‘Oh Daddy, please have mercy!’: abuse is a part of everyday life in a Victorian home

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Amelia Ayres had not enjoyed life since her mother had died. He father remarried and the family lived on Arthur Street, off Battersea Park Road, south London. He was a shoemaker and seemed to live up to the reputation that profession had earned in the nineteenth century of being quick to abuse their wives and children.

In June 1888 Amelia, who’d suffered at the hands of her father and who seemed to be treated almost as badly by her stepmother, finally decided she’d had enough and took her father to court. She obtained the support of a new organization, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Women and Children, and their representative, a Mr Ingram, prosecuted the case on her behalf.

He told the magistrate at Wandsworth, Mr Curtis Bennett that Amelia had gone to the lodger’s room in their house to nurse their baby. This had enraged her father who had come at her with a shoemaker’s strap and had beaten her about the body with the buckle end. In court Amelia showed Mr Bennett the weals and bruises she had from the beating.

A neighbour, Mrs Slade, who said she’d heard the girl’s screams and hurried over, supported the girl’s testimony. She saw Richard Ayres, the child’s father, hitting her and then throwing into the kitchen and locking the door. This was not the first time and Mrs Slade reported that on a previous occasion Amelia had ‘escaped’ over the adjoining wall between their properties and sought sanctuary with her.

The magistrate was disgusted at the man’s cruelty and said he was unjustified in his actions. But he stopped short of applying any punishment, merely instructing him to ‘behave himself’. The officer from the Society suggested that they might take away four of Ayres’ children but Mrs Ayres appeared in court with her husband and refused this offer. I hope, at least, that they kept an eye on Amelia or that she got away.

Meanwhile the papers reported that Mr Bennett had a visitor in court who had come all the way from the Indian subcontinent. The ‘man of colour’ (whose name we are not told) said he’d traveled from Bengal in the hope of finding a better life and work in England. He said he was a clerk in the Indian telegraph service but he’d lost all his papers on the journey. He was destitute and asking for help. The magistrate told him that the mother country would certainly look after him and directed him to the nearest workhouse.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 15, 1888]

Today (June 15) Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. “jack and the Thames Torso Murders’  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 to order on Amazon here

Murder most foul in Old Nicol Street

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Old Nicol Street (from an image on the St Hilda’s East Community Memories blogsite)

James Muir had spent the whole of Christmas in gaol. He’d been accused in mid December of the murder of Abigail Sullivan, with whom he ‘at times’ cohabited in Shoreditch. The couple had a tempestuous relationship and arguments (often drunken ones) were frequent.

It was a familiar story in the East End, where domestic violence was endemic and murder or manslaughter all too often the result. At some point the pair had separated, with a suggestion that Muir had been seeing someone else, a lodger at the house in Old Nichol Street where Sullivan had lived with him. This woman was Selina Lewis and she was present when the fatal attack occurred.

Lewis told the magistrate at Worship Street Police court (a Mr Rose) that Abigail Sullivan had been speaking with Muir in her room when things got heated. He hit her and she fell down. Muir then made to leave, saying he was off to get a drink. Selina left as well but came back a few minutes later with a boy. Since Abigail was still lying prone on the floor Selina told the lad to fetch over a lamp so she could examine her. When he did so they both saw that the poor woman was dead and blood was flowing from a wound in her chest.

The police were called and the body was assessed by Percy Clark, an assistant to Dr Bagster Phillips, (the police surgeon who had presided in several of the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888). He testified in court that Abigail had suffered a fatal wound that had ‘penetrated the lung and divided the aorta. The cause of death was syncope [loss of consciousness] and loss of blood’. The weapon was produced in court, a ‘thin-bladed butchering knife’ and the police inspector present said it must have been wielded with ‘considerable force’.

Selina admitted that the quarrel had been about her and Muir’s relationship with her. The knife also hers but she’d not seen the prisoner Muir use it. That he had was not in doubt however, as he’d been arrested outside in the street by PC Brown (389H) who picked it up as the killer tried to throw it away. Muir was remanded in custody again so that Mr Sims, the Treasury solicitor, could summon five more witnesses for the prosecution.

It took until early February for the case to make it to the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey but then it didn’t trouble the jury for too long.

Muir, described elsewhere as a 39 year-old shoemaker, was found guilty of killing his former partner and the mother of his child, a baby whom Abigail had given into the care of another resident while she spoke to her errant common-law husband. One witness knew the pair well. Caroline Hall lived at 67 Old Nicol (while Sullivan had a room at number 4) and she told the Old Bailey court:

‘I have heard him threaten her—I heard him say that he would give her a good hiding some night, and that he would swing for her’.

James Muir did ‘swing for her’ on 1 March 1892 at Newgate Prison. He was hanged by James Billington and the motive given at the time was that although he and Abigail had split up she ‘still pestered him for money’. Presumably to support her little baby girl, who was now an orphan.

A very happy New Year to everyone reading this and especial thanks to those who’ve been reading my posts on a regular (or irregular) basis for the past year or more. In 2019 my next book will come out – a co-authored analysis of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders with my friend and fellow researcher Andy Wise. Hopefully it will be published by Amberley in June, but I’ll keep you posted on here.

[from The Standard, Friday, 1 January, 1892]