Cultural Framework

Getting up close and personal: a case study of domestic violence in late Victorian Derby (work in progress)

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Things have been quiet here for the last few weeks – but I’ve not been twiddling my thumbs!

I’ve been trawling the archives to look closely into the lives of a family in late Victorian Derby, headed by George Henry Millington, and his wife Edna (nee Moss), whose court case in April 1883 not only hit local and regional newspapers, but was also reported as far afield as Portsmouth.

The local daily newspaper reports on the day of the court hearing (the other accounts will be presented in subsequent posts):

“Godliness not cleanliness.” George Henry Millington, cab driver, Angel Yard, Burton Road, was summoned for assaulting his wife, Edna, on the 26th inst. The complainant stated that the defendant came home and asked her where she had been. She replied that she had visited her mother, whereupon he took her by the throat, and struck and kicked her out of the house. In answer to the Bench the complainant stated that she and her husband were always quarrelling. He did not like her go in to the meetings of the Salvation Army. She did not stay out until eleven o’clock at night. The defendant said that since his wife had commenced to “go with the Salvation Army, she had neglected the children and the house”. The rooms were quite filthy, and it was on that account that a quarrel arose. The Mayor ‒ If she goes with the Salvation Army, she ought to have remembered that cleanliness is next to godliness”. The Mayor said the Bench did not consider there was sufficient evidence to convict the defendant, and therefore dismissed the charge. He had evidently received great provocation from his wife, who had certainly neglected to keep her children and the house tidy and clean, than which nothing could be more provoking to a man. He hoped that the exposure in that court would have the effect of making the wife more careful, and leading a better life.

I intend to present my findings (which include information on their eldest two children, Fredrick William, and George Henry – whose exploits also ended in court, and resulted in their ‘transportation’ to an Industrial school near Bristol; and on the Salvation Army in Derby at this time) in various places, as soon as I’ve exhausted the lines of inquiry to which I have access (which with the reopening of the Local Studies Library today, after closure for a year, will hopefully expand), and have condensed the dozens of pages of information that I’ve accrued into a more manageable narrative.

I became interested in this family as their experiences raise a number of issues of relevance to this project; and because the more I looked, the more historical evidence I found that shone a light upon interrelationships between social structures and cultural frameworks, and violence in the home. I feel that by integrating their story within workshops that explore ways for traumatised survivors of domestic and sexual abuse to use history therapeutically, this case study may enable individuals to reconsider their own experiences as part of a stream of collective encounters that are, to a large extent, influenced by forces situated outside the person (though that evidently affect the ways that people together and alone think and behave toward one another).

This purview may help survivors to deconstruct the victim-blaming strategies so often adopted by abusive partners (and frequently endorsed by others, including those in and with authority). It may also demonstrate to victims and survivors that they are not alone, but are part of a community that is not only represented by those present in person today. In undertaking this research, I have been struck by the ‘connections’ that might be felt between the long-suffering, long-deceased, and those who today continue to experience abuse, and are trying to find ways to manage the trauma left in its wake. Although the material and cultural environments that determine and frame the everyday lives of past and present women of course differ profoundly (and are liable to influence behaviour and attitudes – including emotional response – as is the psychological makeup of the individual), many experiential similarities are evident. In exploring the lives of past victims, I have been moved to give recognition to their experiences – particularly those who appear not to have received justice (who, as today, may have had their injuries compounded through the very mechanisms supposed to protect and assist them: police, courts, families, neighbours, and other putative support networks).

By telling their stories – making visible the hitherto hidden and forgotten pains of the past – we might bring about some degree of restitution for both the dead, and the living. This is not about ‘shaming’ either victims, or those who committed acts of brutality, who cannot defend their actions – for, as is evident within the archives, the accused are commonly given voice within newspaper reports of court hearings, and (as in this case) their actions advocated through the pervading ideologies of the day that permitted the physical ‘correction’ of women by their husbands for not fulfilling their “proper” (expected) ‘duties’ of housekeeper, child-carer, and subservient, attentive, wife. And, by examining the sources, we are able to recognise the ‘conditioning’ of men to their ‘rights’ over women, and so understand the cultural contexts that permitted violent acts (though this exercise certainly does not excuse such behaviour, as it is also apparent from many accounts of family life that violence was not ‘necessary’ to maintain a well-ordered home environment).

Instead, I shall tell these stories so that we might better appreciate our own parts in the complex intersections of society and culture that enable violence to take place with impunity – and to consider ways that we might (singly and together) constrain abuse (which, considering the numerous social and economic effects of violence in the home, will benefit those who have not directly encountered violence in the home, as well as those who have: for the monetary cost of domestic abuse, see the NICE 2014 Costing Statement; for more information on the economic effects of domestic abuse, see the findings of the British Crime Survey). These stories show that – as today – the ’causes’ (catalysts is perhaps a better term) and effects of violence in the home went beyond putative ‘faults’ of the individual, and disfunctionality of the family, neighbourhood, or other communities (which in this case involve gender, class, and religion); and that by studying these stories in depth – conducting ‘microhistories‘ – we might better understand the social problems that give rise to, and derive from, domestic abuse, and might elucidate the practical impact of political and economic structures upon everyday behaviour and beliefs. It is for these reasons, and for the benefits to individuals and families in the present that might come from giving voice to the powerless in the past, that I foreground the personal through such case studies.

As I conduct this research independently (i.e. without funding or institutional support – though supported by PSP co-director Debra), and due to data protection issues, there is a limit to where my investigations might take me in tracing the descendants of this family, and contacting them directly. I therefore send out an appeal to them (or anyone who may know them to pass on this inquiry), to contact me with any further information they may have relating to their ancestors. I also ask for them to pardon my bringing to light episodes of their ancestors’ lives that some might wish to forget or conceal; in return, I hope that they may find at least some of the information that I have uncovered of interest, and if carrying out family history, that there is something of use among the sources that I have collated (which, though within the public domain, might be more easily accessible to me than them, due to my location).

Some of the places that feature in the case study
Some of the places that feature in the case study (@Google Earth / PSP) – click on image for a larger version

I am fortunate in my ‘placement’ (which also provoked my interest in this particular case): my proximity to (currently within walking distance), and familiarity with, the landscape in which this case takes place enables me to consider the effects of surrounding upon the experiences of this family (despite the demolition of most of the housing encountered through this case, on the whole the contours, alignments of roads, and spatial relationships, remain, as do some of the more prominent buildings, and I am fortunate in having access to a large private collection of local historic photographs, to which I refer while exploring the sites mentioned in newspaper reports). My familiarity is a part of my own family history: the area in which Edna Moss and George Henry Millington lived before they married was home to my family for at least seven generations (including myself and my son) – my own grandmother was even born in the street housing the Millington parental home in the 1870s. I therefore hope that some of the information I present might give colour in other ways to those investigating Millington and Moss family histories – I intend to create a picture of their home environments through studies of maps, housing, and material culture, informed by discoveries made during recent archaeological excavations.

Aerial view (1921) of neighbourhood in which Millington family lived at the time of their first court case (1883)
Aerial view (1921) of neighbourhood in which Millington family lived (in the court behind the building – the Angel Inn – seen at the tip of the church tower, centre) at the time of their first court case (1883), Briton From Above, from here – click on image for a larger version

While I continue to research and write up my studies of this case, readers may see a provisional family tree of the two families here (PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS, AND LIKELY TO CONTAIN ERRORS! This is particularly so for the extended family: some branches of the tree are recorded in order to determine – and possibly eliminate – potential distant relationships.)

Provisional family tree for the Millington and Moss Families, 1860s-90s
Provisional family tree for the Millington and Moss Families, 1860s-90s (@PSP / Find My Past) – click on image for larger version

In attempting to extend public engagement with this study beyond the existing opportunities (e.g. the local talks and workshops I intend to develop; blog; Twitter and Facebook; the academic and popular publications that I am in the process of developing), I am contemplating developing ‘profiles’ for the couple involved in this case using social media, so that anyone so inclined might engage in (an imaginative!) dialogue with them, in order to ask general questions about daily life, or more specific questions relating to experiences of violence. So please get involved with this story if you would like to know more, or feel you have something to contribute.