An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St. Helens, Lancashire
Part 45 (of 87 parts) - Sutton at War Part 4 - What's Wrong With Sutton?
Old Sutton in St.Helens
Headlines included: 'Scandalous Gossip At Sutton' and 'The Women Who Sprawl On The Flags' as the newspaper printed a series of lurid letters alleging character assassination and inappropriate behaviour by Sutton lasses. It led to a soldier on the Frontline in France sending a lengthy letter to the Reporter to exonerate the reputation of a young lady. Then the paper sent a reporter to comb Sutton’s streets for evidence of the women, who their correspondents claimed, had far too much time on their hands and sprawled on the flagstones engaging in idle gossip.
The letters and reports are remarkably frank and inform our understanding of what life was like back home almost a century ago while a savage war was taking place in France. The importance of reputations and respectability in bygone days is once again underlined and Private Whitfield’s letter from the Front is also a remarkable read, so I have transcribed the reportage in its entirety using similar formatting. They are also quite amusing! What follows is exactly what was printed in the paper including headlines. Text which is coloured is my own comment. Stephen Wainwright
The seeds to the 'What’s Wrong With Sutton?' saga were planted in the St.Helens Reporter’s edition of August 17th 1915 when they reported how a petty dispute between two Waterdale Crescent neighbours had reached the police courts. Elizabeth Carlisle and Elizabeth Gurney were sueing each other for assault. Their husbands were fighting on the French frontline and the women were seemingly keen to do their bit back home!
The Value Of Reputations
“Until I Kill You”
Serious allegations concerning the reputation of one soldier’s wife made by the wife of another soldier, both of whom belong to Sutton and the story of how one of the parties in the case attempted to get the allowance granted to her by a firm stopped, formed an interesting story which was related to the St.Helens magistrates on Monday, Coun. A. Rudd in the chair. Mrs Elizabeth Gurney, living at 93, Waterdale Crescent, Sutton, summoned Mrs. Elizabeth Carlisle, a much younger woman, living at Waterdale Crescent, Sutton, for assault. A cross-summons for assault against Mrs. Gurning was brought by Mrs. Carlisle.
Mrs. Carlisle’s husband is serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery, and the husband of Mrs. Gurney is with the Loyal North Lancs. Regiment in France. Mr. W. Hutchen represented Mrs. Carlisle.
Mrs. Gurney, in the witness box, said she was standing at her door when a remark was passed which caused the trouble. Some time ago Mrs. Carlisle had threatened her, and had said “I will not be satisfied until I kill you.” On the date in question – August 5th – Mrs. Carlisle was abusing her all the time, and witness got onto her doorstep. Defendant accused witness’s late mother of having had six illegitimate children. Witness said “Shut your dirty mouth when the children are about,” and Mrs. Carlisle then pulled her off the step and tore the blouse (produced) she was wearing. Witness received a good thrashing, but she never attempted to raise her arm in defence. Later, witness was taking her child out, when Mrs Carlisle followed her. Some remark was made to the effect “Why does England tremble?” whilst a soldier passed.
Have there not been a lot of complaints in the neighbourhood that you are always talking about other women? – Not to my knowledge.
Are you constantly “calling” at these women because they are getting more money than you and suggesting that they get it in another way? – No.
I suppose you know Mrs. Carlisle has had a lot of trouble, that three of her children were in the hospital with scarlet fever and that during the absence of her husband her seven year old daughter died three months ago? – Yes.
And in consequence of this trouble her nerves have given way? – Yes.
Did Mrs. Carlisle come to you because of the slanderous statements you had made concerning her? – She asked me what I meant.
You told her she was getting too much money? – I said to her “You do not know what ails you.”
Later on you went to the Rolling Mill to try to get Mrs. Carlisle’s pay stopped, and they took no notice of you? – I do not know.
Did you not commence shouting that men were coming to Mrs. Carlisle’s house bringing money? – No.
Did you not strike her? – I never lifted my hand to her. She might say I hit her, but it is an untruth.
Why did you go to the Rolling Mill? – I went to the Rolling Mill and said the easiest way “to do it” is to stop her pay. She has 30s a week, and she was going to tell them (the Rolling Mill officials) of her “carryings on”. It was throwing money away, giving it to her.
The Clerk. What had that to do with you? What business is it of yours to go to the works?
Mrs. Gurney’s reply was inaudible.
You received a letter from me warning you about the slanderous statements you were making? You took out a summons and thought you would be the first, and this has all come about through you going to the Rolling Mill and asking for Mrs. Carlisle’s pay to be stopped? Were you aware that a Territorial before returning to the Front, spoke to Inspector Jackson and asked for protection for his wife from your tongue? There was no reply to these queries.
The thirteen year old son of Mrs. Gurney gave evidence, and said the trouble began when Mrs. Carlisle came to the house using dirty language. His mother put her hands to Mrs. Carlisle’s mouth, and said “Don’t use dirty language when the children are about”.
Mr. Hutchen, for the defence, said Mrs. Carlisle’s husband was serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery at the Front, where he had been for the past 13 months. His client had not been enjoying very good health, and only recently three of her children were taken to the hospital, suffering from scarlet fever. One of her children, aged seven, died three months ago, and her health had broken down to some extent under the strain. His client had to complain about Mrs. Gurney’s statements about her morality, especially one remark to the effect that a soldier had bought her (Mrs. Carlisle) a coat and had stayed at the house for the night.
Mr. Hutchen, continuing, said Mrs. Gurney went to the Rolling Mill about Mrs. Carlisle’s pay, and on that particular day the latter came to her and said, “What about those tales you are circulating regarding me?” Of course, she denied everything. She also told Mrs. Carlisle that she was getting too much money, and in reply his client said, “I am only getting the money from the works, in addition to the separation allowance.” She then commenced shouting in the street, alleging that a soldier stayed the night at the house, and had bought her (Mrs. Carlisle) a coat. In addition to this, she shouted “Why does England tremble?” with what import he could not say. After that Mrs. Gurney said she would go to the Rolling Mill, and it so happened that she did go, and his client met her there. The Rolling Mill officials had not taken any notice of her, because Mrs. Carlisle was a respectable woman. Following that, Mrs. Gurney took out a summons against Mrs. Carlisle.
Mrs. Carlisle, in the witness box, said she lived at 87 Waterdale Crescent, Sutton. Her husband had been at the Front for 12 months, and she had been living in the present neighbourhood for four years. During the whole time she had lived there she had never had a bit of peace, as Mrs. Gurney would not leave her alone. On the 5th August she had been to the railway station to see her little girl off to the Southport Convalescent Home, and when she returned she heard Mrs. Gurney shout “Why does England tremble?” Witness went up to Mrs. Gurney and said “What is all this scandal about?” For four years, continued witness, Mrs. Gurney had been scandalising people in the neighbourhood.
Afterwards witness met Mrs. Gurney at the Rolling Mill, where she had endeavoured to get her pay stopped, but it had had no effect. Some time ago Mrs. Gurney attempted to hinder witness’s child from taking advantage of the Fresh Air Fund for children at the Southport Convalescent Home by saying certain things to Mr. Higginson, who was the acting official in the district. Mr. Higginson had told witness that Mrs. Gurney had made such a request to him.
Mrs. Gurney (to witness) Are you sure Mr. Higginson told you that? – Yes. He is my club man. I never said anything of the kind to him. You did. Mrs. Webster, living in the neighbourhood, gave evidence as to the bother which occurred on August 5th. The first she heard of it was when Mrs. Gurney made some remark and then hit Mrs. Carlisle in the mouth. Mrs. Gurney also said she was going to see the Rolling Mill people about getting Mrs. Carlisle’s pay stopped.
A collier, who lives at Waterdale Crescent, said he was standing in the street about three o’clock when the trouble commenced. In addition to the other things which had been mentioned, he saw a boy punch Mrs. Carlisle in the abdomen. The boy, recalled by the Clerk, emphatically denied having either attacked or punched Mrs. Carlisle, as alleged.
The magistrates (Coun. Rudd and Phythian), it was announced could not agree, and the case was retried with Ald. John Foster in the chair and it was eventually decided that both Mrs. Gurney and Mrs. Carlisle be bound over to keep the peace for 12 months.
The discussion on Sutton’s women escalated on August 24th 1915 when on the front page of its edition the St.Helens Reporter printed a letter from an Alice Dixon:
A Lady’s Spirited Reply To An Anonymous Critic
Sutton is getting an unenviable name just now for one thing and another. First we hear of joiners being penalised because they choose to do a little patriotic work at ordinary rates of pay; then we find soldiers’ wives squabbling and washing their dirty linen in Court; and next come anonymous charges of alleged lack of patriotism against a Sutton Councillor.
Finally, a well-known young lady living in the Sutton district finds it necessary to seek the hospitality of the columns of the “St.Helens Reporter” in order to vindicate her character against, the base and slanderous charges made against her by a woman, to the effect that she writes letters to soldiers. While, of course, no one pretends that Sutton people are, as the saying goes, “any better than they ought to be,” still, it would appear that they are not so discreet and good-natured as they ought to be, and, for the sake of the good name of this flourishing portion of the borough, it is hoped that the publicity which has been given lately to the shortcomings of some of its people, will have the effect of quietening slanderous tongues and checking the activities of that lying jade, Rumour.
(To the Editor of the “Reporter”)
The lady made her remarks to a friend of mine, but asked her, if she did mention the conversation to me, not to “let on” who had said it. Well, now, may I state here that I do not reckon much of any person who says something and then does not want anyone to know she did say it! Also, that I am quite insulted by the remarks made by this person, whoever she may be. I can honestly say that I never do anything without the full knowledge and approval of my parents, and, further, that should this catch the eye of the lady concerned, I will be pleased to accept her apology at my home address with which she is acquainted.
I must admit that in my opinion she would have been better employed on the afore-mentioned occasion had she been in her own home, knitting socks for the soldiers, or at any rate in keeping a still tongue. I am neither vindictive nor narrow-minded; but I must and will protect my own good name.
On September 10th 1915, the St.Helens Reporter devoted much column space to 'What’s Wrong With Sutton?'. They were motivated to resume their coverage after receiving two letters on the subject, one from the soldier in France who Alice Dixon had corresponded with. Someone had posted a copy of the newspaper article containing Alice’s letter to Private Whitfield and so he wrote a “manly” riposte to the paper. This is the full report which begins with an editorial comment:
”A Lively Place”
The Women Who “Sprawl On The Flags.”
Soldier’s Defence Of A Lady Correspondent
Once more we are tempted to ask what is wrong with Sutton? It is only a few weeks since we printed a letter from a lady correspondent publicly chastising a woman who had maligned her character and generally slandered her, and this appeared almost simultaneously with some particularly unsavoury police court cases in which the wives of Sutton soldiers were concerned. Taken altogether, the incidents tended to give to an outsider the impression that Sutton was a place of ill-repute, and that its women were mainly composed of the virago type. For the sake of the good name of Sutton we appealed for a cessation of these unpleasant episodes for we reckon we know our Sutton as well as any one in St.Helens. Yet it would appear from the letter we print below from a lady - whose name and address are in our possession - that much remains to be done so Sutton can be said to be qualified to wear the white flower of a blameless life. Our correspondent’s letter is as follows:
(To the Editor of the “Reporter”)
You should just live a few yards away from the spot Miss Dixon spoke of – the top of Junction-lane. There, any fine day, you can see women sprawling across the flags coming out with talk not fit to print, and close to young and old men playing a forbidden game. A very nice thing for the younger ones to see! It is a disgrace, when they should be in khaki, not hiding behind their mothers’ skirts, the cowards!
Another thing we get the show organs on any time after 10 at night, besides the accompanying music-hall patter. Now I think if public-houses close at 10 o’clock these shows should be made to close, too, as they make a place more rowdy than any aleshop, people screaming with laughter until the wee small hours, disturbing the peace, but, understand, it’s when they are a bit merry. Is it right that it should be allowed? I do not think so.
The female correspondent’s pseudonym, Rusticus The Second, seems to have been inspired by second century Stoic philosopher Quintus Junius Rusticus of Rome. The “forbidden game” that the 20th century Rusticus refers to, is simply the playing of cards. Immediately following this letter, The Reporter printed another from a soldier in France. There seems to have been a good wartime postal service as his letter only took three days to travel from the Front to St.Helens:
The Miss Dixon, referred to in the above letter, it will be remembered, wrote us a few weeks ago demanding an apology from a young woman who alleged our correspondent had been writing letters to soldiers unknown to their wives. Our correspondent admitted she corresponded with one soldier at the Front. A copy of the “Reporter” containing Miss Dixon’s letter has reached him, and yesterday we received the following manly and dignified protest from him, from “Somewhere in France”.
I am pleased to be the soldier to whom Miss Dixon sends newspapers and books. This letter that I have received stated that the letters sent by the aforementioned young lady were opened and read aloud to all the boys. I beg to differ, so far as my case is concerned, and as the young lady states that she only writes to one (that one being myself), it seems to me that it is meant for me.
When Miss Dixon writes to me and sends me the books, etc., she always asks me to pass them on to my chums, so that they can also hear of the news of the motherland. Anything that is concerned with home is always heartily welcomed by us in this living hell, and surely if a young lady wishes to send things to a soldier, should she be adversely criticised? She is evidently a young lady who feels it her duty to help in the comforting of soldiers. I myself should think it most unfair if we should be denied the gifts which kind and patriotic ladies are willing to give us, owing to some person trying to throw a dark shadow on such kind people.
Picture the Germans in Sutton! Picture what would befall our young girls, bearing in mind what has befallen the girls of poor Belgium. We are helping to prevent the Germans from coming to the most beautiful island in the world. Then ask yourself the question. Do we deserve to be acknowledged?
Then Mr. Editor, I think it is most unfair that Miss Dixon should be criticised, because she thinks that we deserve a book or two. Let us hope that Miss Dixon receives an apology from her slanderer. It is unfair that she should be criticised in such a manner. Of course, as she knows, I am only single and if Miss Dixon wrote degrading letters to me and if I to her, then and only then would anyone be justified in complaining.
I, however, write to Miss Dixon as I would write to the greatest lady in the land, and I can assure Sutton people that Miss Dixon writes to me just as if she well understood the punishment we went through and just as Lady Greenall and Lady Gerrard would write to me.
Well, Mr. Editor, I think I have told and explained all that is in my power to clear Miss Dixon and protect her good name against evil tongues. My duties now call me away, so I will finish, thanking you for the space which this letter will take up in your next issue, and wishing success to your paper and readers. Believe me, yours, etc.,
16 Platoon, D Co., 7th King’s Liverpool Regiment B.E.F.
Following on from Private Whitfield’s letter from the Frontline in France, the St.Helens Reporter described what their own man had witnessed after visiting Sutton on a surveillance mission. He also interviewed fellow men for their impressions of Sutton women:
On receipt of the first letter [from Rusticus the Second] we despatched a representative to Sutton, with instructions to stroll round and keep his eyes open. His report is that much of what our correspondent complains is true. Our representative certainly saw women “sprawling on the flags” in a certain portion of the ward and he says he would not care to swear that their language was exactly fitted for young folks to hear. He did not see any indulgence in the “forbidden game” of cards to which our correspondent refers, but to quote his own words “the impression I received was that card playing would not come amiss to the women as well as the men, so long as the police were at a safe distance. I did not come across any signs of real vice, but I am bound to confess that it appeared to me that the women would be better off if they had more to occupy their time.”
Our correspondent discussed the question with one or two well-known residents. Said one such, “You can take it from me that the women of Sutton are no worse than their sisters elsewhere. There is no excessive amount of scandal-mongering here at Sutton – no more, in fact, than you will find in any other working class district.
Every women clearly loves a bit of gossip. The woman who figures in what is called ‘society’ has her ‘camp’ over afternoon tea at her ‘at homes’, which are veritable hotbeds of scandal-mongering. Many a woman’s character has been blasted at such gatherings. Now, Sutton women don’t have afternoon tea and have no use for ‘at homes’. They prefer, some of them, a cup or two of beer at home, with one or two congenial souls to keep them company, and their amusements consist of an occasional visit to the ‘pictures’. They merely say in plain language – rough, if you will, but certainly not obscene language – what their better-off sisters say secretly, with many a suggestive nod, which often is more disparaging than straightforward suggestions of wrong-doing.
“But for all that, I, who have lived at Sutton all my life, the son of a working collier who was bred and born here, am not going to have it said that all our women are a bad lot, as it is not true, for some of the finest wives, the warmest heartfelt mothers who ever lived have been born in Sutton. In saying this”, our informant concluded, “I am not trying to gloss over the kind of behaviour to which your correspondent refers, and I hope with you that the publicity that you are giving the matter will result in an early improvement. As to the show organs, I would burn the lot if I had the power. They are a fearful nuisance.”
Another gentleman, whose duties take him into many representatives working class houses in Sutton every week, was not disposed to talk about the matter, for pretty obvious reasons. He did, however, suggest that some Sutton women have “pretty nasty tongues,” and he would “not like to fall foul of them”. He thought, moreover, they “were no worse than others”, but also pointed out that the “bad ‘uns” were more than counterbalanced by the large number of respectable women “who show by their conduct every day that they are all that good women should be.”
“Perhaps it is that these poor women find the anxiety of waiting for their loved ones at the Front more than they can bear, and woman, as well as man, being a sociable beast, they seek consolation and companionship in one another’s kitchens, or even at the street corners. When, so gathered together, they are prone to let their tongues wag with possibly dangerous and regrettable freedom, by discussing any sort of tit-bit which comes their way. Reputations may be severely attacked and the most innocent action on the part of a neighbour may form the basis of a scandalous discussion. It is very regrettable, but I do not see what can be done to stop or prevent it, unless an appeal through the Press and the pulpit to the women to remember their duties and responsibilities could be tried”.
“But,” suggested our representative, “could not the churches combine to form a kind of club where these women could meet when their day’s work is done, amid congenial conditions and in an elevating atmosphere?” “Quite possible,” said our informant, “but if I understand your correspondent’s complaint right, the women assemble in the streets in the day time, and if that is so, what use would a club be that was merely open in the evenings?”
“Well”, our representative remarked, as he left, “why not have a club that could be open all day"? Our informant merely nodded his head and would say nothing further.
The series of reports and correspondence on the subject of the ladies of Sutton came to a conclusion on September 24th, 1915 when the St.Helens Reporter published a letter from a woman who wished to remain anonymous and who claimed to have suffered from “evil tongues” in her neighbourhood:
(To the Editor of the “Reporter”)
Sir, - If I may be allowed to attempt to answer this interesting question, I would say, in a few words, that the cause of the scandal-mongering on the part of Sutton women is that they have not enough work to occupy their time, and have too much money to spend.
It is all very well, as one of your correspondents said the other week, to suggest that Sutton is no worse than any other part of St.Helens in regard to its women. I know different. I have lived in three other working-class wards of the town, and I can honestly say that for back-biting and scandal-raking, Sutton women take the biscuit. I have suffered at their evil tongues, and on one occasion my husband had to get a lawyer to warn some of my “Christian” neighbours what to expect unless they left me and my character alone. It is a pity Miss Dixon did not have the law on the young woman who made charges against her character some time ago. That would have taught her a lesson.
My advice to anyone thinking of coming to live at Sutton is: ”Don’t you come unless you can lock yourself and your character up in a suit of chain armour, otherwise the ‘poison bombs’ manufactured by the women’s tongues will blast you and your character to smithereens.”
This brought to an end this saga which had run for several weeks during the summer of 1915. Note that every letter was from a woman complaining of other women in Sutton. The in-depth court report was on two Waterdale Crescent women squabbling, insulting and assaulting one other. The discussion and analysis, however, in the columns of the St.Helens Reporter, some of it by Sutton ‘informants’, was all undertaken by men!