Exactly one hundred years have passed since Ruth Hadley, a pretty young Wolverhampton woman with a fiery temper, was killed by a shot to the head. Just three months later, in March 1909, Edward Lawrence - one-time veterinary surgeon and successful businessman - was acquitted of her murder. This was not the kind of thing that was expected in respectable middle-class Victorian neighbourhoods. Yet Mr Lawrence was not quite the perfect gentleman. Though married, Lawrence took several mistresses, of whom Ruth was one of the first. He drank heavily, brawled in the town centre pubs operated by his family brewing business; he litigated frequently and usually unsuccessfully, and took few pains to conceal his actions from polite Wolverhampton society. His antics were often reported in full in the Midlands press. Did Edward pull the trigger? Was it a tragic accident? Lawrence's famous defence lawyer, Edward Marshall Hall, was able to prove reasonable doubt; the judge implied that he was very lucky to be acquitted, and he advised Lawrence to reform his ways.
Yet the astonishing thing is that, far from heeding the judge's advice, Lawrence continued in his 'bad ways', dying at the age of 45 just three years after his trial, almost certainly because of his drinking. And despite all of his failings being paraded at the trial and during several later court appearances, and despite being declared bankrupt, he was able to maintain a comfortable standard of living in his final years, still with the outward appearance of the respectability that we usually think of as being so hard won. The trial, the life, the public humiliation, yet the remarkable resilience of the 'respectable' Mr Lawrence provide a fascinating cameo of Victorian life, at the same time illuminating sharply many wider issues including attitudes to class, to gender, to marriage and to women, debt, drinking, bankruptcy, civil as well as criminal law. It is not often that one local case casts such a useful and interesting spotlight on the Victorian society that we think we know so well.