‘I want you!’ ‘But I don’t want you’: unrequited love ends that ends in violence and a life ruined

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Hannah Williams loved James Newbold and she thought that the young engineer would marry her. She believed this and that had led her to support him while he was out of work, give him money to get his clothes out of pawn, and, most importantly, to give herself to him physically. She was a respectable and ‘extremely good looking’ domestic servant and to make these decisions she must have been fairly sure of James’ intentions.

Unfortunately for Hannah however, James was not on the same page when it came to the future. When she got word that he had proposed marriage to another young woman she set off to confront near his place of work. Hannah found James drinking with his workmates in the parlour of a beer shop in Rotherhithe Street. She sent in a message asking to see him and he stepped outside.

At first Hannah asked him to step inside with her so they could talk but he refused. She then asked him if it was true that he was to be married to someone else. He admitted it.

Through tears Hannah now vowed that she would have ‘her revenge either on me or the lady’, James later recounted. He went back inside without her. Some minutes later she sent another message in, demanding he come back out to speak to her. He ignored it so Hannah waited till he left with his friends and confronted him again.

‘I want you’, she cried. ‘I don’t want you’, he replied and started to walk away back towards the hammer shop where he worked. When Hannah followed he warned her away, threating to ‘knock her head off’ if she did as she was embarrassing him in front of his fellow workers. Undeterred Hannah pursued him slowly and then, suddenly, pulled a long kitchen knife from her clothes and attacked him with it.

She cut at this throat, drawing blood and only narrowly avoiding the main artery. James was rushed to hospital and made a full recovery. Hannah was seized and handed over to the police. She appeared before the magistrate at Greenwich on 18 September 1847.  Having heard the evidence, including the medical testimony of a surgeon, Hannah was committed for trial and led away by the gaoler, ‘apparently unaffected by her deplorable position’.

Her trial took place at the Old Bailey on 25 October, once James had fully recovered. The jury convicted her of wounding but had a lot of sympathy for her situation. Effectively ‘ruined’ and exploited by  her lover and then publically threatened her actions were, if not excusable, at least understandable. Recommended to mercy, the judge sentenced her to just one month in prison for the knife attack.

Hannah was just 20 years of age in 1847 and she wasn’t to enjoy a long life after that. According to the digital panopticon she must have moved up to Wolverhampton at some point following he release, and she died there in 1873 at the age of 46. Perhaps she never recovered fully from the shame of her crime and the loss of her reputation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, September 19, 1847]

The soldier who found it all too much to bear

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This is one of those stories that could make a mini drama series all of its own, despite there being very little detail to go on. All it needs is a storyteller with a vivid imagination.

In July 1861 a ‘tall, military-looking man; named James Moxham was set in the dock at Southwark Police court. He was charged with two counts of theft and one of attempting to kill himself in his cell. How on earth had he come to this desperate state?

It seems that Moxham, a soldier in the army, had been courting a young woman named Jane Clerk. The court heard that he was accused of stealing two gold rings and a pawnbroker’s duplicate (ticket) for a gold chain. The jewelry belonged to Jane but one wonders if the rings had been intended for the two of them at some future wedding ceremony.

Clearly something had gone very wrong for Jane to bring a charge of felonious theft against her paramour but what exactly happened isn’t revealed in this report. All we are told was that in court Jane pleaded for leniency on the grounds that Moxham had since returned the stolen items and she’d forgiven him.

The soldier had also tried to hang himself in his cell, though whether this was because he believed he’d lost his chance at love or could not cope with the public shame of a court hearing for theft, is again, open to question. He told the sitting justice, Mr Maude, that he deeply regretted his actions and it was evident he was still traumatized from his experience.

Since Jane no longer wished to bring a prosecution and the jewelry had been reunited with its owner, Mr Maude admonished the soldier for his bad behaviour but directed the clerk of the court to discharge him. That should have been that but a policeman piped up that Moxham was wanted by the army, as a deserter. That may have been the real shame he was trying to escape from. He was immediately re-arrested and taken back to the cells to await the visit of his company sergeant.

So there you have it, a drama in several acts: a tale of unrequited love or star-crossed lovers? An attempt to run away from the army to marry the woman he loved? A mental crisis occasioned by the impending doom of public shame? Over to you novelists!

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 5, 1861]

‘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. 

‘Getting away with it’ in Victorian London: two cautionary tales from Marlborough Street Police court

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Here are two theft charges, heard at the Marlborough Street Police court in 1889, neither of which resulted in convictions or further action. There must have been huge numbers of pre-trial hearings which were resolved at summary level and yet we have very few surviving documentation about this important tier of the criminal justice system. There are a handful of late nineteenth-century minute books for the Thames Police office, a few for Bow Street a little earlier, and then most of what survives is for the early twentieth century.

Which means, unfortunately, that historians of crime are perhaps overly reliant  on the reporting of the summary (magistrate) process by the Victorian press. I say ‘unfortunately’ because the newspapers were, understandably, selective. In each of the daily reports from Thames, Bow Street, Marylebone or the several other metropolitan police courts the editors pick one, perhaps two cases out of dozens that came before them. In a week a police court magistrate would hear hundreds of cases but only a dozen or fewer would be written up for the newspapers’ readership.

Historians of the eighteenth-century justice system are well aware that for some periods of the 1700s the publishers of the Old Bailey Proceedings (which recounted trials that took place at what was to become the Central Criminal Court) often omitted cases which ended in acquittal for fear of demonstrating to offenders that there were successful ways to avoid conviction. One of the purposes in reporting trials of criminals was show that crime did not pay so anything that suggested you could ‘get away with it’ was unhelpful at best.

So I wonder why these two cases were the ones chosen by the editor of the Standard newspaper in April 1889 to represent the business of the Marlborough Street court?

First Clara Newton was accused of stealing £3 and 3from a man she’d met in Oxford Street. Clara appeared in court dressed fashionably and wearing a red hat with a green feather. One imagines she cut quite a dash, and this might explain the reporter’s interest in her. She described herself as a barmaid, 21 years of age, who lived on the Euston Road. On April 22 1889 she met Captain Torry in the street and he invited her to have a drink with him.

The pair sat in a public house enjoying each other’s company until it was time to leave. Torry (rather ungallantly) ‘declined to see her home’ but did give her the money to take a cab. Now, I wonder whether he was hoping to extend the evening or perhaps even thought Clara was something other than a barmaid. Who knows?

She accepted his offer of a cab and asked to be shown to a waiting room where she could rest comfortably before the cab arrived. The captain told her where to go and was about to leave himself when she asked him to wait in the pub, presumably to ensure that she caught the cab safely. He agreed.

However, some moments afterwards he happened to ‘peep out of the bar door’ and saw her walking quickly away from the pub, and not towards the waiting room. Instinctively he checked his pockets and found his purse was missing. He grabbed his hat and followed afterwards, losing her briefly and having to ask a cab driver where she’d gone.

Torry caught up with her on Hanover Street and handed her over to the police. It was about 12 at night and the constable that took her into custody told Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street that she’d been searched at the station but the captain’s purse was not on her. She did have money – 2 sovereigns and 4s in silver to be exact – but none of the coins matched those that the captain thought he’d lost.

While there was a clear suspicion about Clara there was no real proof and so she was discharged. This result brought a smattering of applause from the court so either her friends were there to support her or the public felt that the captain was a ‘blackguard’ who had got what he deserved.

Next up was John Helmslie Hunt who was charged with trying to defraud a Piccadilly saddler named Garden. Hunt, using the name ‘Captain J.H. Hunt’ and giving an address in Wotton-under-Edge  (in Gloucestershire) had entered the saddler’s workshop in August 1888 and asked to purchase a holster flask. He was given the flask on credit since he appeared genuine and promised to pay the following day.

He never came back however. Not long afterwards inquiries made by Mr Garden ascertained that Hunt had pawned the flask on the Hampstead Road and had then disappeared. In fact he’d traveled to Canada where he’d stayed for several months before returning to London in the spring of 1889. In his absence a warrant had been issued for his arrest and in April the police caught up with him and thus he too was put in the dock before Mr Hannay on the same day as Clara.

It took a while for the magistrate to hear the case against Hunt but in the end he came to the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to send him for trial. Quite simply he doubted whether a jury would convict him so there was no public interest in sending him to the ‘Bailey. He too was released.

Both cases were unusual or at least ‘interesting’ but both showed that con men and women could defraud the unwary or steal from the distracted. Perhaps that was why the editor of the Standard deemed them suitable material for his daily review of the business of the police courts: they were there to warn his readership to take more care of their property and not to be fooled by people who looked genuine but were anything but.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 24, 1889]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books in June this year. You can find details here:

‘I will go faster to ruin if I go with my mother’: teenage defiance as tensions run high in Westminster

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I am not sure what Margaret Brown hoped to achieve when she prosecuted Matthew Max Plimmer for an assault at Westminster Police court. Margaret (a 32 year-old woman who lived in a property on the Brompton Road), explained that her daughter had run off with Plimmer, who was already married, and had been living in sin with him. Anxious to ‘rescue her’ as she put it, Margaret turned up at the house and demanded that her daughter come home with her. Plimmer refused to allow this, remonstrated with the woman and then assaulted her. According to the prosecutrix he ‘seized her, and bit her wrist so it bled’.

The daughter was in court and was interviewed by the magistrate, Mr Paget. She told him she had left Plimmer (a Belgian national who had apparently worked, briefly it seems, for the C.I.D) and had set herself up at digs on the Marylebone Road. She wasn’t doing very well however, and was surviving only by pawning her own clothes.

Mr Paget advised her to go back home to her mother but the headstrong nineteen year-old refused. She would ‘do as she liked’ she told him. In that case ‘she was going fast to ruin’, the magistrate said; why on earth would she not return home?

The young woman offered an ‘insolent’ (but unrecorded) response and said ‘she would go to ruin faster if she went with her mother’.

Ouch.

That was a telling comment on Mrs Brown’s character and her relationship with her daughter. If she had hoped to use the leverage of the court to separate her daughter from a married man (and a foreigner to boot) in an effort get her to return to the fold she had failed. Plimmer was initially remanded for further examination but then released on sureties of £50 to reappear if required.

Mother and daughter went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 11, 1879]

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex