A glimmer of hope for an abused wife in Somers Town

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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 10a 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 10was 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]

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 17, 1888]