Walter pleaded guilty as charged and was sent to prison for twelve months.

The law has changed little since 1861: it is still an offence that carries a prison sentence (although there is now an allowable defence for the person that genuinely believed their former spouse was dead). In 2008 Roderick Sangster (a former Church if Scotland minister) was sent to prison for three years for marrying one woman while still being married to another. He probably didn’t help his case by skipping bail and going on the run, he also ran up large debts in his wife’s name, forging her name on a loan agreement.

As with the Victorian case it was Sangster’s wives that were the victims here, which perhaps help explain why this offence is dealt with alongside others which leave someone hurt, emotionally, physically or financially.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 29 December, 1878]

Bigamy was rare but for other articles in which it features see:

Is it better to plead guilty to bigamy than risk prison for debt?

The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)

‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London