‘I’ll teach you to have a little hussy here while I’m away’: The troubles of a broken marriage are aired in public

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Map of Bethnal Green (from Cross’ London Guide 1844)

The marriage between Thomas and Lucretia Gates was not a happy one. The relationship had soured with the passing of time and Thomas’ poor treatment of his wife had provoked her to move out of the marital home in Bethnal Green. Thomas,  described in the press as a ‘tradesman’, had then employed a female servant to look after him. This seems to have been a bone of contention for his estranged wife.

On the 14 April 1852 the consequences of that broken marriage reached the Worship Street Police Court as Thomas summoned Lucretia to answer a charge that she had assaulted him. This was rare; whilst many men might have been attacked by their wives and partners, very few were prepared to risk the damage to the reputations by admitting so in public.

Thomas Gates arrived with a police escort. He had so stirred up the community that a ‘great crowd, chiefly of women,  followed him to court’. This probably reflected both a show of solidarity with Lucretia by the ‘sisterhood’ and a degree of contempt for Thomas for running to the authorities instead of asserting his patriarchal rights and position.

The scene certainly enlivened the court reporter’s morning, however, and he must have regarded it as a welcome, if unexpected, bonus.

Thomas started by declaring that: ‘this woman is my wife, but we live apart, she in fact, having run away with another man‘.

Lucretia was not having this; having vehemently denied this version of events she ‘reproached her husband with having taken a  young hussy home to supply her place‘.

Thomas rejected this accusation and described how the assault he had accused her of had happened. He was at his home in Turk Street, Bethnal Green, when Lucretia had called on him. She took him by surprise and rushed in, shouting abuse at him and the young serving girl, Sarah Hartlett. Both were assaulted by the angry wife before Lucretia turned her rage on the room.

She ‘swept all the china and glass from the shelves and cupboards, and having smashed them to pieces, set to work to demolish the furniture and everything she could lay her hands on‘.

But she didn’t stop there, he said.

She tore the shirt entirely to pieces from his back, and tore the dress of the other woman also, exclaiming, “I’ll teach you to have a ____ here while I’m away,” and accusation which he assured the magistrate was quite unfounded‘.

It was quite a display of anger and Lucretia did not deny it. Instead she explained that her husband had driven her away with his abuse and violent threats. On one occasion, she said, he ‘had stood over her with a knife, threatening to kill her’. She also repeated her accusation that Hartlett was his mistress.

It was now the servant’s turn to be questioned by the justice (Mr Ingham)  and she denied any impropriety on her part. She only worked there during the day and always left him alone  in the night. Thomas may have been having an affair but Sarah claimed it was not with her.

Several of the woman that had accompanied the couple to court testified to seeing or hearing Thomas’ abuse of his wife. One recalled her being thrown out of a window, while another said she had seen Thomas Gates chase his wife down the street brandishing an iron poker. Mr Ingham turned to the pair and told them that it was clear their relationship was in tatters but that did not give either of them to right to turn to violence or to disturb the public peace. He cautioned them both and dismissed Thomas’ charge against his wife. They then presumably left the court and returned to their, separate, lives.

Divorce was not really available to the majority of people in the 1850s. The government (through a Royal Commission established in 1850) were looking at a reform of the law to allow the upper middle class to gain a full divorce, whilst at the same time making the cost of judicial separations prohibitively expensive to everyone else. In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act which removed divorce from the church (ecclesiastical) courts to the civil. The new law, not surprisingly (since it was created by men) favoured men over women. A man could sue for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery whereas a woman would have to show an additional cause (such as as incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion) or prove cruelty on its own.

Thomas and Lucretia could not hope to get divorced, they simply could not have afforded it. Instead the best they could aim for was either to patch up their broken marriage or live apart and agree to ignore each other’s infidelities. Given Lucretia’s passion and temper, I think this might have been unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 15, 1852]

A defiant cook takes her chances before a jury

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The Police Courts of London had the power to act summarily (i.e without a jury) in a large number of instances. Many offences were prosecuted at this level without troubling the judges at Hick’s Hall or Old Bailey, and very many people were sent to prison on the judgment of a Police Court magistrate acting alone.

This suited society, because it kept the jury courts free of the more petty offenders or offences and it arguably also suited quite a few defendants. A Police Court magistrate had limited powers to punish summarily; he could fine you and send you to prison, but only for relatively short periods of time. A judge at the sessions or central criminal court could put you away for years on end, even life.

So we often see prisoners asking the magistracy to deal with them summarily, preferring a quick hearing and a short sentence to being remanded for a week or two to face a jury and perhaps a lengthy period of penal servitude. Harriet Payne however, chose a different path, which perhaps reflects the fact that she (or her lawyer) believed she might earn the sympathy of a jury or (more likely) be able to cast enough doubt in their minds as to her culpability for the crime she was accused of.

Harriet Payne had worked as a cook for Mrs Eliza Godwin in Upper Tooting for a year from 1864 to 1865. On the 17 December she was dismissed after a week’s notice. Almost as soon as she had vacated her room at Holme Cottage her mistress ( a widow) noticed that a number of things were missing including table cloths, napkins and other items of linen, and then, a few days later, three ‘finger glasses’ disappeared.

Suspicion immediately fell on Harriet and she was arrested by the police. PC Kempster was unable to trace any of the things stolen back to the prisoner (with the exception of a shawl which she declared was her property) but a glass was discovered at a neighbour’s house in Tooting. However, in the course of searching the former cook’s room the police did find a key that happened to fit one of the linen drawers at Holme Cottage.

This was proof that Harriet could have taken the table linen as suspected and this was enough for Mr Ingham the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth. He decided that she was probably guilty of theft but that it was hard to prove it so he found her guilty instead of the lesser offence of unlawfully possessing the shawl she’d claimed was her own. He started to hand down a sentence of two months imprisonment but Mr Wilson, Harriett’s lawyer, begged leave to interrupt his worship. He asked instead that she be able to take her chances with the jury at the sessions and the magistrate allowed this.

Harriett was released on bail to face a trial later that month or early the next year, the outcome of which may have seen her released with her reputation intact, or sent to a London prison for a longer stretch than Mr Ingram had originally intended. That was the risk she took and I’m afraid I can’t discover the result.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 21 December, 1865]

Dodging the Police and skating on thin ice in St James’s Park

St James Park Frozen

In the Victorian period the ornamental lake in St James’ Park was occasionally turned into an impromptu  skating rink. There are reports of Londoners donning their skates and taking to the ice in large numbers.  This was despite the fact that it was a dangerous thing to do and the park authorities and police took measures to stop them.

This rarely prevented them however, as one writer noted in 1853:

They invariably prefer testing the ice themselves, by walking on to it, or under it, as may happen: and it is for the sake of checking this precocious spirit of experiment, that the edge of the ice all round the lake has been broken every morning since the frost set in, by men appointed for the purpose; and hence it is that now, when it will bear, bridges of plank have to be laid down that they may get on and off. You may observe, likewise, that ropes are laid across the ice from one bank to the other, in readiness to be drawn instantly to any part that may give way.

Charles Manby Smith, Curiosities of London Life (1853)

In January 1879 the weather was cold enough for the lake to freeze over and dozens took to the ice. In desperation the park authorities and police resorted to the law to try to deter the thrill seekers. One morning at Bow Street a ‘number of young men’ were brought in before Mr Ingram charged with ‘sliding and skating on the ornamental water’ despite ‘the caution of the police and the printed notices forbidding the same’.

The case was prosecuted by the representatives of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Works, who ran the parks, in the person of Mr Golden, a Treasury Solicitor. Golden regretted having to bring the case but said the Commissioners had been exasperated by pleasure seekers simply ignoring all the signs and even attempting to cut the rope that was used to clear them off.

Several policemen had been deployed to thwart the skaters but their attempts had become something of an entertainment in itself. The skaters amused themselves by ‘dodging’ the bobbies who found it ‘no easy task’ to catch them. Mr Golden told the magistrate that the ‘tumbling of an officer was a special source of delight to the mob’.  I can well imagine it was.

The magistrate, satisfied that the Treasury solicitor had proved his case, turned to one of the young men in the dock and asked him if he thought it was ‘fun’ to act as he had been accused of doing. ‘Certainly’, replied the youth, ‘and I think so still’. The appearance in court hadn’t cowed him or his fellows at all. I suspect they were respectable young men because their names were not recorded in the paper and Mr Ingram fined them the considerable sum of £1 each and let them go.

[from The Standard, Friday, January 17, 1879]

For other posts relating to London’s parks see:

Pram (and class) wars in Regent’s Park

Indecency and rough behaviour spoil the tranquility of London’s Royal Parks

Riotous behaviour in Hyde Park and a cobbler is sent packing

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk