The odds are stacked against a young wife at the mercy of her cruel and abusive husband

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This week my undergraduate students at Northampton have been looking at marital violence in history. I’ve set them reading by a variety of historians that will (hopefully) allow them to look at the way spousal abuse was perpetrated and prosecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of it was predicated on the prevailing ideology of patriarchy.

English society in the 1800s was fundamentally male dominated. Men held all the positions of power (save one, that of monarch after 1837) and women were effectively excluded from most decision-making.

All the Police Court magistrates I write about were men, as were all the judges and jurors at the Old Bailey. Policeman were exclusively male, most other parish officials were men, and almost all senior employers were male as well. In the household the man was dominant too; while the ‘rule of thumb’ can be over-stressed men did have (or believed they had) the right to discipline their wives and children if they thought it necessary.

Police Court magistrates dealt with a huge amount of domestic violence, nearly all of it directed at the wives or common-law partners of working-class males. Men like James Bridgeman clearly believed they were entitled to hit their wives. This had been instilled in them from childhood as they witnessed their fathers beating their mothers for the most trivial of reasons. Often the men were drunk and simply resented being questioned as to the time they were coming in. On other occasions they complained about the food they’d been presented with, or about how long they’d had to wait to get it.

Abuse was frequent but women less frequently did much about it. Some fought back and London women were a tough lot by most accounts. But the scales were hardly balanced and years of abuse took its toll. Some wives fled, others were cowed and suffered up in silence. A few took their husbands before a magistrate, often hoping he would give them a divorce. It was a forlorn hope; justices had no power to permanently separate married couples.

Many, presented with the choice of seeing their abusive husband go to prison for beating them chose instead to take them back, fearing worse punishment if they didn’t or a worsening of their economic situation (and that of their children) if he was ‘sent down’. A ‘bad’ husband was sometimes better than no husband at all some must have reckoned.

James Bridgeman was a ‘bad husband’. He beat his young wife often despite them being relatively newly wed. He had spent two ‘unhappy years’ married to Ellen, as she told the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell. Then, one day in November 1884 things got worse.

On the 10 November they quarrelled and Ellen left to go back to her mother in Elsted Street, Walworth. On the next morning James turned up at his mother-in-law’s house and asked Ellen to come back to the family home in Newington Causeway.

She refused and he asked her if she would at least go to court to ‘get a separation’. ‘No, I have not got time’ was her reply. The next thing she felt was a sharp pain in her neck as her husband stepped her with his clasp knife.

The witnesses that saw the attack or saw him before he stabbed her said the knife was already open; he had intended this violence or anticipated her rejection at least. She was saved by the appearance of her mother and another man who pulled Bridgeman off her.

As James ran off, Ellen was taken to the police station where her wound was dressed. Soon afterwards James gave himself up at the station and Ellen charged him with the attack on her. In court before the Clerkenwell magistrate Ellen deposed that he had threatened her when he visited her at her mother’s.

He told her: ‘If you don’t live with me, I’ll do for you’.

The magistrate first remanded him then committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. There Bridgeman tried to claim that his wife stayed out late and was ‘living an immoral life’. It was an easy slur to make and Ellen vehemently denied it.

He also tried to argue that it was an accident, that Ellen had walked into him as he was using his knife to trim his nails. She had a inch deep cut in her neck and bruising around her throat where he had grabbed her.  Bridgeman had told the police and the magistrate that he acted as he had because he was entitled to do so, and this was reported in court.

Why had he stabbed her?

‘Only for her stopping out all night as she has done I should not have done what I have done’, was his defence.

It was the defence of all violent abusive men in the 1800s. The jury found him guilty of lesser offence than that with which he was charged. He was young (just 22) and the judge respited sentence. In the end he seems to have gone unpunished, no record exists that I can find of any sentence, so maybe some leniency was shown to him. The fact that the police surgeon didn’t think Ellen’s wounds were ‘dangerous’, and she recovered soon afterwards probably helped his cause. And the fact that the jury was male and he had publicly accused her of being a disobedient spouse.

I hope that ultimately she escaped him, because the chances are that such a brutish man would be quite prepared to make good on his threat in the future.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 23, 1884]

The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]

Transport woes mean a bad start to the week for one Victorian worker

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London Railways, 1899

In the 1800s increasing numbers of people commuted to work five or six days a week. Trams and railways were the preferred option for the working classes, as horse drawn omnibuses ran a little later and were a bit more expensive. Most working men had to be at their place of employment very early, by 7 o’clock, so they either needed to live close by (as the dockworkers in the East End did) or required reliable public transport to get them there.

Given that wages were low transport had to be cheap, which is why men like Alfred Shepperson took the train. Thousands used the workmen’s trains from the beginning of the 1860s, these usually ran early and charged just two pence return (instead of the flat rate of a penny per mile that was the cost of third class travel on the railways). It was an imperfect system however, some train services ran too late, others too early, and casual workers were particularly badly affected by this. Calls for better transport echoed down the century as the government recognized that this was crucial if they were to encourage migration to the developing suburbs north and south, and so clear the crowded slums of central, south and east London.

On Monday 27 July 1868 Alfred Shepperson had a bad Monday morning. He arrived at Walworth Road station at 7 am as usual, ready to start work nearby as a sawyer. He presented his ticket (a workman’s ticket) to Henry Ricketts at the gate but the Chatham & Dover Railway employee refused it. It had expired on Saturday he told him, and he’d need to pay 4d for his travel.

Shepperson growled at him declaring he see him damned first and an altercation seemed inevitable. Then a man stepped forward, smart and of a higher social class, who paid the sawyer’s fare. This might have been the end of it but Shepperson’s blood was up and he was in no mood to be reasonable. He continued to protest and was asked to leave the station quietly.

Unfortunately ‘he refused, made a great disturbance, calling [Ricketts] foul names, and threatening to have his revenge on him at the first opportunity’.

The ticket inspector was called and when be tried to steer the sawyer out of the station Shepperson’s rage intensified and he became ‘extremely violent’ assaulting both men and ripping the inspector’s coat in the process. Bystanders intervened before Shepperson could throw the man down some stairs. Eventually he was subdued and hauled off to a police station.

On the following morning he was up before Mr Selfe at Lambeth Police court where Shepperson claimed he didn’t know the ticket was out of date.

Can you read?’ the magistrate asked him.

Yes, sir

Then you must have seen the ticket was not available, for it is plainly printed on it’.

Shepperson had no answer for this so tried to deny the violence he was accused of, and hoped the magistrate would ‘overlook it’.

It is quite clear to me you have acted in a disgraceful manner’, Mr Selfe told him, ‘and I shall certainly not overlook such conduct. You are fined 20s., or 14 days’ imprisonment’.

The sawyer didn’t have 20(about £60 today, but 4-5 days’ wages at the time) so he was led away to the cells to start his sentence, one that might have had more serious repercussion if he had then (as was likely) lost his job.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 29, 1868]

The odds are stacked against a young wife, hemmed in as she was by the demands of patriarchy and the cruelty of her abusive husband

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This week my undergraduate students at Northampton will be looking at marital violence in history. I’ve set them reading by a variety of historians that will (hopefully) allow them to look at the way spousal abuse was perpetrated and prosecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of it was predicated on the prevailing ideology of patriarchy.

English society in the 1800s was fundamentally male dominated. Men held all the positions of power (save one, that of monarch after 1837) and women were effectively excluded from most decision-making.

All the Police Court magistrates I write about were men, as were all the judges and jurors at the Old Bailey. Policeman were exclusively male, most other parish officials were men, and almost all senior employers were male as well. In the household the man was dominant too; while the ‘rule of thumb’ can be over-stressed men did have (or believed they had) the right to discipline their wives and children if they thought it necessary.

Police Court magistrates dealt with a huge amount of domestic violence, nearly all of it directed at the wives or common-law partners of working-class males. Men like James Bridgeman clearly believed they were entitled to hit their wives. This had been instilled in them from childhood as they witnessed their fathers beating their mothers for the most trivial of reasons. Often the men were drunk and simply resented being questioned as to the time they were coming in. On other occasions they complained about the food they’d been presented with, or about how long they’d had to wait to get it.

Abuse was frequent but women less frequently did much about it. Some fought back and London women were a tough lot by most accounts. But the scales were hardly balanced and years of abuse took its toll. Some wives fled, others were cowed and suffered up in silence. A few took their husbands before a magistrate, often hoping he would give them a divorce. It was a forlorn hope; justices had no power to permanently separate married couples.

Many, presented with the choice of seeing their abusive husband go to prison for beating them chose instead to take them back, fearing worse punishment if they didn’t or a worsening of their economic situation (and that of their children) if he was ‘sent down’. A ‘bad’ husband was sometimes better than no husband at all some must have reckoned.

James Bridgeman was a ‘bad husband’. He beat his young wife often despite them being relatively newly wed. He had spent two ‘unhappy years’ married to Ellen, as she told the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell. Then, one day in November 1884 things got worse.

On the 10 November they quarrelled and Ellen left to go back to her mother in Elsted Street, Walworth. On the next morning James turned up at his mother-in-law’s house and asked Ellen to come back to the family home in Newington Causeway.

She refused and he asked her if she would at least go to court to ‘get a separation’. ‘No, I have not got time’ was her reply. The next thing she felt was a sharp pain in her neck as her husband stepped her with his clasp knife.

The witnesses that saw the attack or saw him before he stabbed her said the knife was already open; he had intended this violence or anticipated her rejection at least. She was saved by the appearance of her mother and another man who pulled Bridgeman off her.

As James ran off, Ellen was taken to the police station where her wound was dressed. Soon afterwards James gave himself up at the station and Ellen charged him with the attack on her. In court before the Clerkenwell magistrate Ellen deposed that he had threatened her when he visited her at her mother’s.

He told her: ‘If you don’t live with me, I’ll do for you’.

The magistrate first remanded him then committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. There Bridgeman tried to claim that his wife stayed out late and was ‘living an immoral life’. It was an easy slur to make and Ellen vehemently denied it.

He also tried to argue that it was an accident, that Ellen had walked into him as he was using his knife to trim his nails. She had a inch deep cut in her neck and bruising around her throat where he had grabbed her.  Bridgeman had told the police and the magistrate that he acted as he had because he was entitled to do so, and this was reported in court.

Why had he stabbed her?

‘Only for her stopping out all night as she has done I should not have done what I have done’, was his defence.

It was the defence of all violent abusive men in the 1800s. The jury found him guilty of lesser offence than that with which he was charged. He was young (just 22) and the judge respited sentence. In the end he seems to have gone unpunished, no record exists that I can find of any sentence, so maybe some leniency was shown to him. The fact that the police surgeon didn’t think Ellen’s wounds were ‘dangerous’, and she recovered soon afterwards probably helped his cause. And the fact that the jury was male and he had publicly accused her of being a disobedient spouse.

I hope that ultimately she escaped him, because the chances are that such a brutish man would be quite prepared to make good on his threat in the future.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 23, 1884]

Baby trafficking in Victorian London and Kent

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Detective Burgess and detective-sergeant Chide were looking for an infant when they called at a house in Olney Street, Walworth, south London. They had presumably received a tip-off that child was there or that someone in the house knew of its whereabouts. The person they questioned was Mary Boyle, a 30 year-old ‘ironer’ who was known by several other aliases (including Green, Kemp and Campbell).

They arrested Mary and took her back to the station to question her. There she was placed in an identity parade with other women and picked out by the mother of the missing baby, Mrs Mabel Reed. Boyle was then told she would be formally charged with stealing a six week-old male child and £3 in cash ‘by means of a trick’.

Mary vehemently denied the charge. She insisted instead that it had been given to her to adopt. Then where was it, the inspector asked her. ‘I will not tell you if you keep me here for 25 years’, she replied, adding ‘why do you call this stealing?’

The case came up before the Lambeth police magistrate in early May 1893. The police were still looking for the baby and Mary Boyle was still refusing to tell them where it was or admit she had taken it.

Inspector Harvey stated that: ‘You told this lady [Mrs Reed] that you had been confined with a dead baby seven weeks ago, and that you were the wife of a tea merchant at Eastbourne, and that you wanted the child to adopt, so your friends would think it was your own’.  Mary responded by saying that the child was well cared cared by a family in Leicester.

The child remained missing however, al the police had managed to find were its clothes, and a search was ongoing which would now presumably switch to Leicester. One can only imagine the emotional state of the mother. The police asked for, and were granted, a remand so that they could continue their investigation. The magistrate informed Mary that she ‘stood in a very serious position’.

The Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury reported the case on the 13 May, using almost exactly the same text as The Standard, but adding the detail that the police that called on Mary had no warrant, and that initially she had refused to go with them, and that the family the baby was placed in at Leicester was that of a church minister.

The story has a happy ending I am glad to say. The child was found, not in Leicester but in a ditch in ‘a lonely lane’ near Gravesend in Kent. It was taken to the nearby workhouse at Hastings and, because of the widespread press reporting of a missing child, the police were informed. Mabel Reed then traveled to Hastings to identify her son, who was, according to the papers, ‘none the worse for his exposure’.

Having reunited mother and baby the investigation now turned back to Mary Boyle and her initial crime. A few days later the press reported that this was not Mary’s first office; in fact she had already served a prison sentence for abducting children in the past.

On the 21 May, with story making national news, readers were told that Mary had again appeared before at Lambeth Police Court. Mr Sims  led the prosecution on behalf of he Treasury and he stated that he found show that Boyle could be tied to ‘three cases in which the prisoner had obtained children’. He explained how Mrs Reed, now described as a ‘governess’,  had answered the following advertisement placed by  Boyle:

‘We should dearly love to adopt your little darling entirely as our own, and have it registered in our own name, it would have the most loving care, a good Christian home, and every care and attention’.

Mabel Reed met with Mary Boyle and the latter told her that her husband was a wealthy tea merchant and that they would give the child a good life and name it Arthur after her own father. She was desperate it seemed, having (as was stated earlier) lost her own child just seven weeks earlier.

Reed was convinced and so must have had her own problems in keeping her baby (no husband is mentioned so perhaps she was a widow and the child illegitimate?) and accompanied Mary to London Bridge station. There Mary asked her for £3 to buy clothes for the child, which she gave her. She didn’t seem to wonder at why a wealthy merchant’s wife would need to ask her for money for baby clothes for a child she was giving up, however…

The story captured the imagination of the reading public and lots of letters were sent to the press regarding ‘lost’ or ‘adopted’ babies and children. Lloyd’s Weekly then ran a column on the ‘business’ of adoption and baby-stealing, mentioning that several infants had been found ‘in out-of-the-way places near Maidstone’ (which is also in Kent).

Along with the letters received by the press were several at the Olney Street house and other addresses known to have been occupied by Boyle. These apparently came from other distressed mothers (or would-be adoptive mothers) who were using their offspring. One said:

‘How many more times am I to write to you to know what has become of my little Harry?’

Mary’s landlady was also reported to have aired her suspicions about her tenant. When Mary had retried home after a few days without her own child she had enquired what had happened to it. Mary told her that she didn’t want her husband to know about it, ‘so I have put it away where it will be looked after’. The pair had then had a conversation concerning the discovery of a baby’s dead body in the Grand Surrey Canal, which Mary thought was awful, saying ‘if I did such a thing I should never be able to rest for  a minute’.  She also reported that Boyle had hung religious tracts up on her walls, ‘one of which she committed to memory every day’.

The article concluded by saying that Mary was currently in Holloway Prison under  examination by the chief medical officer there, Dr Gilbert.  The police were still investigating and the notion that Mary Boyle was not in full command of her mind was clearly an avenue they were considering.

Mary was brought up at Lambeth again on 23 May; the same story was repeated (so anyone as yet unfamiliar with he case could catch up), and she was again remanded. On this occasion two other young women gave evidence very similar to Mabel Reed’s. One was a servant and said she had met Mary Boyle at Waterloo station and had named over £2 for clothes for her child that was being giving up for adoption. In this case Mary had suggested her husband was a minister in the Band of Hope, a Temperance organisation that worked with young children. The other was told Mary was the wife of a deacon. It was also feared that in these cases the children were dead, and as she left the dock at Lambeth Mary was hissed by the watching gallery.

Victorian Britain had already witnessed several ‘baby farming’ scandals, this case (dubbed the ‘traffic in babies’) seemed poised to shock the public just as deeply.

At the end of the month the press reported that another child had been found alive, in the infirmary at Greenwich. Mary again appeared in court and was one again remanded for further inquiry. It was also reported that Mary Boyle told the police that the two children belong to Ms Kent and Miss White, (the servants that came to lambeth to give obedience on the 23 May), were indeed dead. When she appeared again in early June Reynolds’ Newspaper reported that the court was so crowded with women and children it resembled a nursery. Mary was still being held at Holloway and the case continued.

By July several women had testified to having been ‘conned’ in to giving up their babies by Mary Boyle. As the case against her was focused on the discovery of the child at Gravesend she was eventually tried at the Maidstone Assizes on 14 July 1893. She was convicted of ‘obtaining a number of children by fraud, and afterwards abandoning them’. The judge sent her to prison for 14 years.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 09, 1893; Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 14, 1893; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 21, 1893; Daily News, Wednesday, May 24, 1893; Daily News, Saturday, July 15, 1893; Issue 14754. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.]

A young woman’s desperation pushes her to infanticide

Sadly we continue to hear stores of new-born babies left in A&E departments with message from the police appealing for the mother to come forward as she made require hospital care. This is in 21st century Britain where there is little or no stigma now about having a child outside of wedlock, and (hopefully) plenty of material support available for young mothers and their babies.

Neither of these situations pertained to the mid-nineteenth century however.

Isabella Kirk was a ‘delicate-looking young woman’ who found herself pregnant and unmarried and without means. If she employment she was likely to lose it and it is very unlikely that the father of her child would be able to step up to his responsibilities, even if he knew he had them.

Abortion was illegal and dangerous and so Isabella’s options were limited. Unfortunately she picked the worst of these.

On the 23rd November 1847 Mrs Cook was walking along East Street in Walworth at around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening when she saw something lying in the mud of a passageway. To her horror when she investigated she found it to be a small baby,  lying face down in a puddle. When she moved it ‘it cried out bitterly’, so she lifted it up and took to the workhouse infirmary.

Efforts were made to revive the child but ‘such were its injuries..it being so inhumanely placed in such a place, on a cold, bleak and rainy night, that it would not suck when taken to one of the nurses, and [it] died at six o’clock the next morning’.

It is a heartbreaking story and made worse perhaps by Isabella being dragged into the Lambeth Police Court on a charge of murder. At first no one had been able to identify the mother and it was only after the inquest that sat on the dead child ordered an investigation that she was tracked down. A can driver that lodged in the same house at Isabella had noticed a change in her and when police made enquiries he gave them a description. The police picked her up in Walworth Road a few days before her hearing at Lambeth.

The cabbie, a surgeon and the poor girl’s sister all testified that Isabella was the mother of the deceased child and the magistrate committed her for trial at the Old Bailey.

Isabella’s trial took place on 13th December 1847. She was convicted of infanticide and sent to prison for a year. She was 20.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 01, 1847]