In the rural landscape of 19th century England, it didn’t take much for an agricultural labourer to end up in the workhouse. The chances of avoiding this grim institution were even slimmer for women, who were legally dependent on their husbands. In the winter of 1882, Louisa Nottage was forced to seek relief from the parish after her ne’er-do-well husband neglected her yet again.
Twenty-year-old Louisa had been married for just six months. Her husband, Alfred Nottage, 31, was a hay binder, and the couple lived in the Hertfordshire village of Barkway. In November 1882, when Louisa was six months’ pregnant with their first child, Alfred absconded from his work and left her without support of any kind. He was convicted under the Maintenance of Wives Act and sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour. However, despite his time behind bars, his behaviour didn’t improve so Louisa was eventually forced to take matters into her own hands.
Alfred and Louisa’s only son was born the following spring, but life wasn’t quiet for long, as Alfred’s actions spiralled out of control and he committed a string of offences. In the following years he was indicted twice for drunk and disorderly behaviour, both times on the village high street, and once in the company of his father. He was also caught trespassing in local woodland in search of conies (rabbits). Each time he was convicted and fined. The 1891 census revealed how the couple had fared during their precarious marriage.
By 1891 Alfred, aged 40, had lost his home and was lodging with a family of farm workers, but Louisa had taken an entirely different direction. She was working as a charwoman in London, where she lived with her sister. It was unusual at the time for working-class women to leave their husbands and Louisa took an even bolder step when, in 1895, she married carman, Thomas Mitchell. On her marriage certificate, despite using Nottage as her surname, she is recorded as a ‘spinster’: Louisa had resorted to bigamy to escape her fate.
Louisa Nottage never returned to Hertfordshire and when her second ‘marriage’ failed, she moved in with her son. Alfred remained in Barkway, where he entered the workhouse in the late 1890s. He died there almost 20 years later at the age of 69.
The Nottages were members of my extended family tree and their petty crimes were quite commonplace in Victorian farming communities. You can read more about ‘crime in the countryside’ in my article in Your Family Tree magazine, out now.