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A Persistently Cruel Husband

Henry and Eliza married in 1874 in Suffolk, Henry was 25 and his bride was 20, both were from large farm labouring families in rural Suffolk, their first child, William Charles arrived three months after the wedding, and very quickly more children followed including two sets of twins, so Alice in 1876, Henry in 1878, twins George and Annie in 1880, sadly George died in 1882, Robert in 1883, James in 1885, Ellen in 1887 and finally another set of twins in March 1889, Mary Ann and Agnes.


In 1891 when Henry is 43, his father committed suicide by hanging at the age of 69, and it was in the local newspapers.


In the 1881 and 1891 census Henry and Eliza are living in Suffolk villages just outside Ipswich and Henry is farm labouring and Eliza is battling exhaustion from childbirth, child rearing and the drudgery of domestic duties, not too different from most other farm labouring families, but behind closed doors, Eliza’s and her children’s lives were becoming increasingly frightening and horrific.


In January 1898 a newspaper article appeared about Henry’s cruelty to Eliza:


“Henry Fleming, labourer, Baylham, appeared in answer to an application under the Married Women’s Act 1895, by his wife Eliza Fleming, for a separation order by reason of his persistent cruelty. – Applicant said that her husband had beaten her and knocked her about “very cruelly”, and had bruised her face and head seriously, so that she had been obliged to lie in bed. On December 25th defendant beat her so that she bled very much, and could not stand. Dr Ranson attended her for nine or ten days. Since December 25th defendant had been very abusive, and had kicked her out of bed. He had made unfounded accusations of great immorality, and had threatened her life. She was afraid to live with him. Inspector Page handed in a certificate from Dr Ranson, as the woman’s state of health. The document stated that the doctor had found her suffering from severe shock. The inspector added that the parties had five children. Robert Fleming (15) said he had seen his father knock his mother about on Christmas night. His mother had offered no provocation; his father was drunk. Inspector Page said that there was no doubt that the applicant had been in a dangerous condition for several days. She had made several complaints to the police. She was now in Barham workhouse. The Bench did not consider that sufficient evidence had been offered to justify a separation order, and the case was adjourned for two months to see how defendant behaved in the meantime. Defendant promised to reform, but the wife strongly protested against living with him again.”


The last two sentences totally floored me, Eliza must have felt so sick, how could they consider that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to justify a separation order? How much evidence did they need?!?!


Two months later on 18th March 1898 the following appeared in the Ipswich Journal:


“Unhappy Married Life

Eliza Fleming, Baylham, applied for a separation order from her husband, Henry Fleming, labourer. The case was first heard two months ago, when it was adjourned, in order that applicant might return to her husband and see whether any improvement would take place. Defendant, however, had continued to be guilty of cruelty towards her. On one occaision he confronted her, sharpening his knife the while, and told her he would like to put three inches of cold steel through her. He had also threatened to shoot her. She was afraid to live with him. A medical certificate as to injuries which she was suffering from, and which were said to be due to her husband’s ill treatment, was produced.

-Defendant denied his wife’s statement, but the Magistrates granted a separation order, and fixed the maintenance at 5s per week, the wife to have custody of the children”.


Three years later in the 1901 census Eliza has moved to Beccles and is working as a charwoman (cleaner) and living with her twin daughters Agnes and Mary Ann who are nearly 12, she also has a boarder. Henry meanwhile is living in a village close by, working as a horseman, with their son James who is 16.


In the 1911 census Eliza has moved to Black Horse Square in Ipswich, she is now 57 and still working as a charwoman, living with daughter Agness, 22 and Agnes’ babies George aged 2 and Alice 10 months. Henry is still working as a farm labourer in Beccles.


Henry dies in 1935 in Beccles at the age of 86 and Eliza dies in 1929 in Ipswich at the age of 75.


The Married Women (Maintenance in Case of Desertion) Act 1886-1895 Gave mothers the right to apply to a magistrates' court for a separation and maintenance order where there was wilful neglect to provide reasonable maintenance for her or her infant children whom her husband was 'legally liable to maintain'.


Domestic violence was prevalent among all social classes in the Victorian age. We know nowadays that it can take up to seven attempts for a woman to leave an abusive partner. Eliza was in the forefront of women who managed to get a maintenance order in this era and she had to have been one very strong woman to follow through and persist in leaving when societal attitudes would have been even more stacked her against her than nowadays.


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