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 brutal husband is saved by his terrified wife

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This week my masters students at the University of Northampton will be looking at the subject of domestic violence. This 14 week module concentrates on Violence and the Law and we discuss all forms of violence (including state violence inflicted as punishment). Historians and criminologists have shown that, in history, the vast majority of all violent crime (homicide, assault, wounding, and robbery) was committed by men.

It is also true that the most likely relationship between murderer and victim was domestic or at least involved parties that were known to each other. Despite the concentration of ‘true crime’ histories and television dramas on ‘stranger’ murders, the reality was (and is) that most people know the people that injure or kill them.

Many of the domestic murders that were eventually prosecuted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century started their journey in the summary courts. Moreover, these courts heard countless incidents of male violence towards their wives and partners, some of which may well have been steps on the way to a later homicide. Working-class women in the victorian period put up with a considerable amount of abuse before they went to law since the consequences of involving the police or magistracy could make a bad situation worse.

Several of the  Police Magistrates who wrote about their careers expressed their frustration at the abused wives who continually summoned their spouses for their violence only to forgive them or plead for leniency when they appeared in court. This is one such example of the almost impossible situation some married found themselves in in the 1800s.

William Collins was described as a ‘powerful and ruffianly-looking fellow’ when he stood in the dock at Lambeth before Mr Norton. His wife, Elizabeth, was unable to appear at first, so injured was she by her husband’s violence. In her place the constable dealing with the case told the magistrate what had happened.

He explained that he was called to a house in Caroline Place, Walworth Road where the couple lived. He found Elizabeth ‘in her night dress, with two or three deep wounds on her arms and one on her chest, from each of which the blood was streaming’.

Collins had apparently attacked his wife with a broken wine bottle, ripping her flesh with the jagged edges of the glass. The PC arrested Collins and put Elizabeth in a cab so she could be taken to hospital to have her wounds dressed. The court heard from the surgeon that treated her that she was ‘within a hair’s breath’ of dying from her wounds; fortunately for her the cuts had avoided any major organs.

The constable reported that when he had gone to fetch Mrs Collins to appear he was unable to find her and believed she was unlikely to press the case against her husband. Mr Norton chose to remand Collins in custody until Elizabeth could be found and encouraged to appear.

A few hours later she did come to court, but was clearly (the paper reported) ‘under great terror of the prisoner’. To no one’s surprise despite the horrific attack Collins had inflicted on her she ‘used every possible effort to get her husband off’. The magistrate was hamstring by her reaction and did as much as he could to help her by bailing Collins to appear ‘on a future day’.

He was presumably hoping that this brush with the law would serve as  session to the man, effectively warning him that if he hurt Elizabeth again in the meantime he would face the full force of the law. Sadly, I doubt this would have had much, if any affect on someone who was prepared to slash his wife with such casual cruelty.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, November 5, 1855]

Since it is November 5th, ‘bonfire night’, you might enjoy this blog post I wrote for our ‘Historians at Northampton’ blog site which looks at the BBC drama series about the Gunpowder Plot.