Jade Barber

This post was originally posted here

One night in mid April 1830, a surgeon was called to deliver a stillborn baby in Blackfriars, London. The mother of the child was Sarah Goulding, who died a few days later from complications caused by the miscarriage, which she insisted her husband, Daniel Goulding, had induced by beating her.

Wife beating, as it has traditionally been known, has always been a part our society. English common law gave husbands the right to chastise their wives using the ‘rule of thumb: the right of the husband to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb.’ [i] However in the 19th century, wife beating became more frowned upon in society.  This was partly due to a change in the way women were perceived; they were no longer seen as violent and mistrustful as they had been in the past, but instead appeared vulnerable, and an emphasis was put on them as tragic victims.


Blackfriars, where the Gouldings lived. 

The case of Sarah Goulding  is a complicated one. She claimed that her husband had caused her miscarriage and the inflammation that would kill her a few days later. The trial is reported on the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, and it states that whilst she was dying, Sarah Goulding exclaimed to her husband: “You have knocked me down like a bullock, and if I die my death will lie on your hands!” [ii]

However, the various witnesses interviewed stated that although the couple had been heard to argue a lot, they had never seen her husband physically abuse her or seen any marks on her body.  A neighbour, Sarah Brown, said “I never saw him strike her – I have heard them quarrel; she was always at home with him except when he put her out of doors- I have heard him say he would be hanged for her.”

Henry Crump, a man who also lived in the same house as the couple stated that, “I knew the prisoner and the deceased were always quarrelling-but never saw any blows struck… I could hear them in my room; nobody could rest for them.” There are many similar testimonies to this from the other witnesses, and it appears that the nature of their arguing was considered to be normal in the place they lived. The reluctance of even the police to get involved is evident in a statement by the patrol of the area; “The prisoner [Daniel Goulding] was calling her [Sarah Goulding] every name he could think of – she said very little to him… I heard two distinct falls on the floor… as if somebody had fallen down or been knocked down…they were so addicted to quarrelling and wrangling, I took no notice of it.”


19th century patrol (police)

The surgeon who examined the victim stated that her body had no external evidence of violence, and pronounced the cause of her death as ‘the combined effect of miscarriage and inflammation.’ He continued “I cannot state what produced the miscarriage… if I had examined the body without knowing what had been told [to] me, I should have thought it probable the inflammation had been the cause.”

So although the only person to say that the accused had caused the miscarriage by violence was the victim herself, and the surgeon’s reports were vague and inconclusive, Daniel Goulding was found guilty of committing manslaughter
against his wife, and was sentenced to transportation for life.


From my research I have discovered that Daniel has also been referred to as ‘David’ frequently in different newspaper articles about the case, and so I believe that I have found the record of his transportation under the name ‘David Goulding’. Daniel Goulding was sent on the ship Florentia on the 11th August 1830 to New South Wales in Australia. [iii]

The change in public attitudes towards women as innocent and fragile creatures, made the idea of a man beating a woman shocking and abhorrent, and this became a kind of ‘moral panic’, (a threat to society; such as the ‘hoodie’ panic that we have recently seen in the press.) [iv] This new attitude may have played a big part in the harsh sentence that Goulding received under the circumstances.

The case of Sarah Goulding was widely reported, with the Morning Chronicle following the case as it went from ‘alleged murder’ [v] to ‘wilful murder’ [vi]. The newspaper focuses on the suffering of the victim, referring to ‘the body of the unfortunate woman, which appeared a mere skeleton.’ [v]. The article was also keen to make her husband into a villain, stating that ‘he was a man of morose, violent disposition; for several months the deceased had received a series of ill-usage from her husband’. This sensationalisation  is a theme that continued in other papers, along with the idea of the victim as a martyr.

The report of the case in Jackson’s Oxford Journal describes the victim as ‘a very quiet woman… always at home except when the prisoner (her husband) turned her out of doors. He frequently turned her out…’ [vii]. It is interesting to see that both of these articles claim things that conflict with the official report from the Old Bailey, which made it clear that the couple were always arguing, with Sarah Goulding giving as good as she got.

The reporting of these cases is shaped, like contemporary fiction, by ‘the ‘‘sensibility revolution’’, [which] began to encourage writers to depict how men victimised women.’ [iv]. It was during this cultural revolution that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist (1836-1838). Nancy is an interesting figure in the novel as she is described as a prostitute and a thief; two occupations that would usually not be a cause of sympathy for the early Victorian reader. However, the nature and circumstances of her death have been cited as one of the most famous scenes of all time, with Nancy portrayed as a tragic and helpless victim in the face of masculine brutality.



An artist’s impression of Nancy

The chapter opens with Nancy asleep in bed ‘lying, half-dressed, upon it. He had roused her from her sleep for she raised herself with a hurried and startled look.’ Her vulnerability is vital to scene as it makes the contrast with Sikes’s violence even greater. This scene was so successful to its Victorian audience because at the time that Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, ‘the intimate murderer had become perhaps society’s most feared criminal.’ [iv]

It’s fascinating to note how the image of religion is used in this scene, as Nancy accepts her fate meekly, and makes her final gesture one of piety: ‘[she] drew from her bosom a white handkerchief…folded her hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.’ [viii] (p. 452)

Nancy’s deaths scene had such an effect on its audience, and generated such amounts of sympathy, because Dickens gave her elements of the traits and nature that society expected from the ‘perfect’ woman at the time. She is docile and fragile. She easily crumbles under Sikes’s violence and when she does it is with grace and religious fervour. The phrase ‘“Bill!” cried the girl, striving to lay her head upon his breast’ (p.452) suggests that Nancy needs Bill, as an emotional as well as physical support.

Would the same amount of sympathy for Nancy have occurred if she had fought back at Sikes, and killed him in self-defence? I don’t think so. In killing Nancy in such a brutal and violent manner, Dickens makes her into a helpless martyr, and encourages the ideal of an essentially good woman.


A depiction of Nancy’s death in a modern play 

It’s very interesting to compare the real life Sarah Goulding, with her fictional counterpart. As Nancy is not the protagonist of the novel, it’s easy to only see her in one dimension: as a victim. For most of the novel, she is represented only in addition to her lover and murderer, Sikes. In contrast, Sarah Goulding’s life is clearly documented, as well as her turbulent relationship with her husband, who one way or another, contributed to her death.

A final thought is about the children of these two women, whose lives were also affected by wife beating through the loss of their mother figures. InOliver Twist, we know that although Oliver loses Nancy as a maternal influence, he lives happily ever after. In the case of Sarah Goulding, it is mentioned that she has two young sons. With their mother dead and their father transported for life, I can only hope that somehow they received the same happy ending as their fictional counterpart.


Jade Barber is currently a 2nd year student studying English and Media and Cultural Studies at Liverpool John Moores. 


[i] Moore M, D. (Ed) 1979 . Battered Women. Sage: Beverly Hills/ London[ii] Old Bailey Proceedings online, April 1830, trial of Daniel Goulding (t18300415-225) [online] available at: [Accessed 26th November 2013]

[iii] Convict Records. David Goulding, one of 200 convicts transported on the Florentia, 11 August 1830. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 10th December 2013]

[iv] Wiener J, M. (2001). Alice Arden to Bill Sikes: Changing Nightmares of intimate violence in England 1558-1869. Journal of British Studies. Vol 40, No.2. pp.184-212

[v] (1830) Alleged Murder. The Morning Chronicle. 14th April 1830. [Accessed 5th December 2013]

[vi] (1830) Old Bailey Tuesday. The Morning Chronicle. 21st April 1830. [Accessed 5th December 2013]

[vii] (1830) Sunday’s And Tuesday’s Posts. Jackson Oxford Journal. 24th April 1830. [accessed 5th December 2013]