Today I want to compare two separate but related cases heard this week in 1884 before the police magistrate courts of London. Both concern men acting against their wives, and both quite violently.
At Guildhall Police court, in the City of London, George Steel, a metal worker, was charged with threatening to shoot his wife Charlotte. Mrs Steel appeared in court to testify against him and the only other witness of the policeman that arrested him.
According to Charlotte her husband had come home in the morning ‘the worse for drink’ (in other words he was drunk, and we might presume she meant the ‘early hours’ of the morning). The couple rowed, and, as was depressingly common in working-class marriages at the time, came to blows. For some reason George owned a pistol and he seized it and thrust it in her face, threatening to ‘settle her’.
The alderman magistrate was told that it wasn’t the first time the metal worker had used force and threats against his spouse, and that too was very familiar. Wives and partners tended to put up with quite a lot of abuse before they were finally driven by desperation and fear of what might happen to take their complaints to law.
George said he only wanted to scare his wife, and that he only loaded the gun with the intention of firing up the chimney. The justice remanded him in custody to see what might emerge from other witnesses in the next couple of days.
Meanwhile at the Marlborough Street court George Ballard was brought up for second appearance having previously been remanded by Mr Newton for an assault on his (Ballard’s) wife. Ballard was a 38 year-old bootmaker living with Mrs Ballard in Berwick Street, Soho. The couple argued at lot and Ballard was another drinker. The officer of the court who had investigated the case described his wife as ‘a hard working woman’. He added that he’d been told that the defendant had often threatened his wife and her sister.
George Ballard’s crime was to have thrown vitriol (acid) over his wife in a fit of anger. When questioned his only defense was that she had threatened his life. Mr Newton dismissed this excuse, saying that even if it was true (which he clearly doubted) it was no reason to attack her in such a cowardly way. He sent the bootmaker to prison for six months at hard labour and, ‘as she was capable of maintaining herself’, he granted Mrs Ballard a judicial separation. Hopefully when George got out she would have found somewhere a long way away from him.
Many women wouldn’t have gone as far as Mrs Ballard did in getting the court to remove her husband and bread winner, but she was perhaps in a better position than most, and able – as the justice noted – to look after herself. It was more usual for wives and partners, seemingly regardless of the hurt done to them, to forgive their abusers or retract their evidence, sometimes after the man had spent a few days in a cell.
This was the case with Charlotte Steel. When George Steel was again presented at Guildhall Police court on the 3 February 1884 Charlotte said she was not frightened of him and that he’d never threatened her before. Her sister backed her up, saying she didn’t believe George ever meant to hurt anyone. Alderman Isaac could do little but warn George about his future behaviour telling him that he:
‘had placed himself in a very serious position, for he might have been committed for trial for threatening to commit murder. He advised him not to have anything to do with firearms again’, and then released him.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 30 January, 1884; The Morning Post), Monday, 4 February, 1884]