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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER IV POLICE-COURT MARRIAGES
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The fashion that has arisen of late years of judges or magistrates engineering weddings among the wretched and often penniless people who sometimes come before them savours of indecency. Such proceedings ought to have no place in our courts of penal administration. The effects of thriftless and ill-assorted marriages are so palpable in police-courts that one wonders to what malign source of inspiration the suggestion that some criminal youth or some vicious young woman can be reincarnated by marriage is to be attributed.

Some of the most effective and eloquent homilies I have ever listened to have been delivered from the bench upon youthful and thriftless marriages, and upon the folly of obtaining household goods by the hire-purchase system.

In spite, however, of the well-known results of such marriages—for squalor and misery inevitably attend them—educated gentlemen of position and experience appear to take pleasure in arranging them, and Police-Court Missionaries find occupation and joy in seeing the arrangements duly carried out.

[Pg 66]

The altogether unwholesome effect of arranging these marriages is considerably enhanced by the press, which duly chronicles in heavy type and sensational headings a "Police-Court Romance."

Romance! I would like to find the romance. I have seen much of the results of such marriages, but I never discovered any romance; they were anything but romantic. While I have seen the results, and have had to alleviate some of the miseries following such marriages, I am thankful to say that I never did anything quite so foolish as to take part in arranging or giving any assistance in carrying out the arrangements for a single marriage of this description.

Many years ago I was asked by a worthy magistrate to see that the arrangements for a marriage of this kind were duly carried out; I told him that I must respectfully decline.

He reminded me, with a humorous twinkle in the eye, "that marriages were made in heaven." The reply was obvious: "Sometimes in hell, your Worship." And the sequel proved my reply to be true. Magistrates seldom see the after-results, but those results are far-reaching. From this one case alone grievous burdens have already been cast upon the public, and future generations will be called upon to bear an aggravated burden. For in a short time the couple were homeless, with three young children, and were found sleeping, or trying to sleep, in a van one winter's night.

It requires no prophetical vision to see the consequences of these marriages, but a few instances may stimulate imagination.

Three years ago a decent-looking young woman[Pg 67] of twenty was charged in one of our courts with abandoning her illegitimate child. She was young, pretty, and told a sad tale about her wrongs.

The press account of the matter appeared with such embellishment as befitted a "romance," for a young man had risen in court and offered to marry the girl, and make her into an "honest woman." Now, this chivalrous young man had not seen the girl previously—they were complete strangers; nevertheless, the magistrate adjourned the case, and offered a sovereign towards the wedding expenses. The hero in this business—the chivalrous young man!—was penniless and out of work; in fact, if he himself spoke truly, he had done no work for a year; but, seeing publicity had been gained and interest excited, he wrote a letter to the press, asking the public to supplement the magistrate's contribution, and supply him with funds to furnish a home for himself and future wife His letter was not published, but it was sent in to me by the editor, for I had written to the press on the subject.

I have said that he was out of work, and certainly he was likely to remain out of work, for he was one of the audience to be seen regularly at the police-court, many of whom never seem to seek for work. I have no hesitation in saying that the man who comes forward in a police-court and offers to marry a young woman to whom he is a complete stranger, and who is, moreover, charged with serious crime, is either a fool or a rogue—probably both.

Why magistrates should smile on these impromptu proposals, and order remands that the[Pg 68] consummation may take place, I cannot possibly understand. If I were a magistrate and a fellow came forward with a like proposal, I would order him out of court; in fact, I should experience some pleasure in kicking him out. But in this case the magistrate gave a fatherly benediction and twenty shillings. The missionary, too, was by no means out of it, for he afterwards took some credit for this sorry business.

The true story of the girl came out afterwards. It was not one to excite pity, for it was a shameful one to a degree. But morbid, and I think I may say maudlin, sympathy is one of the prevailing evils of the day, and is not founded in real pity or love, or controlled by common-sense or by the least discretion, as the following will show:

The case of a young woman in whom I was interested was placed before the public as a "romance," and consequently well advertised. She was by no means a desirable person; as a matter of fact, there was nothing to be said in her favour. The untrue statement she made before the magistrate was, however, duly circulated. In a few days I received a large number of letters, many of them from men with proposals of marriage. I did the best thing possible by burning the latter, with one exception, for this interested me, as it contained a membership ticket of a religious society.

The writer told me that he was a God-fearing man, a Church member for many years, a carpenter in business on his own account, a widower with several children; that he had prayed over the matter, and it was laid upon his conscience that he must marry the young woman and save[Pg 69] her. He also enclosed a postal order for 10s., and asked me to pay her rail-fare and send him a telegram. I returned his membership ticket, his letter, and his postal order, and some words of my own—brief and pointed:


    "You may be a well-meaning man, but you are an ass. What right have you to submit your children to the care of an abandoned woman? Marry some decent woman you are acquainted with, and save them and yourself.

    "Yours truly,
    "T. Holmes."

Quite recently a Police-Court Missionary told us through the press that he had arranged seventy such weddings, that he raised £200 to give the various couples a start in life, many of whom were so poor that he loaned them a wedding-ring for the ceremony, as he always kept one by him for emergencies. Yet he assured us, in spite of the poverty of the persons concerned, and notwithstanding the disgraceful circumstances that had brought them within his province, all these marriages had turned out happily. I sincerely wish that I could believe in the happiness of couples of this description, married under such circumstances, but I cannot, for my experience of them has been so very different. Indeed, I was not surprised to read an account in the press of the trial of a young man for the murder of his wife, when the wife's mother stated that the marriage had been arranged by a Police-Court Missionary.

[Pg 70]

When I reflect upon this subject, I must confess myself astonished that our Bishops and clergy, who insist so strongly on the sacredness of marriage and of its indissolubility, are silent upon the matter, and have no advice to give to their representatives upon it.

Especially am I surprised that our good Bishop of London, who is conversant with every phase of London life, and who has spoken so fearlessly upon the extent and evils of immorality, is silent on police-court marriages and police-court separations; for these marriages are none the less immoral though they be legalized by the State and blessed by the Church, and the evils of them will not bear recapitulation. On divorce our leaders have much to say; on marriage with deceased wives' sisters they have advice to give. Are the poor to have no guidance? Are penniless, ignorant, and often gross young people to be engineered into promiscuous marriage without a protest? Is the widespread evil that attaches to wholesale "separation" of no consequence? Are these and suchlike arrangements good enough for the poor?

But there is another light in which these engineered marriages must be considered. Not very long since one of our judges had before him a young man charged with the attempted murder of the girl with whom he had kept company. His jealousy and brutality had alarmed her, so she had given him up. But he was not to be got rid of so easily, for he waylaid her and attempted to murder her by cutting her throat. He was charged, but the charge was reduced to one of grievous bodily harm. At the trial the young[Pg 71] woman was asked by the judge whether she would consent to marry the prisoner, adding that if she would consent it would make a difference in the sentence imposed. The matter was adjourned to the next session, the prisoner being allowed his liberty that the marriage might be effected. During the adjournment they were married, and when next before the magistrate the marriage certificate was produced. She saved the man from prison, and the judge bestowed his benediction in the following words: "Take her away" (as if, forsooth, she had been the prisoner) "and be good to her. You have assaulted her before: don't do it again"—thus giving him every opportunity of doing at his leisure what he had barely failed to do in his haste. I ask, Is not a procedure of this kind a grave misuse of the power of the courts? Is there any justice about it? Is it fair to place on a young and inexperienced girl the onus of deciding whether or not her would-be murderer shall be punished? Is there any sense of propriety in holding a half-veiled threat over her, and inducing her, against her better judgment, to marry a jealous and murderous brute? I can find no satisfactory answers to these questions, and contend such proceedings ought to be impossible in our courts of justice.

If our penal administrators think that brutality, jealousy, and murderous instincts can be cured by matrimonial ties, especially when these ties are forged and riveted under such circumstances, then their knowledge of human nature is small indeed.

The jealous brute when single is in all conscience bad enough, but when married he is [Pg 72]infinitely worse; for with him jealousy becomes an absolute mania, and tragedy is almost inevitable. It must not be understood that all magistrates and judges bring pressure to bear on wretched or sinning couples for the purpose of compelling matrimony, for this is not the case. We have need to be thankful that comparatively few do so. But there is enough of this business done to warrant my calling attention to it, and in expressing the hope that "romance" of this kind may speedily die a death from which there is no resurrection. It may be that among the long list of sordid cases that come before the courts there are some in which marriage seems the best way out of the tangle, financial or otherwise. Sometimes, perhaps, it is the only honourable course, especially where the mother of a child is desirous of it. But it must be remembered that in these cases the parties have had plenty of opportunity for marriage previous to appearing before the court, and would have like opportunities after going from the court, without magistrates intervening.

But it becomes a public matter when judges or magistrates use their positions and the power of the law to compel young people, sometimes mere boys and girls, to marry.

Better a thousand times that many should bear the ills and sorrows that they have, and go through life with the shadow of disgrace over them, rather than take as partners those that have been either forced by circumstances or terrorized by representatives of the law into the unhappy position.

It may seem strange that, while some of our[Pg 73] judges, magistrates, and missionaries betray anxiety to hurry on these indecent marriages, and to coerce penniless young people into them, the State should find ready means for undoing them. It is no uncommon thing for very young women who have been married but a few months to apply for separation orders and maintenance orders. I may add also that it is no uncommon thing for magistrates to grant them. The extent to which separation prevails may be gathered from the fact that under the Summary Jurisdiction (Married Women) Act, 1895, there have been granted up to the end of 1906 (the latest date for which statistics are available) 72,537 separation orders; and, assuming the average for the years 1902 to 1906 to be maintained, up to the end of 1907 there would have to be added a further 1,048 separation orders, making a total since the Act came into force of 79,583 such orders.

Surely these figures ought to compel serious thought.

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