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In my last post I looked at William Ellis Clendinnen’s earlier career in Ireland and in the West Midlands of England. It had culminated in the rape of Margaret Turnbull in the small Shropshire village of Cheswardine. That court case ended with Clendinnen’s acquittal. Both the legal system and the local establishment had worked to give the Irish doctor the benefit of the doubt and he was able to move on to become Stafford’s first medical Officer of Health (MoH). Events were to prove, however, that behind the professional front Clendinnen was, and remained, a violent man.

Clendinnen’s miserable salary as MoH – initially £50 p.a., later increased to £100 – meant he had to get more money wherever he could. He established his own medical practice in the town but found it difficult to break into the market for lucrative clients. Work among the poor was mainly his lot, a recorded example being when he was summoned to a filthy house in Appleyard Court to find twin babies dead, one stillborn and one from neglect. The mother was said to be ‘a drunken woman.’[1] He was elected as a Church of England candidate to the School Board and in 1883 was thanked for making no charge for certificates of ill-health needed by parents too poor to pay.[2] He also earned some money as surgeon to the 25th Staffordshire Rifle Volunteers and as medical officer to the new fire brigade.[3] The suspicion must be, however, that the family survived primarily on Sarah Pritchard’s private means, and this was inherently problematic.

Clendinnen proved to be a vigorous MoH. Stafford’s sanitary state in the 1870s was appalling. The town’s inhabitants had to put up with polluted water supplies, sewage running in the streets, an erratic rubbish collection system and a lot of slum housing in the inner parts of the town. The committee Clendinnen served were often reluctant to carry out his recommendations if they needed money, penalised landlords or demanded the closure of their properties.[4] Within a month of his appointment he had done a house-to-house survey of sanitary conditions and found a ‘truly deplorable state of things.’ His first annual report chronicled a ‘wretched state’ with ‘ashpits full to overflowing …. impurity of water’ and water having to be carried half a mile to houses in Eastgate Street. There was dreadful pollution by sewage.[5]He immediately and successfully set about replacing ‘the foul middens and reeking cess-pools’ by the Rochdale pail-privy system in which excreta was removed in sealed tubs to a sanitary depot outside the Eastgate.[6] Clendinnen felt this system was preferable to water closets and advocated it to his professional colleagues in the Midlands.[7] A mains drainage system was begun though it was not completed until well after Clendinnen’s time.

A battered wife

Though his salary was poor, Clendinnen’s work put him in the public eye and he established his position in Stafford’s social elite. He was an associate of another Protestant Irishman, Hugh Gibson, in the affairs of the Liberal Party.[8] All of this hid, however, a family life that had been broken and violent for years.

It all came to a head on 30May 1884. William Clendinnen

‘came home at about three o’clock in the p.m. He struck [his wife Sarah] several times and kicked her on the back and attempted to strike her with the handle of a broom, but the servant threw herself in the way and succeeded in getting possession of it. In consequence of his harsh treatment on that occasion, and during the last eighteen years, she was afraid of the defendant and prayed for a judicial separation and that she might have custody of the children.’[9]

That statement in the magistrate’s court laid bare William Clendinnen’s behaviour towards his wife throughout the eighteen years since their marriage in 1866. It was so bad that ‘she was afraid’ of him. The doctor made no attempt to contest her allegations and agreed to the judicial separation and also to her custody of the children.

Temperance and DV_0 crop

William Clendinnen’s attack on Sarah Clendinnen on 30 May 1884 must have looked much like this, with his children caught up in the attack and the servant rushing in to pull him off the battered Sarah.

Coupled with the rape of Margaret Turnbull in 1869, we see evidence here of a violent and oppressive man, the ultimate in Victorian male domination. It seems clear he married Sarah for her money and that he despised, battered and degraded her. He primarily used women as sexual objects. The children had been battered as well – a charge of assault against his daughter Evelyn was withdrawn at the same hearing.

But why did Sarah dramatically expose matters in 1884 and demand separation? There are two likely reasons. One was that three of her children were now in their teens and were able to give Sarah backing to finally make the break. They were also potentially able to fight back.  Friends at Church may also have given her support. The other reason was the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Until 1883 the law had given William Clendinnen, as husband, absolute ownership and control of his wife’s assets, even those acquired before marriage.[10] Sarah’s independent means were vital to the couple’s domestic economy and if she had tried to get out of the marriage earlier she would have been left penniless. Under the 1882 Act she regained ownership and control of her assets and could realistically set up an independent home for her children. The events of 30 May 1884 must have been traumatic for Sarah, her children and the servant, but they proved the trigger for action. Sarah showed, nevertheless, considerable courage in pursuing the case through the Magistrate’s Court. We know only too well today that many women are too afraid and intimidated to give evidence against their partners in domestic violence cases.

Origins and gender relations

The revelations of 1884 ended Clendinnen’s career in Stafford. The change was not immediate – he continued to carry out public functions for some months and in November 1884 even proposed a toast at the Mayoral banquet.[11] That shows he must have had a thick skin, but also that there was a residue of respect for him amongst the social elite. He finally resigned from his post as MoH in the same month, however. It was said that he had discharged his duties ‘most efficiently’, although one councillor said his final salary of one hundred pounds was ‘exceedingly high’[12] He left Stafford early in 1885 and went to Australia where he did insurance medicals in Perth. That lasted no more than a year. In May 1886 he went on a kangaroo hunt and fell from his horse, sustaining fatal injuries. He died a poor man – his personal estate was just five pounds.[13]

We cannot know the origins of William Clendinnen’s character and behaviour. They may have been inherently pathological. He seems to have related effectively to outsiders in his public and professional life. As MoH he successfully convinced the councillors to implement many of his policies. Even so, his origins amongst the Anglo-Irish of Co. Carlow were probably significant. Clendinnen was brought up in a family that appeared securely part of the lower reaches of the Ascendancy, but his youth coincided with the Ascendancy’s increasing loss of self-confidence following Catholic Emancipation.[14] He came of age in the troubled aftermath of the Famine. His life choices were conditioned both by the general uncertainty latent in his social class and by the specific difficulties faced by newly trained doctors in Ireland. His choice was to leave but it was probably a reluctant, perhaps embittered, departure. He faced major problems becoming established in England and his marriage to Sarah Pritchard was one of convenience to secure his income. He was probably resentful and embittered that his achievements after emigration were merely poorly paid jobs in obscure parts of the Midlands.

Clendinnen’s marriage exposes how male domination, control and even violence had been reinforced by the law in Victorian England. Reform of the situation to help people like Sarah Clendinnen was no foregone conclusion. Many MPs supported the changes brought by 1882 Act only because they saw marital violence and abuse of property as an affliction of the poor caused mostly by drink.[15] The Clendinnen case demonstrates the essential truth that such behaviour also occurred amongst the middle and upper classes. Although Sarah was initially a secure, probably confident, middle class English woman, she was trapped in her marriage and the victim of William’s personal, social and professional frustrations. He would have resented depending on his wife’s income because he saw it degrading his masculinity. Perhaps Sarah harped on about it. The superficial trappings of middle class respectability hid a household so dominated by enmity and violence that it must have been endlessly traumatic for the wife and the children.

A scattered family                                                  

Sarah Clendinnen’s misfortune might have led her to desert Stafford, but she had in fact put down roots and remained in the town for some years after William’s departure and death. Her children were reaching adulthood in the late 1880s and early 1890s and their careers diverged markedly. None entered the medical profession, a clear rejection of their father’s path. Evelyn, the first born, emigrated to Southern Rhodesia and married the editor of the Bulawayo Chronicle.[16] Bertram William (b. 1870) also left Britain and had an adventurous career in Canada and the USA. He died in San Diego, California, in 1942.[17] It is clear, then, that two of Clendinnen’s children wanted to escape from Stafford. It was otherwise with Alfred Clendinnen (b. 1875). He remained at home to support his mother and trained as a pharmaceutical chemist. In the 1890s he found work on Merseyside and mother and son moved to Seacombe on the Wirral. They lived in that area for the rest of their lives, Sarah dying in 1930 and Alfred, who ultimately married, in 1943.[18]

The connection between Stafford and all but one of the Clendinnen family lasted for about twenty years before they moved elsewhere. That pattern would have rendered the family ‘long-term transients’ if it were not for Sarah’s third-born child, Ernest (b. 1872). He remained at home during the 1890s and became a post office clerk and telegraphist. When Alfred and Sarah moved to Merseyside, Ernest stayed on in Stafford. In the 1890s and 1900s he was a keen sportsman and was involved in running various sports clubs. He integrated into Stafford social life.[19] More interestingly, he also seemed to reject key aspects of his father’s identity. On 18 January 1896 he attended the County Conservative Ball in the Borough Hall. It was attended by many of the town’s Catholic elite. A week later he was at the Catholic ‘Cinderella Dance’ at the same venue, hobnobbing again with many of the elite from St Austin’s Church. Although these events were attended by non-Catholics, it does show Ernest Clendinnen was happy to associate with both Tories and Catholics, a radical and conscious break with his father’s Liberal and Anglican position. In 1904 he married the daughter of a farmer from Dawley in Shropshire and the family’s connection with Stafford was ultimately broken in the Inter-war period.

The mixed ethnic character of William and Sarah’s family unit held little significance for the identity of their children. They can have had little pride or even interest in their father’s heritage – indeed, their identity was probably formed partly in opposition to what and where he represented. The history of the Clendinnen family demonstrates how the trajectories of even apparently favoured Irish immigrants were unpredictable and the results complex. A favoured Protestant background in Ireland was no guarantee of smooth integration into English society.

  1. Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 9 June 1877.
  2. SA, 13 March 1880 and 6 January 1883.
  3. SA, 10 October 1874, 13 July 1878, 1 February 1879.
  4. SRO, D1323/B/4, Stafford BC Sub-Sanitary Committee minutes, 10 September 1874; D1323/C/4/1 Stafford B.C. Public Health Committee minutes, 17/28 November 1876, 31 December 1876, 9 January 1877.
  5. SA, 6 February 1875.
  6. M. W. Greenslade et al., Victoria History of the County of Staffordshire, Vol. VI, A History of Stafford, (London, Institute of Historical Research, 1979; 1982 reprint), p. 232; G. Timmins, ‘Work in progress: back passages and excreta tubs; improvements to the conservancy system of sanitation in Victorian Lancashire’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Vol. 161 (2013), pp. 60-1.
  7. Birmingham Daily Post, 7 July 1876: Birmingham and Midland Association of Medical Officers meeting.
  8. SA, 23 October 1880 and 22 November 1881.
  9. SA, 19 July 1884.
  10. A. Hudson, Equity and Trusts, (London, Routledge-Cavendish, Sixth Edition, 2010), p. 711.
  11. SA, 8 November 1884.
  12. SA, 15 November 1884.
  13. West Australian, 27 May 1886, ‘A sad end’; reference and information kindly supplied by Pat Bird, August 2019. England and Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administration, 1858-1966), Personal Estate of William Ellis Clendinnen: administration granted to Sarah Clendinnen, 29 February 1888, Ancestry Database accessed 17 March 2013.
  14. R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1989), pp. 306-7.
  15. B. Griffin, ‘Class, gender and Liberalism in Parliament, 1868-1882: the case of the Married Women’s Property Acts’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1 (March 2003), pp. 59-87.
  16. SA, 25 May 1895.
  17. US Army Register of Enlistments: 16 November 1895: discharged 15 November 1898, Ancestry Database, accessed 28 May 2013. Canada: Soldiers of the First World War, 1914-18: attestation 23 September 1914. SA, 27 March 1915, Ancestry Database accessed 28 May 2013. California Death Index 1940-97: Bertram William Clendinnen, San Diego, 12 October 1942, Ancestry Database accessed 28 May 2013.
  18. England and Wales Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administration): deaths of Sarah Clendinnen, 28 May 1930 and Alfred Ellis Clendinnen, 20 February 1943, Ancestry Database accessed 9 May 2013. The Clendinnens had a fifth child, Minnie Laurette, born in 1877, but she died in 1878.
  19. SA passim., e.g. 24 March 1894, 1 October 1898 and 15 March 1902.