‘Oh don’t do that. It is I and not he who should be punished’: A wife’s desperate plea to save her abusive husband

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North-east London, almost a year from the start of the Whitechapel murders and the newspapers reports of the Police courts are full of violence. On the Commercial Road a blind man was repeatedly stabbed in the face, at Wandsworth two lads were summoned for beating up a newsboy so badly he was left hospitalized and unable to walk. In Islington a mother punished her 7 year-old son for losing the money she’d sent him to by bread with. Not content with a clip round the ear she pressed a red hot poker in his mouth, burning his tongue.

Over in Hackney two policemen were patrolling near Cross Street late on Sunday night (4 August 1889) when they heard cries of ‘murder!’ and ‘police!’ They hurried towards the sounds and found a small crowd by a house and a woman bleeding from cuts to her arms. A domestic dispute had occurred – something the police were generally rather keen to avoid but perhaps the heightened tensions in the wake of the ‘Ripper’ caused these officers to intervene.

William Elvidge was standing close to his wife Alice and it seemed he had attacked her. Both parties were taken to the police station to be examined and for Alice’s wounds to be dressed.  She’d suffered two cuts only one of which was at all serious, cutting her muscle but she didn’t want to press charges against William.

‘The police, however, thought themselves justified in taking the responsibility of the charge’, and so the case came before Mr Horace Smith, the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court. Magistrates were often frustrated by the reluctance of women to prosecute their partners; too frequently they simply dropped the charges before their hearing came on, refused to give evidence against husbands in court, or pleaded for mercy for the when they were convicted.

Alice was a woman in this mould.

The court was told that the incident had resulted from William being ‘late for his tea’. An argument had begun and Alice had thrown a plate at her husband who had retaliated by seizing a knife and threatening to ‘cut her throat’.

The magistrate said this was a case that needed to go before a jury and indicted Elvidge to appear at the next Sessions of the Peace. This sent Alice into ‘violent hysterics’ as she pleaded with the justice not to send her man to trial.

Oh don’t do that. It is I and not he who should be punished’, she cried. ‘He is a good, kind, affectionate husband, and good to his children’.

As she was led away by a policeman she screamed:

Oh, dear, it’s all through me!’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 06, 1889]

A series of mini tragedies as Londoners welcome another summer

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Lambeth Bridge in the 1800s

The Standard‘s coverage of the Police Courts of the Metropolis at the engining of June make fairly grim reading. At Lambeth two brothers were arrested for being drunk and disorderly whilst daring each other to jump off Lambeth Bridge. When the case came to court their elderly mother revealed that the wife of one of them had died earlier week, having thrown herself off Shot Tower Wharf.

Suicide was the theme of the day it seems: along at Southwark in the Borough Isabella Soof (a 46 year-old married woman) was charged with attempting to end her own life. She had leapt into the river at London Bridge but a passing labourer heard her scream and dragged her out. As he pulled her to safety she said:

The grave is my home. I have no husband. Let me go and drown myself‘.

Her husband appeared in court and told Mr Slade he could think of no reason why she’d do such a thing. The magistrate, rather unsympathetically, sent her to prison for a week.

He was perhaps mindful that there was something of an epidemic of women trying to do away with themselves and was trying to issue a warning that the action was a crime that would be punished. Ellen Dalman (38) was also charged with attempting suicide. A policeman saw the book folder running down the stairs at London Bridge and intercepted her before she was able to plunge into the murky waters of the Thames.

Slade remanded her for a week so that enquiries could be made into her domestic circumstances and mental health.

At Wandsworth a former major in the army tried to avoid the disgrace of being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour by giving a false name. The justice – Mr Paget – saw through his subterfuge and fined him 10s for the drunkenness and gave him a dressing down for not admitting to who he really was.

Over at Bow Street (where the reporter offered a short recap of the cases there rather than any detail) another woman was prosecuted for attempting to drown herself; her mother promised she would ensure no further attempts were made and she was released. A clearly disturbed woman who’d smashed up the windows and property of a man she described as ‘disreputable’ was sent to a hospital instead of being imprisoned, showing some level of appreciation for her condition at least.

Finally a drunken man was prosecuted at Thames before Mr Saunders for beating up a young woman who was his neighbour and damaging property to the value of £4. She might have suffered a worse fate had not several locals ‘rushed in and released her’ from his clutches. The man, Michael Lynch, was sent to prison at hard labour for three months.

All of this was published in the Tuesday morning edition of the paper. The Standard was a daily paper with a morning and evening edition by the 1880s. It was broadly conservative in its outlook and reached an audience of over 200,000 by the turn of the 20th century. It has a long history, surviving into the 21st century under its current Russian owners and becoming a free paper for Londoners.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 03, 1879]

Three little girls are failed by a penny-pinching state

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After a campaign by Mary Carpenter and others Parliament passed the Reformatory Schools Act in 1854. This piece of legislation allowed magistrates to send children (up to the age of 16) to a state certified reformatory school for a period of 2 to 5 years. Carpenter and her colleagues believed that juvenile offenders needed to be removed from bad influences and environments and given an opportunity for an education and training for a new life. She and Russell Scott had pioneered the reform with their school at Kingswood near Bristol, which opened in 1852.

It was worthy innovation but it was undermined by at least two things: a lack of money and the imperative that all juvenile convicts should spend time in a prison first (usually about 2-4 weeks). The latter was to meet the demands of society; rarely a good way to conduct penal policy.

The problem was that without proper state funding the number of reformatories established was limited and the levels of staffing always insufficient. Without the space to hold juveniles many were simply returned to their parents once they had served their initial sentences and those in care were not always given the education promised because there weren’t enough staff to supervise them adequately.

Eliza Wood, Emma Major and Margaret Hawkins are just three examples of the problems the reformatory movement encountered in its early years. The three girls, with an average age of 10, had been convicted of stealing at the Lambeth Police Court in the spring of 1860. When it was explained to Mr Norton, the magistrate, that girls’ mothers were ‘drunken and dissipated women’ living in an area around Kent Street that was notorious for crime and prostitution, he decided to use the new option allowed by law. He sentenced them to three weeks in prison to be followed by four years in a certified reformatory.

The girls were taken to the house of correction on Wandsworth Common but at the end of their term the prison governor wrote to Mr Norton. He apologised but said it was impossible for him to send the girls on to a reformatory because there wasn’t one that could take them.

The only certified school in London was at Hampstead, and that was full. Indeed they had already turned away another child that Norton had sent their way: Hannah Reynolds (convicted in February 1860). The governor had been trying to place the trio at a reformatory ‘in the country’ but so far he’d had no success. As a result there was nothing he could do but send them back to Lambeth and the dubious ‘care’ of their parents.

Various charities existed to help juvenile offenders and the governor assured Norton that he had tried to enlist their support but that they too had been unable to help. It seems that the new legislation was the victim of its own success; so keen were magistrates to use the option of sending children away that the reformatories simply couldn’t cope with the numbers.

I am firm believer in the necessity of spending money on criminal justice, whether that be on police, prisons or the courts. This country has a very long history of penny pinching when it comes to penal policy, sometimes in the misguided notion that treating criminals harshly by making their environment as unpleasant as possible somehow prevents others from criminality.

It doesn’t. All that is achieved is to brutalise those locked up or to make it harder for offenders to return to society and find work on release. This simply perpetuates the cycle of offending.

We have seen what fewer police on the streets means for our society: it means higher levels of violent crime and wilful disregard for the laws of the road. We can also see what the result of austerity in the court service is, as several recent rape cases have collapsed because insufficient resources have been deployed to allow a thorough disclosure of information that might be useful to defendants.

These three little girls (aged 10, 9 and 10) should never have been sent to the Surrey house of correction at Wandsworth (later the prison that now bears that name). But the age of criminal responsibility was low and children were routinely caught up in the justice system and flogged, imprisoned, transported, or even executed on rare occasions. Mary Carpenter’s vision was the right one for the time: the separation of children from the poverty and destitution that overwhelmed them in Britain’s growing urban and industrial districts. Sadly the government of the day only paid lip service to this vision and so the reformatory movement was hamstrung from its birth.

If we want to deal properly with crime and its causes we need to invest the time, money and effort in it, not be constantly looking at ways of saving money which we justify with a level of analysis worthy only of the most populist of modern tabloid newspapers.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 2, 1860]

‘We will have Bread!’ is the cry from Wandsworth

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Richard Davey, John Young and William Cornish had entered the Wandsworth Union workhouse in February in search of food and shelter. Unfortunately for them this didn’t amount to much and came at a price. Having been given a very basic subsistence breakfast (as was normal for those visiting the casual ward) they were expected to pay for their keep by undertaking some menial work.

The three refused and considered the meal (of ‘six ounces of bread and cheese’) insufficient and were discharged from the workhouse along with nine other men, all of who seemingly ungrateful for the ‘help’ they’d received.

The trio made their way along Wandsworth High Street and entered a baker’s run by James Plummridge. Davey asked for some bread as he and his friends were starving. The assistant, James’ wife Susannah, refused; she must have realised they were paupers and therefore unlikely to have the funds to buy her stock. Moreover, she and her husband ran a business, not a charity.

Davey was undeterred however, and grabbed a half-quarter loaf and ripped into three pieces, handing two to Cornish and Young. They quickly left the shop with Mr Plummridge in hot pursuit.

He followed them until he saw a police constable and then had them arrested and taken to the nearest station house. There they were locked up and brought before Mr Paynter at Wandsworth Police Court in the morning.

They were poor, dishevelled and out of work. Davey had pinched a loaf of bread because they were hungry. Nevertheless they had not only committed a theft they had wilfully abused the rules  the New Poor Law (passed 12 years previously). The magistrate could have dealt with this summarily and locked them up for a week or so. Instead he chose to

make an example of them and sent them for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 23 February, Davey was convicted and others found not guilty. The judge handed Davey a sentence of one month’s imprisonment. He and his fellows had already served 10 days inside and so Davey may have spent nearly six weeks locked up for the offence of stealing a loaf of bread.

Life could be tough in the 1840s.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 13, 1846]

A captain deploys desperate measures to keep the cheesemongers from his door.

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On the morning of Thursday 29 November 1877 the Wandsworth Police Court was full of shopkeepers and traders keen to witness the outcome of a case brought by one of their number, a cheesemonger on the High Street. Henry Lickfield had brought a charge of assault against one of his customers while another businessman, Mr Barrantz (another cheese monger) charged the same individual with fraud.

The defendant was Captain Edward Miller who lived at Spencer Road in Putney. The court heard that Captain Miller had ordered a leg of pork and 3lbs of sausages to be delivered to his residence. The goods were duly supplied but when the bill wasn’t paid Lickfield called on the captain in person to demand his money.

However when he knocked on the door no one answered. He tried again and this time a servant answered but refused to open the door. Finally he tried shouting through the letter box. As he attempted to get the attention of the household a lighted firebrand was thrust through the letter box towards him, striking him in the face!

Captain Miller was represented in court by a lawyer who offered a different version of events. He suggested that when Mr Lickfield’s assistant had called earlier he had been told that Mrs Miller would settle the bill on the following day and he had gone away. He denied any violence towards the cheese monger and said that he had no need to come in person, and that he should have waited for the money to be paid as promised.

The household was ‘alarmed’ by the repeated knocking on the door and no tradesman had the ‘right to recover their debts by a system of tyranny’, he insisted. Mrs Miller was ill and ‘the prisoner did nothing but protect himself’.

The magistrate, Mr Bridge, accepted the charge of assault and bailed the captain to appear at the next sessions of the peace.

The case then turned on the next accusation, of fraud. It was claimed by Mr Barrantz, that the Millers had ordered ‘one of the best hares to be sent to his house, to be paid for on delivery’. Again the goods were supplied but not paid for. Clearly Mr Barranz had done business with the Millers before and said he would not have sent the hares if there hadn’t been a promise to be paid on receipt.  He therefore charged Captain Miller with a fraudulent intent. Mr Bridge didn’t see it that way however. This was simply an unpaid bill not a deliberate attempt to defraud and he dismissed the charge.

Nevertheless I suspect the mere appearance of the captain in court was enough to ruin his reputation in his local community. The court was packed with local businessmen, all come to see ‘justice’ for a fellow tradesman. They would surely be reluctant to offer credit to the Millers in future and given the associations with credit and reputation this was social suicide for the captain and his wife. Unless they settled their bills quickly, or moved away they could hardly hope to hold their heads up in the streets around Wandsworth in future. As for the assault charge, while it was likely to end in a financial settlement (some compensation to Mr Lickfield) it was another example of the desperation of the family and further evidence to anyway dealing with them that they were best avoided.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, November 30, 1877]

A cheesemonger runs, but he can’t hide

Ludgate Hill by Camille Pissarro, 1890

John Alfred Smith worked for a cheesemonger in the City of London (who had premises on Ludgate Hill), but in October 1890 Smith was summoned before Mr Denham at Wandsworth Police Court, to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and family.

The prosecution was brought by the Poor law Guardians of Clapham and Wandsworth and therefore fell under Denham’s jurisdiction. Prosecuting, Mr Charter explained that Smith’s wife and her five children had applied for relief on the 30th August of that year.The circumstances of her application are not made clear, but it would seem that at some Smith simply didn’t come home.

What was established was that Smith had run his own business in Battersea but this seems to have collapsed and forced him to seek work elsewhere. With his business in tatters it the man appears to have decided his family was just too much for his pocket to maintain, and he abandoned them to the parish. However, there may have been another reason for his flight: in short, another woman.

Answering the summons before the magistrate Smith made the bold move of denying that he was married to the woman at all. He said no proper marriage had taken place and added that they had never lived together long enough for the relationship to be established as such. One wonders then how she managed to produce no less than five children.

Mrs Smith’s sister was called to give evidence and she described how Smith had taken her sibling, aged just 16, to Brighton ‘on the pretense of marrying her’. While no record of the marriage could be found it seems that there was at least anecdotal evidence of the union. Smith had, his sister-in-law swore, declared on their return that they were married. Mrs Smith also appeared in court to confirm that she was indeed married to the man in dock.

This was good enough for Mr Denham. Regardless of the veracity of her statement or that of her sister he thought it appalling that a woman and five children could be abandoned  in such a way. Smith ‘was morally guilty, whether she were his wife or not’. Moreover now it emerged that Smith had taken a new wife since his desertion, ‘a young woman who was suffering from nervous prostration brought about by his arrest’.

So it would seem that Smith had simply had enough of his former life. Abandoning Battersea, his failing business and its debts, and his wife and kids he relocated to the City and found work and a new (and younger) partner. Unfortunately for his attempt to disappear completely failed just as his business had, the state (in the person of the Clapham and Wandsworth Poor Law Union) caught up with him. The magistrate, angered both by Smith callousness towards his family and his blatant disregard for his responsibilities sent him to prison for six weeks at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 17, 1890]

The dangers of the modern river; the Thames in 1833

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One of the most interesting and sometimes unexpected pleasures of reading the daily ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts is the information they reveal about the nineteenth-century city and its people. Many of the stories detail the petty squabbles of everyday life, or the man tragedies of death, illness and poverty; and of course criminality, greed, deceit and casual violence often feature. But we also learn about the way in which the metropolis operated; how people got about, where they worked, which areas were poor and which were wealthy.

One of the pleasures of modern London (in the summer months at least) is the river boat service on the Thames operated by TFL. For many people this forms part of their daily commute, either up towards Greenwich and beyond to the barrier, or west towards Putney and Wandsworth. In the warmer months it becomes a tourist bus during the day and a commuting vehicle in the mornings and evenings.

In my opinion the river is the best way to see the capital and understand why the Romans chose to build a city here in the first place.

The importance of the river and the need to cross it is clear from the development of London’s bridges and the huge variety of boats, barges, ships and ferries that plied their trade on the Thames in the 1800s. However, as we have seen in more recent times with the sinking of the Marchioness in 1989 and back to 1855 with the Princess Alice, the Thames can be a dangerous place.

The police office that dealt with disputes, thefts and incidents on the river was Thames and there had been a police presence here since 1798 when it was created by Patrick Colquhoun, a champion of professional policing. In March 1833 the master of a Gravesend steamer, the Pearl, was brought before the magistrate at Thames accused, in effect, of dangerous driving.

Mr Youwin was summoned to the court by Robert marshall, an ‘old and infirm Trinity waterman’. The Thames watermen had been  licensed to ferry passenger on the river since the early 1500s but the tradition went back hundreds of years before that. Marshall told the court that he had been attempting to cross the Thames from Elephant Stairs at Rotherhithe when his little boat got in to trouble.

He saw the Pearl coming towards him and took evasive action. He ‘went clear of her stern…when another waterman fouled him [i.e collided with him] and pushed him out of the tier of boats’. He explained that the ‘steamer could have stopped, but she continued her pace, and cut his boat in two before he could get out of the way. Her speed was about five miles an hour’.

A fellow waterman on the scene told the justice that he had heard Marshall call out and agreed that the steamer could have avoided the boat if it had wanted to.

In defence the skipper of the Pearl, Youwin, stated that the ‘old man, who was too infirm to manage the boat, had run foul of the steamer due to his own negligence’. He said he could, and would provide witnesses to prove this. But that this point the magistrate, Captain Richbell, intervened and attempted to mediate.

He said that it was clear that Marshall was elderly and perhaps unfit to continue as a waterman but he felt he was owed some compensation for the loss of his boat (and his livelihood), this would, he taught, ‘prevent litigation’. Captain Youwin willingly agreed.

Finally the magistrate made a closing statement about the excessive speed of steamers, saying that while he did not wish to immune the reputation of Captain Youwin, something needed to change because the river had become very dangerous.

‘The watermen were greatly injured by the steam-vessels, for females and timid persons were afraid to venture in their wherries; the Thames-Police galleys were often damaged, and the nuisance would not be stopped until the conductor of some steamer was transported for manslaughter’.

This sounds to me very like the clash of an old way of life with the demands of the new, modern, one; a clash that was about to become much more common as London developed and grew in the Victorian age.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 11, 1833]