The Tricky Couple

On the morning of Wednesday 5 July 1854 a prisoner called James Walker was brought before the Sheffield Magistrates. He told the court that he was a cutlery manufacturers of Manchester, but a few years previously he had lived on Eldon Street, Sheffield with his wife. He had been brought into court by the Sheffield workhouse authorities charged with neglecting to maintain his wife, who since 21 June had been a resident in that institution. Walker was defended by solicitor Mr Fretson, who told the court that once his client had been arrested, that he had immediately sent a message by telegraph to pay for any arrears to the Sheffield workhouse.

However instead of answering Walkers message, a workhouse official had apprehended him at Manchester and brought him back to Sheffield in custody. When someone from the bench questioned why this had happened, it was Mr Ellis, the clerk to the workhouse guardians, who answered. He told the court that the workhouse officials had received information that James Walker was about to travel to America. That was the reason a workhouse official had been sent to Manchester by the next train, and the prisoner had instead been arrested and brought to Sheffield. Mr Fretson stated that his client’s reason for refusing to pay his wife’s accommodation was due to her many adulteries. Therefore his client had presumed that he was not by law compelled to maintain her.

Mr Fretson said that around 18 months previously Walker and his wife had been living in Eldon Street, when he came home to find that she had sold half of the furniture in the house, and had disappeared. Since that time, Mr Fretson reported his client had heard that she had been living with two different men, one at Blackburn and later another in Manchester. Mr Ellis who was prosecuting the case stated that his wife had claimed that she had been employed by both men in the position of housekeeper and had resided in their premises in that role. Under questioning from Mr Ellis, Mrs Walker was forced to admit that both these men were single, but pointed out that if they had been married, they would not have needed a housekeeper.

Mr Ellis told the court that the case had been brought to the workhouse’s attention when Mrs Walker admitted that she had met her husband in Manchester where the prisoner had offered her a half crown out of charity. Indignantly she told Walker that ‘she had been living with somebody who kept her a deal better than he had ever done’ and he had simply suggested that ‘she might go back to him then.’ Mr Fretson told the court that his client had not turned his wife out of the house, and that she had voluntarily left him. The prisoners defence suggested that Mrs Walker had quarrelled with the party she had been living with in Manchester, and that was the only reason why she now she sought to make her husband maintain her.

Mr Fretson said that in order to do this, Mrs Walker had come back to Sheffield, the town where she had been born, and applied to the workhouse guardians for relief. The bench attempted to question the prisoners wife but in reply, she gave long rambling answers. Mrs Walker claimed that she had not wanted her husband to maintain her, but had been advised to do so by friends. The woman admitted that she had left Walker in March of 1853 and agreed that she had sold some of the couples furniture, but claimed that it was simply to pay some debts and provide herself with some clothes. Mrs Walker said that since that time, she had been working as a housekeeper in order to maintain herself.

The prisoners wife stated that after meeting her husband in Manchester, that he had promised to buy her a house. After some days however, Mrs Walker discovered that he was planning instead to sail to America. When she challenged him on the subject, he had openly told her that he had no intention of taking her with him. Mrs Walker said that although they never lived together in Manchester, having separate lodgings, they spent the rest of the time together eating and drinking. That was when she asked him for some money and he had been cheap enough to offer her the half crown. Mrs Walker told the court that he had also made some disgusting suggestions about how she could maintain herself in the future.

The witness admitted that when she found out that her husband was going to America she went to his lodgings in Manchester and that was when he had thrown her out. She had taken him to court for assault, but the city bench had dismissed the case. When she applied to the Manchester workhouse for relief, they had told her that she had to go to the town where she had been born, so she came back to Sheffield. The prisoners wife once more denied the fact that she had ever lived in adultery with her two employers. Instead she told the court that when she married Walker, he didn’t have ‘two pennies to rub together at the time.’

She stated that because of that, throughout their married life she had ‘worked like a slave in the cutlery business.’ As a result of this, the couple had managed to save between £500 – £600 together. Mrs Walker concluded that ‘now he intended to go to America and leave her behind to starve.’ One of the magistrates Mr W A Matthews Esq., told the court that if adultery had been committed between Mr and Mrs Walker in Manchester, which had not been proved, then her husband had indeed rendered himself liable to pay her some maintenance. Then Mrs Walker herself came up with a solution to this knotty marital problem.

She told the court that if her husband would give her £10 to buy some clothes with, he might go to America without her. In that way she would relieve him of all responsibility. It was agreed by the bench that the couple have some time together in another room to come to some mutually agreed terms, and Mr and Mrs Walker retired together for a short while. Mr Fretson later came back into the courtroom and stated that the pair had reached an agreement. They would both go together to America, however Mrs Walker wanted it to be a legal agreement that they both could sign, in the presence of the magistrates.

The bench agreed, but when Mrs Walker came back into the courtroom she appeared to have changed her mind. The woman complained that given half a chance, she was convinced that her husband would go off to America and leave her alone in the world once more. Once again she asked that he give her £10 to buy clothes with, to which Mr Walker refused. Magistrate Mr Matthews told the couple ‘I thought that you had reached a settlement and were now going to be a happy loving couple?’ However Mrs Walker denied this vociferously and stated that in all the time they had been married, her husband had been unemployed, and consequently she had been destitute and forced to enter the workhouse four times. Hearing this her husband just smiled and told her ‘still you are very fond of me or you would not follow me about.

Finally the two people agreed that they would go to America and make a fresh start on their marriage and an agreement was written out by the clerk to the court. In front of the magistrates the couple then signed the agreement to live together again. As they were signing the document, there were smiles all round in the courtroom. Mr Fretson spoke for the bench when he remarked that signing the document was likened to the couple getting married again and signing the register. Mr and Mrs Walker then left the courtroom hand in hand.

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