I’ve just finished reading another piece of Georgian non-fiction – and a rather ghoulish one at that! While A Grim Almanac of Georgian London is not for the faint-hearted, it is fascinating and I wanted to share it with you.
Since the Old Bailey records went online, we have a wealth of real crime information at our fingertips. But sometimes it can be a chore to sift through them all, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. A Grim Almanac of Georgian London takes the leg work out for you – all the famous and strange cases are listed in a handy ‘on this day’ format.
We tend to think of crime as a very modern phenomenon, but as these real life cases show, we are probably safer in our own time period. In a society where men could carry guns and swords around every day without comment, accidents could and did happen. Added to this were the frequent riots, duels and brawls, which went south very fast. A fight in a Georgian pub often proved fatal.
More surprising, though, are the range of punishments – or lack thereof – for the guilty. While some offenses, which we would view as minor, received the pillory – a punishment that could quickly prove a death sentence when the crowds started slinging brickbats and dead cats – there were truly hideous cases of child neglect where the perpetrator was acquitted. Your sentence really did seem the luck of the draw – or jury. And in no field was this more obvious than that of domestic abuse.
Having written so much about Henrietta Howard, who spent over twenty years in an abusive marriage, I was both interested and appalled to read just how many incidents appeared in this small sample of Old Bailey cases. While men and women both suffered, as today, the female victims were the most predominant.
While writing about the abusive Charles Howard, I sometimes worried I was going over the top. I based most things he did on the accusations Henrietta leveled against him, but I did wonder if any person could be so truly dreadful to their wife. After reading A Grim Almanac of Georgian London, I have come to realise Henrietta was very lucky to survive at all. It is clear that in some poor quarters, mistreatment and starvation, along with both mental and physical abuse, were the common lot for women and children. While neighbours might pity, they hardly ever intervened. It was only when a death occurred that the abuser got into any sort of trouble. A huge amount of the murders listed were women killed by their own husbands, and of course a few examples of vice versa. Many of the murderers were hung or branded as punishment – a worrying amount also came off scot-free.
If anything, I have come to admire Henrietta even more after reading about these contemporary cases. She lived in this world, she knew what could happen. She knew there was little hope of legal redress for her. But through it all, she refused to be a victim. In many instances of domestic abuse, the victim can end up blaming themselves or making excuses for their abuser. It is, psychologically, very understandable. But it was not so with Henrietta. She always believed the treatment she received was disgusting and reproachful – and told her abuser roundly in an impassioned letter many years later. This takes a strength of character, and a bravery that astounds me.
However, the Almanac is not entirely full of gory murder and upsetting abuse. There are also the wily thieves, the insane and the tricksters. One of the latter who stands out was the lady who tried to convince the world she had given birth to rabbits. While I had heard of many of these tales before, it was lovely to have them grouped together and with a good deal of detail. I would recommend this book to all Georgian enthusiasts for an intriguing glance at the underbelly of London.