A remarkable woman challenges the patriarchy

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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.

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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 ‘Peculiar People’ and the tragic death of little Alice

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After yesterday’s bank holiday violence and drunken disorder the reports from the London police courts returned to more criminal topics. At Bow Street a fugitive from Cape Town in British South Africa was refused bail on a charge of stealing diamonds and £1300 in cash. while at Mansion House John Thompson was committed to face trial at Old Bailey for several thefts in and around the Inner Temple law chambers. In the end he was convicted of stealing a hat brush and a coat, while seven similar charges were taken into consideration. He was gaoled for nine months.

Over at Lambeth an unusual case unfolded. It had come before the magistrates before but was now to be resolved the paper reported. It concerned the death of a child and the suggestion of negligence on behalf of the parents.

Robert Cousins, a 27 year-old man living in Orient Street, West Square, Lambeth was presented before Mr Chance and charged with the manslaughter of Alice Maria Cousins, his 11 month old daughter. Dr Price from Guy’s Hospital said that his post mortem examination revealed that baby Alice had died from tuberculosis and pneumonia. The magistrate quizzed him as to whether the child might have lived had the father summoned a doctor, which he clearly hadn’t. She may have, the doctor confirmed, but it was far from certain.

Why hadn’t Cousins sought medical help? Was he too poor or was there another reason?

This became apparent when the next witness took the stand. She was Matilda Taylor and she said she belonged to a Christian sect called the ‘Peculiar People’. A branch of Wesleyanism, the Peculiar People (sometimes conflated with Quakers) did not believe in medicine. Instead Matilda insisted, they chose instead to pray for Alice’s recovery and leave her fate to God.

‘Supposing your leg is broken’ Mr Chance demanded, what would she do then? ‘The Lord has not told us what to do in that case, but he does tell us in sickness what to do’.

So we must presume that the Cousins were also members of this branch of Christianity.

Mr Chance was not impressed:

‘It is really wonderful how persons can have such narrow-minded fanaticism’ he quipped, before adding that ‘it is a most guilty and unfeeling conduct to adopt. You take just one passage or so from the Bible, instead of taking it as a whole’.

Nevertheless he dismissed the charge of manslaughter on legal grounds, suggesting instead that the Public Prosecutor might wish to bring a case of endangering life by neglect, which brought a sentence of six months upon conviction. The ‘peculiar people’ then upped and left his court, presumably followed by dark looks and murmurings of righteous indignation from the public gallery.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 29, 1883]

This isn’t the only reference to the Peculiar People and clashes with the legal system in Victorian London as this blog suggests