A mother’s grief as her son’s rejection condemns her to the workhouse

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Having just formally committed William Herbert to the Old Bailey to face trial for murder the Clerkenwell magistrate then had to deal with a string of applications from impoverished petitioners who needed help.

One of these was an elderly widow who said that her son had abandoned her. She wanted to know if Mr Barstow (the magistrate) could compel her son to support her?

The justice asked her to explain the situation, which she did. Her son had recently married, and that had been the start of ‘her troubles’ because at almost the same time her husband had died. Except that he wasn’t actually her husband. In common with many working-class couple in the 1800s they hadn’t officially married.

But no one knew this, not even her children, so it must have come as something of a shock to the young man when his new wife (‘through her inquisitiveness’) found out and told him. Up until then the widow had been allowing her son ‘to have what part of the house he pleased’ and he had agreed to pay her 26a week in maintenance.

However, as soon as he discovered the family secret he changed; he called her a ‘fallen woman, a woman of sin’ and refused to have anything more to do with her. She didn’t complain or censure him but simply reminded her son that he ‘had been brought up respectably’ and she hoped he would at least continue to pay her the weekly allowance.

He refused outright and (and here was the clue to his change of heart) told her that ‘his wife ashamed of her past conduct, and would not allow him to do anything for her’.

‘In fact’, he continued, ‘he had got orders from his wife not to speak to her’.

She had come to terms with his rejection of her but she needed that money which was why she had come to see the magistrate for his help. Unfortunately Mr Barstow told her that there was nothing he could do for her; ‘an illegitimate son was not bound to keep his mother’. With that the ‘poor woman, who seemed much affected’ left the court probably knowing that her next port of call must be the parish workhouse.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 15, 1880]

‘It’s no use crying over spilt milk’, one young charmer tells the maid he has ruined. Bastardy at Westminster

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The poor servant girl ‘undone’ by the master (or another male of the house) is a well-worn trope of Victorian fiction. That said it is fairly rare for stories like this to reach the newspapers, at least in the reports that I have been looking through for the last three years.

In mid October 1879 an unnamed domestic servant applied for a summons at Westminster Police court to bring Edward Salmon to court. She alleged that he was the father of her unborn child and that he had run away from his responsibilities and left her ‘ruined’.

Salmon was not in court, nor was his mother – Mrs Hermina J. Salmon – for whom the girl had worked. She had employed as a maid in the salmon’s house at 55 Oxford Road, Ealing and the girl told the magistrate that Salmon had ‘accomplished her ruin in the early part of last year’. When it became obvious that she was pregnant she was sacked and turned out of the house.

This was the usual consequence of intimate relationships between female servants and male members of the household, regardless of whether the sexual relationship was consensual or not. In this case Mrs Salmon clearly held her maid responsible. She told her in a letter that she could not have been ‘a “correct” girl when she entered service, for had she been so she would not have allowed [her son] to take liberties with her’.

Edward had also written to the girl (who had been asking for money) telling her that she should not ‘get cut up about it’. Instead she should:

‘keep up her spirits, and although he was sorry, it was “no use crying over spilt milk”.

He also advised her not to threaten him for he would be happy to ‘let the law take its course’.

He warned her to stay away until ‘any unpleasantry passed over’ (until she’d had the baby) and that she was not tell his mother either.

He wasn’t afraid, he said, of his character being dragged through the mud because ‘it was so bad at present it could hardly be made worse’.

What a charmer.

Edward Salmon had sent the girl £2, as had his mother, but they promised no more saying that was all they could afford. As a result the servant, showing considerable courage and determination, had gone to law.

Mr. D’Eyncourt was told that Edward Salmon was not available and nor was his mother. Both were represented by a lawyer. There was a certificate from Mrs Salmon explaining her absence (the reasons were not given by the paper however) but a witness appeared to depose that he’d seen Edward boarding a ship at the docks. Edward Salmon had taken a ship bound for India and was currently in Paris, although his lawyer said that he would return in a ‘few weeks’.

D’Eyncourt declared that the summons had been duly served and so the law required Salmon to appear. That explained why he ‘had bolted’. He issued a maintenance order for the upkeep of the child – 5sa week until it reached 15 years of age. Salmon would also have to pay cost of 25s, and he backdated the order to January, which was when the maid had first made her application.

I do think this case is unusual but perhaps because of the determination of this woman to hold the father of her unborn child to account. To take on a social ‘superior’ in this way was a really brave thing to do. The court also supported her, naming Salmon publically (making it harder for him to shirk his responsibility) and handing down a maintenance order, while keeping her name out of the news.

Her reputation may have been ruined by the careless action of a young man who took advantage but she had won back some self respect at least. Whether he ever returned or made and kept up his payments to her and his child is a question I can’t answer. I would doubt it but at least this young woman had tried.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, October 19, 1879]

‘Brutal in the extreme’: one woman’s courage to stand up for herself against the odds

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It is probably fair to say that the marriage of Albert and Martha Sykes was doomed to fail. Albert was a labourer when the couple first got together and began to cohabit. Getting married may have been desirable, especially for working class women keen to uphold their reputations, but it was not always an inevitable consequence of cohabitation.

At some point in 1887 Martha gave birth to a baby girl but by then Albert was nowhere to be seen. Like many men he’d decided to shirk his responsibilities and deserted his partner. Martha though was a strong woman and insistent that her daughter should have a father to support her, so she went to law and obtained a summons to bring Albert to court.

When next she saw him in the dock at Marylebone Police court he was dressed as a sailor and stated that he was now an able seaman in the navy. The court determined that as he was  girl’s father he was obliged to pay towards her keep. However, Albert attempted to dodge this responsibility as well and never paid a penny. Martha stuck to her guns and summoned him for non-payment, so Albert found himself back in front of a magistrate in October 1889.

He promised to make good on the arrears and the case was adjourned for him to make a first payment. That never materialized (surprise, surprise) and so back to Marylebone he and Martha went. This time she had new offer for her estranged sailor: if he would agree to marry her and return home she would ‘forgive him the amount he was in arrears’. I think this tells us something about Martha, if not more about the reality of some working-class relationships in the late Victorian period. She had a small child and limited opportunities to bring in income. Therefore, as unreliable as Albert was he was of use to her. His wages would put food on the table and pay the rent and marriage would give Martha the respectability she felt she needed having born a child out of wedlock.

Albert agreed and the couple were married but they didn’t live happily ever after. Within months he’d deserted her again and she had summoned him back to court. That forced him to return to the marital home but he was a reluctant husband and things only got worse.

In May 1890 Albert was brought up before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone and charged with assaulting Martha, who was pregnant again. He was serving with navy at Chatham, attached to H.M.S Forte (which was under construction)¹, but was brought in on a warrant that Martha had taken out against him. Once again we can admire her determination to use the law to  prosecute her husband and to try to bring him to book, however futile it seems to have been.

Martha testified to his cruelty saying that she had putting her daughter’s boots on in the morning at their rented rooms at 3 Dickenson Street, Kentish Town when the little girl had started crying that she was hungry. Albert was annoyed at the noise and hit the child. Martha told him he had no right to strike the girl and an argument flared. The couple was poor despite Sykes’ navy salary and Martha was often obliged to pawn items. It seems she’d recently pawned a firearm belonging to Albert simply so she could pay the rent.

The argument escalated and he grabbed her by the throat and began to strangle the life out of her. Martha managed to fight back and free herself but he pushed her to the floor and knee’d her in the stomach. She screamed, in pain and in fear of losing her unborn baby, and the landlady came running upstairs. But Albert was already on his way out, running away from trouble as he always did.

He was back that night though and the fight started again. He took the hat she was wearing and threw it in the fire; Martha had to run from the house, in fear of her life, taking her little girl with her. It was a sadly typical example of male violence in the late 1800s but here we can see it escalate over time. Most women killed in the period were killed by their spouse or partner and often after years of non-fatal attacks. Abused women rarely went to court early in the cycle, choosing instead to believe they could calm or amend violent behavior. In reality once a man started hitting his wife he didn’t stop until the pair were separated by legal means or by the woman’s death.

In this case Martha was a strong woman who stood up for herself and her daughter in court, refuted the counter claims of antagonizing Albert which were leveled by his lawyer, and she convinced the magistrate that he was guilty as charged. Mr De Rutzen described Albert Sykes (who seemed destined to live down to the behaviour of his fictional namesake) as ‘brutal in the extreme’. Albert was sentenced to two months in prison, an outcome that seemed to surprise him. As he was led away he was heard to ask to see his mother.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]

¹ HMS Forte was launched in 1893, one of eight cruisers commissioned by the navy in the 1890s. She saw service off the coast of Africa but was decommissioned in 1913 as the navy needed a very different class of warship for the coming fight with Imperial Germany. 

The estranged husband, his drunken wife, and the bent policeman

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Bishop’s Walk, Lambeth (sometime in the later 1800s – it must be before the 1860s as the police are still wearing stove pipe hats). 

This is an unusual case that arose from the all too usual complaint of desertion. In this example a ‘respectable tradesman’ named Mason was summoned to appear at Lambeth Police court to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and left her chargeable to the parish. In many cases of this sort the husband was effectively forced to maintain his wife because the alternative was that the ratepayers would have to.

However, this case was a little different as Mr Mason was not held accountable and the actions of a policeman who was involved in the process were distinctly questionable. This is probably why this otherwise mundane example of the daily work of the police courts made it into the papers.

Mrs Mason appeared in court in late November 1848 and was described as being ‘showily-dressed’ (which gives us an indication of the reporter’s opinion of her. She told Mr Elliot (the sitting magistrate) that two years previously her husband had sold off all the family furniture and had turned her out into the street. He had initially allowed her 10 shillings a week and she had returned to friends in Carshalton, but in August he stopped the payments to her. Since her husband lived in Lambeth that parish now became liable for her maintenance under the terms of the poor law.

Her husband explained that he had claimed a legal exemption to the support of his wife on the grounds that she was adulterous and called a witness to prove it. This man, another tradesman who knew Mason and his wife, admitted spending time alone with the woman but said he had no idea the pair were married. Mrs Mason vehemently denied she had done anything of the sort  but her estranged husband’s solicitor vowed that he could prove her a liar.

Given this development Mr Elliott adjourned the case and the parties returned to court on the 6th.

Now the tradesman’s brief produced a police constable – Samuel Booker (125P) who testified that on the night after the Mrs Mason had first appeared in court (which would have been Wednesday 29 November) he had found Mrs Mason much the worse for drink outside the Flying Horse pub in Walworth Road. She was, he added, ‘surrounded by bad characters’ and asked the officer to find her a bed for the night. Instead he lifted her up and accompanied her back to the police station. On the next morning (Thursday 30/11) she was brought up at Lambeth on a charge of being drunk and incapable.

PC Booker was now cross-examined and it was put to him that he had seen Mrs Mason earlier that evening, at about 9 pm. He said he had not but did recall talking to another lady who asked him to ‘procure a Carshalton bus’ for her. Surely this was one and the same person, the magistrate enquired. No, said the constable, he was quite sure this was a different woman.

I suspect he was lying, perhaps to conceal some relationship (however temporary) between them. He came unstuck when a gentleman appeared to say that he had seen PC Booker and a woman that looked remarkably similar to  Mrs Mason at seven that evening, outside a gin shop near Newington Church. He watched as the woman entered the shop and was followed in by the policeman a few minutes later.

The witness swore that a short time afterwards the man left by a different door. He challenged the officer as to his conduct and said he would report him. He was ‘not a little surprised on the next day to find that the policeman brought the same woman to court on a charge of drunkenness’.

So, what had the policeman been up to? Drinking with a woman while on duty? It wouldn’t be the first time.

But why did he arrest her, and then not let her go without a court appearance? Was he after a bribe, (monetary of otherwise) and are we meant to consider the possibility that Mrs Mason was prostituting herself to make ends meet? Again, she would not be the first poor woman to resort to this when her husband had left her penniless.

Mr Elliott judged that further enquiries should be made into the conduct of PC Booker, who would have to wait nervously on his sergeant and inspector’s decisions. As for Mr Mason however, there was no reason – the magistrate determined – why he should support a woman who behaved as badly as his wife had. Her claim for support was rejected and she left court as poor as when she arrived. With her reputation in tatters, little hope of divorce, and what seems like ‘the drink habit’, her future looked bleak.

[From The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Thursday, December 7, 1848]

A glimmer of hope for an abused wife in Somers Town

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According to the memoirs of one of London’s Police Court magistrates the working class believed that magistrates had the power to divorce married couples. In reality divorce was out of the question the poorer classes as it was an expensive legal exercise which effectively excluded all but the wealthiest in late Victorian society. Police magistrates in London could however, order a legal separation and require a husband to continue to maintain his wife.

We can see an example of this in a report from Clerkenwell in 1885. Richard Davis, a labourer living at 12 Churchway in Somers Town, was brought before Mr Hosack and charged with assaulting his wife. This was a common enough accusation levelled in the police courts, hundreds of women prosecuted their partners on a weekly basis in London.   In most cases the accusation was enough and when the couple appeared in court the wife would either drop the charge or plead for leniency, often whilst she stood in the witness box sporting a black eye or swaddled in bandages.

The police rarely intervened in ‘domestics’, and were not supposed to intervene unless ‘actual violence is imminent’ (as the Police Code stated). Most of the time they were called after violence had occurred as I have described on numerous occasions in previous posts here. In court this was the only situation in which a wife could testify against her husband but the difficulties in doing so were considerable. A wife that prosecuted her husband might fear retribution, or the loss of his earnings should he be imprisoned (which was one of the options that magistrates resorted to when confronted with wife beaters).

Mrs Davis had been brave enough to challenge her husband’s abuse in public; it was very unlikely to have been the first time that he had assaulted her and perhaps she feared that if she suffered in silence the next attack might be worse, fatal even. In court Mr Hosack heard that Davis ‘constantly ill-used his wife’. On this most recent occasion he had arrived home drunk, the pair had argued and he had hit her with a chair. The labourer then picked up a paraffin lamp and hurled it at her. Fortunately it missed but it caused a small fire, which must have been terrifying.

Perhaps because Davis’ actions threatened not just the life of his wife but also those of his neighbours the magistrate decided to send him away to cool down. He sentenced him to three months at hard labour, which would certainly impact on the man and remind him that his wife had the power to resist.

More importantly perhaps Mr Hosack ordered a ‘judicial separation between the prisoner and his wife’ and told Davis that on his release he would have to pay her 10a week maintenance. He could make the order of course but could he compel the man to pay? I doubt it. As a labourer recently out of gaol Davis would have few prospects of finding well-paid work (if any at all) and 10was not inconsiderable.

Mrs Davis’ best option was to find a new home with friends or family and hope Richard did not find her. If she wanted his money she would have to fight for it, and that meant taking him before the courts again if he failed to pay.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 5, 1885]

‘Marry in haste and repent at leisure’ as one man learn’s to his (considerable) cost

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There was, for the working classes at least, no effectual form of divorce in the nineteenth century. Divorce was expensive (as it can still be) and there was no such thing as a ‘quick divorce’. Couples that couldn’t solve the problems of their marriage (in a time before Relate or other marriage counsellors) would either have to put up and make the best of it, or separate and live independently.

This was much easier for men than it was for women, socially and economically. As a result it was fairly common for men to desert their wives, and many did. An abandoned wife could, if she chose (and if she could find him), take her estranged husband to a police court and demand maintenance if he wouldn’t return to her.

This is what the young wife of William Clarke did. A court made an order against him and he started to pay her 10sa week towards her keep. However, as was usual, no payments materialised and Mrs Clarke had to go to law again to get the maintenance order enforced. So, on Saturday 28 May 1887 Mr and Mrs William Clarke were reunited, if only briefly, before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court.

William, who said he was a joiner, decided that now was the time to come up with an elaborate explanation for his behaviour, an explanation which owed more to the realms of popular melodrama than it did to reality.

Clarke said that eh should never have married his young bride at all. When he’d met her she had been a lady’s maid in the employ of ‘a wealthy lady named Le Compte’. And it was to Lady Le Compte that William was betrothed he insisted.

However, while he stayed at the lady’s London house he was systematically drugged and for a fortnight lost track of events, and had no real memory of them. During that time he was bundled into a hansom cab and driven to east London and forcibly married to the woman ‘who now called herself his wife’.

It was a incredible (if not incredulous) tale and Clarke didn’t manage to convince the magistrate of his version of events. Mr Busby had also heard from Mrs Clarke’s father who told him that he clearly recalled William coming to ask for his daughter’s hand, and that the couple had gone to Brighton after the wedding.

Mr Bushby declared that while the couple had only lived together as man and wife for two days they were still clearly, and properly married and so William had a responsibility towards her. She had received no money since the court order for maintenance had been made so he ordered William to find £59 plus £3 6scosts. This was a lot of money (about £5,000 today) but William paid it on the spot.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 30, 1887]

The struggle for the breeches (or the ‘bloomers’ in this case!)

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The nineteenth-century Police Courts were full of assault, much of it perpetrated by men and most of that ‘domestic’ (in other words where the wife or female partner was the victim). Most studies of interpersonal violence have found that men are most likely to be accused of assault in all its forms (from petty violence to serious wounding and homicide); women tended not to be violent or at least were not often prosecuted as such. When women did appear before the magistracy charged with assault it tended to be for attacking subordinates (children and servants) or other women. It was very rare for a woman to accused of hitting or otherwise assaulting a man.

There are good reasons for this and it is not simply because women were somehow ‘weaker’ or even less violently disposed than men. For a violent action to become a statistic it needs to be reported and then (usually) prosecuted if we are going to be able to count it. Historians talk of the ‘dark figure’ of unreported crime and there is widespread agreement that this figure is particular dark where domestic violence is concerned.

The gendered nature of Victorian society made it very hard for a man to report an assault against him by a woman. The mere fact that he had allowed a female to abuse him (to repudiate his ‘authority’) was bad enough in a society which was highly patriarchal. But to compound that by admitting in public that he had been bested by a woman was considered shameful. I am not suggesting that women were frequently beating up their male partners but I suspect the real figure is higher than the records suggest.

So when a man did bring a prosecution against a woman it is not surprising that it made the papers, and (as in this case) provided an opportunity for amusement at the man’s expense.

When Jeremiah Lynch lost his first wife to cholera he took on a woman to help him keep his house together. Lynch, a tailor living in Redcross Street near the Mint, was elderly and employed a vibrant young Irish woman named Carolina. He had hired Carolina in October 1850 and for nine months she had performed her duties admirably. In fact so diligent was she that in July 1852 Jeremiah (despite the age difference) proposed marriage to her which she accepted.

This soon turned out to be a terrible mistake however as Carolina, now Mrs Lynch, appeared to transform into quite a different person from the amenable servant he had married.

He ‘had not been tied to her many days before she exhibited her true temper, by demanding possession of all his money, and wanting to wear the breeches’.

When he refused her demands she smashed all his crockery. At first he ‘overlooked her mad conduct’ but on Friday 19 September 1851 she came home at six and started on him again. She complained (in an example of gender role reversal) that he had not prepared anything ‘nice for tea’ and knocked him about the head and body. She declared that ‘she would wear the breaches’ he told the magistrate at Southwark Police Court on the following Saturday morning.

‘So’, the magistrate asked him (to mounting laughter in the court) ‘she is desirous of wearing the Bloomer costume?’

If Lynch responded it was not recorded but Carolina did speak in her own defence. She told his Worship that the tailor (described as ‘sickly-looking old man’ by the Standard‘s reporter) was ‘a nasty old brute’ who ‘ill-used and starved her’.

Jeremiah Lynch denied this but the magistrate didn’t convict her of the assault. Instead he granted a separation, perhaps acknowledging that Lynch had some responsibility in the matter. He further required that the tailor should pay his former housekeeper 10s a week. In the end then this was probably a fairly successful outcome for Carolina, if not for Jeremiah. In this struggle for the breaches then, it was victory for the ‘fairer’ sex.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1851]