One Monday morning in August 1877, the atmosphere at Littledean Police Court was lightened considerably by the appearance of two “respectable-looking” married women, Sabrina Cole and Susan Phelps, who were accused of assaulting a Lydbrook grocer by pouring tar over him, then pelting him with clods of turf. Another woman, Maria Phelps, was also charged, but did not appear in court. The case was, according to The Citizen newspaper, “of a most amusing character”.
The complainant, James Cook, worked for the Lydbrook Store Company, and would go round houses to take orders and collect money for goods which had been bought on account. He had become unpopular with the local housewives through persuading them to buy groceries on credit, then demanding payment soon after the goods had been received.
On 23 July, Cook had gone out on his rounds as usual, and while he was inside the house of his second customer, he heard two of the defendants calling in a hostile manner for him to come out. He went to the gate and persuaded them to go away, but while he was visiting his next customer, an invalid who was lying in bed in a downstairs room, the three accused women came inside and caught hold of him. As they tried to drag Cook outside, he clung onto the bedpost, much to the consternation of the poor lady in the bed. The description of this scene caused outbursts of laughter in the courtroom.
After a struggle, the women got Cook outside, where he was met by a small crowd, one of whom was a boy holding a kettle containing cold tar. One of the Phelps women dipped a brush into the tar and gave Cook a good coating. The other Mrs Phelps then poured the remaining contents of the kettle over his head. To finish, a tar-covered rag was tied round his neck. As he left the scene as quickly as he was able, the women and some boys pelted him with turfs and – according to Cook – with stones.
Sabrina Cole, who had helped to drag the grocer outside, but hadn’t taken part in the tarring, was fined five shillings and costs, while the two Phelps women each had to pay ten shillings and costs. The court also awarded Cook damages of 30 shillings for his ruined clothes, the payment of which was to be shared between the three defendants.
The newspaper reports on the case ended with the women being led away, protesting at their treatment, while their husbands stepped forward to pay their fines. However, it transpired later that one of the men, George Cole, refused to pay, and as a consequence, his wife was sent to Gloucester prison. A few weeks later, Sabrina Cole found herself in court again, this time on a charge of attempting to poison her husband. This part of the story is told in my next post, Poison in the Pepper Box.
The Citizen, 15 August 1877, Gloucester Journal, 18 August 1877, Illustrated Police News, 1 September 1877 (all via the British Newspaper Archive website).