Content warning: this post mentions domestic violence.

At some point in either 1876 or 1877 my great great grandmother, Jane Warburton, at 16 years old would have discovered that marriages were not always happy, in fact they could be ruinous, particularly for a woman.

I promised in my Becoming Jane post that Emma, Jane’s older sister, deserved to have her own story told. I wanted to post about this now as in the chronology we are coming up to August 1879 and in the middle of Jane and Fred’s story, something unexpected happened to Emma and I felt it was time to give you some of her back story – tragic as it is.

Emma married John George Herrod in October of 1870. She was 18 years old and three months pregnant. Herrod, from Nottinghamshire, was the son of a farmer and had come to Handsworth to find work as a joiner. Given that Emma’s father was as a joiner before he became a maltster and publican, and her brother William still worked as a joiner, in a small village like Handsworth, their paths would have crossed soon enough.

Herrod was a smooth talker and a bit of a charmer. We don’t know if he had already asked Emma to marry him, but events later in his life suggest that he had form and wasn’t above promising marriage to take advantage of a young woman. I’m inferring Emma’s attitude to sex from Jane’s later behaviour, that before marriage it was ok-ish as long as a promise of marriage had been made. However their relationship came about, the marriage was speedily arranged and their first child, Maurice, was born in the following March.

The 1871 census records them all living with Emma’s parents in the Cross Keys at Handsworth but later Herrod was earning enough to set up home. For a time things went well; Edith Lillian (known in the family as Lucy) was born in the early summer of 1872 and then another son, Arthur James, arrived in 1874.

A couple of years later, Jane would have gone on one of her many visits to her older sister Emma, perhaps to assist with the dress making, or to help with the children – who she loved dearly.  Upon walking through the door, Jane would have found the house in some disarray, her little nephews and niece subdued, and her sister having suffered a severe blow to the head that had given her two great bruised eyes. If Jane hadn’t known things were bad before, she did now. The assailant was Emma’s husband, John George Herrod.

We don’t know if Herrod was at home when Jane found her sister in that condition. Did Jane rage at him, tell him to leave them so she could care for Emma. Or was she terrified, for Emma, for the children, for herself? Did she run to get William, their dependable older bother? Was it then that Emma told Jane about all the attacks? About being punched in the back for not getting dinner ready. About being beaten viciously with a stick after asking why he was late home. Or did Jane and her family already know and this was the latest trauma in a marriage that had turned far more than sour.

Some unknown time after arrival of little Arthur, John George Herrod became a heavy drinker and developed a gambling habit. It also seemed to be a contributory factor in him losing his job. It’s impossible to know if he had been in the habit of being cruel to his wife or if it came on insidiously and then grew in savagery during this period.

By 1877 John George Herrod’s gambling was so out of hand that an ‘execution’ was put on the house and all the furniture was sold. On the day the furniture went, so did he. He packed up all his clothes and left, without letting Emma or anyone else know where he was going or if he was ever coming back. The sale was most likely handled by William, while Emma stayed away from such a painful occasion. And it probably fell to Jane to take care of the children and distract them from all the unpleasant practicalities. Emma, presumably in some distress, with a 6 year old, a 4 year old and a 3 year old, moved back into the family home – the Cross Keys, back to the safety of her mother and father – Maria and James Warburton, but also back to sharing a home with her sister Jane and her other brother, also called John. As much as I want to imagine William and brother John, perhaps taking Herrod to one side for a quiet ‘chat’ I can’t possibly know if they ever did. But given Herrod’s disappearing act, I should imagine it was in part to avoid a possible confrontation with the Warburtons heading his way.

For Emma she must have felt relief but also great sadness and possibly even shame. It was a local scandal and by the standards of the day – while she would have been viewed with some sympathy, tongues would have wagged. Domestic violence today still carries with it a significant amount of victim blaming but it was much worse then. Being permitted to discipline your wife with a ’stick no thicker than your thumb’ was a myth, but it was believed by many at the time to be legal.

At home at least, her mother, Maria Warburton, treated Emma with a huge amount of tenderness and concern. However in years to come, as Emma developed her own problem with drink – no doubt as some kind of self-medication – this care from Maria became a kind of enabling and Emma’s victimhood became entrenched within the family dynamic. Dependent on her father, with no way of making her own way in the world and unable to remarry, no doubt Emma felt trapped and helpless.

I grew up hearing from my mother the family stories of Aunt Emma; how she was a drunk, how the family believed it was due to the sight of the gravestones out of her bedroom window that had driven her to the consolation of the bottle. While I was first reading the letters and coming across accounts of Emma’s intoxicated behaviour I found it funny and a little salacious. Now that I have recently found out exactly what happened to Emma, I realise she was more sinned against than sinner. Emma often in lashed out with a sharp tongue – I think everyone got the benefit of Emma’s opinions but it was Jane that was nearest and so she bore the brunt, and the rest of the family let Emma get away with that because of what had happened. Poor Jane. Poor Emma.

I think I now also see that the Warburtons’ concern about Fred courting Jane, was not just about snobbery, it was also in part protectiveness. Emma had fallen for someone outside their ‘set’ and it had gone wrong in the worst possible way. They were understandably keen that Jane would not meet a similar fate.

In 1878 the UK Matrimonial Causes Act made it possible for women in the UK to seek legal separation from an abusive husband, however this would have given Emma little comfort given that she had no idea where John George Herrod was.

Image source: James Collinson – Answering the Emigrant’s Letter


2 thoughts on “The sad story of Emma Warburton (Part One)

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