In 1851, an assault case was heard at the Keele petty sessions in Staffordshire, before two male bastions of the local community – the magistrates. The assault was alleged by a female servant, Elizabeth Hughes, against her employer’s daughter – and it highlights how women were perceived both by male magistrates and by the local press which, at this time, was largely staffed by men.
Elizabeth Hughes was employed by a farmer, Mr Goodall, who lived and worked at Foxley, near Audley in Staffordshire. Her disagreement was with his daughter Margaret, who had asked Elizabeth to feed the farm’s pigs one day. There may have been various ‘ranks’ of servant, and Elizabeth clearly felt that feeding pigs was not a task that she should carry out.
She had made her feelings clear to Margaret Goodall, who apparently then pushed her, squeezed her chin, and banged her three times on the head with a milking can. Elizabeth had resented this treatment, and duly taken Miss Goodall to the magistrates.
But Elizabeth was roundly mocked by the magistrates and in the press. Not only had she the gall, as a lowly servant, to bring a complaint against a respectable farmer’s daughter, but she was ‘a person of little stature’ with ‘a most rattling tongue’, who ‘described her grievance with considerable volubility’.
Perhaps predicting that she would face some prejudice, Elizabeth had used a considerable amount of intelligence and gained a reference to her good character from her former mistress, in order to show the magistrates that she was a good, truthful person.
However, there were a selection of ‘bystanders’ at the petty sessions – probably, given the mundanity of the cases being heard that day, being complainants, defendants and witnesses in these other cases, waiting their turn, rather than nosey locals who had come specifically to listen to this case.
One of the magistrates, Captain Mainwaring (no, nothing like the Dad’s Army character, but Captain Rowland Mainwaring of the Royal Navy, whose ancestral home was the grand Whitmore Hall), decided to play to this audience, reading the reference out for laughs. Although Elizabeth’s former employer stated that she was a very good servant, and very honest, she had added that she had ‘a little too much tongue’ – which the magistrate and the onlookers found rather amusing.
Margaret Goodall then argued that Elizabeth was an impertinent woman, and that no assault had taken place – she then brought a farm lad, George Taylor, forward to give evidence to this effect. The magistrates disagreed and duly fined Margaret the small amount of 2s 6d; however, despite this, they then stated that they believed there were ‘faults on both sides’.
The ‘impertinent’ servant, Elizabeth, then asked if she could have the wages owed to her. Margaret’s father, farmer Goodall, was in court, and he was told to pay them, and to let Elizabeth leave his service.
The small but feisty woman then left the court – ostensibly a victor in her case, but only after having been laughed at, mocked for her physical stature, and her ability to stand up for herself, and now unemployed to boot. There were clearly risks in lowly rural female servants bringing cases against their employers and their families.
Source: Staffordshire Advertiser, 3 May 1851
An aside: Martin Baggoley, in Derbyshire Murders (The History Press, 2012), writes of one man who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a police constable in 1879 (although released in 1894); this was Gerald Mainwaring, the son of ‘the late Rev’d Mainwaring of Whitmore Hall, Staffordshire, who had served as a magistrate on the Newcastle bench’ . Gerald’s father was Charles Henry Mainwaring (1820-1878); the Oxford University Alumni directory on Ancestry states that Charles was the third son of one Rowland Mainwaring; therefore, the laughing magistrate was the grandfather of a murderer, which seems quite ironic.Tweet