A man battered his wife to death in 1875 following a drunken row over the money that was needed for the upkeep of their son who was on a reformatory ship. The killing, which resulted in a life sentence for manslaughter, demonstrated the wretched conditions that some were living in at that time.
James Fox, a 43 year old plasterer, finished work at noon on Monday 5th July 1875 and went on a drinking session, eventually ending up in a pub in Jenkinson Street in Everton, where he lived in a cellar with his wife Margaret and two of their children.
At about 2pm Margaret joined James in the pub and asked him for money, as that morning she had pawned her shawl so that she could pay some support money at Dale Street police station for the support of their son, who was an inmate on board the Clarence reformatory ship, moored in the River Mersey. An argument broke out during which Margaret raised her hand to strike James, but she was taken home by a neighbour, Mrs Stringer.
James followed them home half an hour later and in full view of both Mrs Stringer and his son, hit his wife over the head with a brush. Margaret rushed out of the property and ran to the pub, followed by Mrs Stringer who begged her not to return home while James was in such a rage. Margaret then asked Mrs Stringer collect her youngest child Mary from the cellar, but after this had been done she chose to return home anyway.
Margaret's decision to return home cost her her life. James hit her on the head with a kettle and after she fell kicked her in the back, belly and face, before lifting her up onto the bed and leaving her. This assault took place in front of their 8 year old son, who was then given a shilling to go and buy some mussels. At 5pm Mrs Stringer returned with the youngest daughter and saw James sat on the bed next to his dead wife, asking if she could go and get him a gill of ale.
James stood trial on 18th August, with Mrs Stringer and his son as key witnesses, as well as other neighbours who had seen him pulling Margaret's hair outside the house. The defence counsel dismissed the son's evidence as unreliable and tried to discredit Mrs Stringer due to her fondness for drink. After careful consideration, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, taking into account comments in Mr Justice Archibald's summing up about premeditation and provocation.
During the trial James had often wept and evidence was presented to show that when not drunk he was a kind and affectionate husband. However Justice Archibald showed no leniency, even though he had said during his summing up that people in the cellars needed reaching out to and elevating up the social scale, so they could learn that there was more to life than drink. Telling James that there was a very narrow line between this case and wilful murder, he imposed a sentence of penal servitude for life.