The Victorian Employment Lawyer


The year is 1898 and you have a small, but thriving, legal practice in Harrogate in the North Riding of Yorkshire.

Today (Friday 22 July) you are hurrying to the ancient courtroom within the walls of Knaresborough Castle. Some say that the court furniture has been there since the time of Henry VIII and you can well believe it.

On your way in to court you meet your client, Alice Wallington. She’s young and shy and the smile she greets you with does little to hide her apprehension: she is about to face her tormentor, Mrs Martin, for the first time since 14 May when she pushed Alice down a flight of stairs.

The whole system is designed to intimidate” you explain to Alice as you enter the packed courtroom. “But you mustn’t be intimidated, Alice; you have been wronged and are worthy of justice.

Alice looks to the public gallery where a small band of friends and family are gathered in support. She gives them a weak smile.

Meanwhile, you have become engrossed in the case which is currently being heard. A fruiterer is suing a butcher for the price of a ham which he claims was maggoty and had to be buried. The judge is unimpressed by the claim and dismisses it.

Alice touches your elbow and nods furtively towards the door before quickly looking down at her feet. She doesn’t need to tell you that the little grey-haired woman with birdlike features is Mrs Martin. She looks at Alice contemptuously but Alice doesn’t meet her gaze. Accompanying Mrs Martin is her barrister, who is as large as she is small. He instantly reminds you of Mr Jaggers, the lawyer in Great Expectations by Mr Dickens, the novel you read many times as an aspiring law student in the 1860s. You remember the description of Jaggers by heart:

He was a burly man of an exceedingly dark complexion, with an exceedingly large head and a corresponding large hand. He was prematurely bald on the top of his head, and had bushy black eyebrows that wouldn’t lie down but stood up bristling. His eyes were set very deep in his head, and were disagreeably sharp and suspicious.”

As the vindicated butcher and disgruntled fruiterer pass you on their way from the courtroom, you, Alice, Mrs Martin and ‘Jaggers’ are called forward. You explain that Alice’s claim is for the recovery of unlawful deductions from her wages. She was engaged on 3s per week but this was cut to 1s 6d without her consent. The fact of the deduction isn’t challenged and Mrs Martin is called upon to explain the deduction.

“It is true,” she begins “that I agreed at first to pay Miss Wallington three shillings but she turned out to be very dirty and slow.”

One of Alice’s supporters in the public gallery cries out that this was not true but is silenced by a withering look from His Honour Judge Turton.

As I was saying,” continues the defendant “she was very dirty and slow. And clumsy too. The most hapless thing I have ever encountered. She was insolent and rude and cared little for my wants. Frankly, she should be grateful I paid her at all.” Mrs Martin spits these words out. She is utterly contemptuous of Alice, whose very demeanour makes a liar of her former employer.

You stand to cross-examine. “Mrs Martin, I have a contract here. You will be familiar with its contents, no doubt?”

Yes. I am not an illiterate,” she bristles.

Mrs Martin shall pay the servant the sum of three shillings per week” you read from the contract.

“Her condition was misrepresented to me and I made deductions on account of her slowness and clumsiness.

Nowhere does this contract allow you make any such deductions, does it?

She doesn’t reply.

You pushed her down the stairs on the morning of 14 May this year, didn’t you?

She was late and hadn’t woken me with breakfast at the accustomed time!” Mrs Martin is practically shouting now. “But it was not a push. It was slap. Reasonable chastisement, if you will. She only fell backwards down the stairs because of her clumsiness. Stupid girl!

Mrs Martin” the judge intervenes “in my courtroom, I expect the parties to show one another a modicum of respect.

Mrs Martin looks at him impassively and says nothing.

I have no further questions of this witness“. You sit down and give Alice a reassuring tap on the shoulder as she gets up to take Mrs Martin’s place.

You are very proud of the dignified way in which Alice handles her evidence.

I was a few minutes late on 14 May, I accept that. My father was ill, dying of the consumption. He was wasting away and I had to tend to him at dawn. It was such a struggle back then. Mine was the only wage coming into the house and, when Mrs Martin cut my wages, it caused us such hardship but I couldn’t leave. I had no other job to go to. It is not true that I was dirty and slow. I gave my best to that job – it was the only means I had of providing for father.

Alice pauses to compose herself before continuing “When I arrived at Mrs Martin’s house, she was waiting for me outside her bedroom at the top of the stairs. ‘Where have you been, you slovenly girl?’ she shouted. I ran upstairs apologising as I went. When I reached the top step, she lunged at me in a rage and forced me backwards. I stumbled and fell to the foot of the stairs. I was shaken more than hurt and ran home. It was the final straw.

“When I got home, the doctor was just leaving. My young sister ran from the house and held me. She didn’t have to say anything. I knew that father was dead.

Jaggers blusters and bloviates in cross-examination but his client’s case is beyond help by now. The final witness is Alice’s new mistress who speaks warmly of her satisfaction with Alice’s work and describes her as “a very clean and obliging girl.

The judge wastes little time in finding in Alice’s favour, ordering Mrs Martin to pay forthwith the sum of £1 11s 6d. The result is received with applause, which the judge tries quickly to suppress.

Click here for more tales from the history of employment law. All the stories are based on real cases but the retelling of each is entirely fictional. To receive new blog posts by email, enter your email address in the box on the right-hand side of the page.

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