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Saturday, 9 February 2013


Talfourd Salter, a cousin of my great grandfather, was a working solicitor. Transcriptions of a number of his cases, argued at the Old Bailey in London, are available online. They’re little slices of life, verbatim accounts of cross-examination in trials from the poignant to the comical.

 The Old Bailey’s Central Criminal Court (pictured in 1856) 
where Talfourd Salter was counsel for the prosecution 
on 22nd February 1858

Talfourd, for example, was responsible for introducing a baby elephant as a surprise witness for the defence on one occasion. On another however, his counsel for the prosecution shed light on a sad domestic tragedy.

On 12th October 1845 Charlotte Winstanley and Francis Henry Law got married, in St Mary’s Church in the London burgh of Lambeth. Charlotte was 17, the daughter of a gaslamp lighter; Francis, a marble polisher, was the son of a soldier. Charlotte’s father, himself the son of a soldier, had received enough of an education to be able to read and write; but neither Charlotte nor Francis could do so – they each signed the wedding register with an unschooled “X”, their “mark.”

The record of the wedding of 
Francis Henry Law and Charlotte Winstanley

As far as I can be sure, those crosses are the only mark either of them has left. I can find no return for the couple in the next national census seven years later. The only other reference is the one in the archives of the Old Bailey. On 22nd February 1858 Talfourd Salter conducted the prosecution of Francis, who was accused of the murder of Charlotte.

Six weeks earlier on 12th January (it was a Tuesday) the couple came home from the pub (it was midday), “both” (as one witness put it) “in liquor, the prisoner very much so, the deceased not so much.” Charlotte was however “very aggravating that morning,” and as the drunken Francis tried to focus on dusting the goods in his shop he asked her repeatedly to be quiet. They quarreled, and he told her that, “if she did not hold her noise, he would smash her head.” It was a red rag to a tipsy bull. “Do it,” she sneered. “Do it.”

Francis grabbed a five-pint tin saucepan with his right hand and lunged at her. She ducked, but he left a shallow cut about an inch and a quarter long on Charlotte’s left temple. Now reeling, she went for him with the lid of the pan which had fallen off as Francis swung it. A visitor Thomas Wise restrained her; the fight was over and already Francis was full of remorse. As Talfourd established in cross-examination, Francis called to his brother upstairs, “William, run and fetch Mrs Johnson. I’ve cut Charlotte’s head and I think it’s serious, and I’m sorry for it.”

A saucepan and lid of the type used

Thomas and William took Charlotte at once to a chemist who bandaged her wound and, as he told Talfourd in court, changed the dressing five times over the next nine days. Francis, witnesses affirmed, was attentive and kind throughout that period – indeed William testified that “during the whole of their married life they lived on most excellent terms.” For her part Charlotte told anyone who asked about the bandage that she had banged her head getting coal in.

The Laws went every Thursday to the theatre. Two days after the fight Thomas went with them and reported that Charlotte seemed better, although against the advice of both the chemist and Francis that “she ought not to go to the public house afterwards, she went in and had a glass of gin after we came from the theatre.” She was out again the following Tuesday at a raffle where, perhaps from vanity or discomfort, she did not wear her bandage. At the theatre that Thursday 21st January she looked a little worse.

Beer good, gin bad: 
William Hogarth’s engravings from 1751 still seem relevant in 1858

The demon drink and the removal of her dressing were Charlotte’s undoing. The wound became infected and Charlotte contracted erysipelas. She’d had it before; as Dr John Payne, who began to treat her on the 22nd, testified: “Some persons are more predisposed to it than others. Being given to drinking is one of the most common causes of it – I should call her a person singularly predisposed to erysipelas.”

The condition causes fever, vomiting and a painful orange-peel blistering of the skin, which spread not from her wound but from Charlotte’s neck across her face. It’s also known, because of this symptomatic rash, as holy fire, and in the most severe cases it leads to necrotizing fasciitis – the so-called flesh-eating bug. After nine days Charlotte died of the holy fire on Sunday 31st January 1858.

The consensus was that although the cut from the saucepan might have exacerbated the erysipelas, it was itself, as Dr Payne put it, “very slight.” “Such a wound,” the chemist John Wade concurred, “would not cause death.” “She died of erysipelas,” the doctor stated, “and I think the wound had very little to do with it.” Talfourd Salter didn’t press the charge of “feloniously killing and slaying Charlotte Law,” and Francis Henry Law was acquitted. And with that, Francis and Charlotte disappeared from history. Charlotte's father died a year later.

Many thanks to Diane, descended from Charlotte’s uncle Samuel, for her help in piecing together this sad story.

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