According to the memoirs of one of London’s Police Court magistrates the working class believed that magistrates had the power to divorce married couples. In reality divorce was out of the question the poorer classes as it was an expensive legal exercise which effectively excluded all but the wealthiest in late Victorian society. Police magistrates in London could however, order a legal separation and require a husband to continue to maintain his wife.
We can see an example of this in a report from Clerkenwell in 1885. Richard Davis, a labourer living at 12 Churchway in Somers Town, was brought before Mr Hosack and charged with assaulting his wife. This was a common enough accusation levelled in the police courts, hundreds of women prosecuted their partners on a weekly basis in London. In most cases the accusation was enough and when the couple appeared in court the wife would either drop the charge or plead for leniency, often whilst she stood in the witness box sporting a black eye or swaddled in bandages.
The police rarely intervened in ‘domestics’, and were not supposed to intervene unless ‘actual violence is imminent’ (as the Police Code stated). Most of the time they were called after violence had occurred as I have described on numerous occasions in previous posts here. In court this was the only situation in which a wife could testify against her husband but the difficulties in doing so were considerable. A wife that prosecuted her husband might fear retribution, or the loss of his earnings should he be imprisoned (which was one of the options that magistrates resorted to when confronted with wife beaters).
Mrs Davis had been brave enough to challenge her husband’s abuse in public; it was very unlikely to have been the first time that he had assaulted her and perhaps she feared that if she suffered in silence the next attack might be worse, fatal even. In court Mr Hosack heard that Davis ‘constantly ill-used his wife’. On this most recent occasion he had arrived home drunk, the pair had argued and he had hit her with a chair. The labourer then picked up a paraffin lamp and hurled it at her. Fortunately it missed but it caused a small fire, which must have been terrifying.
Perhaps because Davis’ actions threatened not just the life of his wife but also those of his neighbours the magistrate decided to send him away to cool down. He sentenced him to three months at hard labour, which would certainly impact on the man and remind him that his wife had the power to resist.
More importantly perhaps Mr Hosack ordered a ‘judicial separation between the prisoner and his wife’ and told Davis that on his release he would have to pay her 10s a week maintenance. He could make the order of course but could he compel the man to pay? I doubt it. As a labourer recently out of gaol Davis would have few prospects of finding well-paid work (if any at all) and 10s was not inconsiderable.
Mrs Davis’ best option was to find a new home with friends or family and hope Richard did not find her. If she wanted his money she would have to fight for it, and that meant taking him before the courts again if he failed to pay.
[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 5, 1885]