Domestic abuse and the 'rule of thumb'

Nell Darby reveals how domestic abuse affected the lives of some of our ancestors and how they sought help to stop it

Domestic abuse in the 19th century
Bridgeman
Published: June 22, 2022 at 1:11 pm
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Please note that this article contains details some readers may find distressing. If you are based in the UK and experiencing domestic abuse or concerned about someone who is, you can call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 (freephone, open 24 hours per day) for help and advice. The freephone Men's Advice Line for men experiencing domestic abuse is available on 0808 8010327. The LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline is available on 0800 999 5428.

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In December 1798, one Mr Ryan, butler to Lord Llandaff, was arrested for “violently assaulting” his wife, a servant in the same household. Ryan, drunk, had beaten her with a large iron key, and was said to have “behaved in the most brutal manner to his wife” (Mirror of the Times, 8-15 December 1798).

We now use the phrase 'domestic abuse' to cover a whole range of behaviours, but it was the phrase ‘domestic violence’ that was first coined in the late 19th century to describe assaults on a woman by a man within a domestic relationship. However, as the Ryan case shows, spousal assaults are a far older phenomenon. Cases of domestic assault appear in historical records such as magistrates’ notebooks, as well as in Quarter Session or Assize records.

Georgian newspapers would cover the more dramatic assault cases – then, as now, focusing on the more unusual or salacious details. One case covered by the Daily Post in July 1724 focused on the husband’s religion, insinuating that the man, Doyle, was violent because he was Roman Catholic.

The same newspaper wrote about another case five years later that caught its interest because the couple in question had been the owners of a brothel – a titillating detail that made this case of assault and beating newsworthy. Other cases were more likely to be covered by the media if the wife was critically or fatally injured as a result of the assault. So the story of a Mrs Russell, heavily pregnant by her soldier husband, Francis, made the Evening Post in August 1730 because she died after he beat her with his shoe before cutting her throat.

Marital discord could often involve property or money. Under the legal doctrine of coverture, which had originated in the middle ages and continued into the Victorian era, women forfeited their legal rights on marriage, together with their ability to own property or keep their own wages. Husbands were seen as owners of their wives, with women’s possessions and money becoming their husband’s property on marriage. Men were very aware of their power in this regard, and disputes would sometimes result in a man physically barring his wife from entering their home, because legally it was ‘his’.

The few surviving magistrates’ notebooks – where Justices of the Peace (JPs) recorded the cases that came before them – are a wealth of information about such issues. For example, in 1747, when Wiltshire magistrate William Hunt heard a complaint brought by Mary Bayley, wife of a gardener from Urchfont, that her husband was refusing to let her into their home, or pay her any maintenance so that she could survive elsewhere, it was nothing new. James Bayley had as little respect for the legal system as for his wife – despite Hunt issuing two warrants for his appearance before him, Bayley ignored them, and continued to forbid his wife from entering the marital home.

The first port of call for many women in distress was their community. Women would rely on their family, friends or neighbours for support and to either negotiate a truce or to shame a husband into behaving. Only when this community failed to materialise or have an effect would many women seek an alternative recourse, by going to see their local magistrate.

The Rule of Thumb and domestic abuse

Magistrates, or Justices of the Peace, were traditionally drawn from the gentry – men with the income to be able to take on a usually unpaid role that involved travel expenses (although later, stipendiary magistrates, on a salary, were appointed where unpaid JPs could not be found). In the 18th century, they would often hear cases in their own homes, seeing people come to them with a variety of complaints in the hope that the magistrate could help improve their situation. The judge would come in later, overseeing trials.

The role of magistrates and judges could be a difficult one when it came to ruling on domestic violence cases – and their opinions could be criticised by the media or the public. Most famously, in 1782, caricaturist James Gillray published a cartoon mocking Judge Francis Buller for ruling that a man could legally beat his wife, as long as he used a stick that was no thicker than his thumb.

Rule of thumb cartoon
This Gillray cartoon of Judge Buller from 1782 shows 'Judge Thumb' selling sticks for wife-beating Bridgeman

Although Buller’s alleged statement may be more myth than fact – there is no surviving proof of his ruling – some form of domestic chastisement was tolerated. This is because the popular assumption in 18th century society was that women were inferior to men, and more like children; so it was therefore acceptable to chastise your wife as you would a child.

William Blackstone, a London judge who wrote The Commentaries on the Laws of England in the 1760s, stated that the chastisement of wives by husbands was expected to be “reasonable”, although this could be open to interpretation. However, over the course of the 18th century, such punishment became less acceptable, with Georgians believing that as a civilised, polite society, such violence was ‘ineffectual’ and therefore unnecessary; and that a wife should be able to live in peace within her own house, without having to fear her husband.

Magistrates’ powers in historic domestic abuse cases

Some wives were attacked several times before they lodged a complaint, but going to see a magistrate to get their husband bound over to keep the peace might not have been the end of the story. There are cases in magistrates’ notebooks of wives having to repeatedly go to their JP – their husbands continuing to assault them even after being summoned or bound over.

In December 1737, Mary Curtis went to her local JP in Hackney, Henry Norris, to complain that her husband John had assaulted her, threatening to kill her, driving her out of her house and “neglecting to provide for his family”. A warrant was subsequently issued by Alexander Garrett Esq for Curtis’s apprehension; he had deserted his family, leaving them without resources, and Norris later noted, “they are become burthensome and Chargeable to the parish of Hackney”.

The issue with the abusive husband in this case was the fact that he had left his family reliant on the parish for relief, and the local churchwarden reported this to the authorities. Presumably, the parish’s interest was in getting Curtis to return home and pay for his family’s upkeep, regardless of how he treated his wife.

Although some women were active in reporting or prosecuting their husbands for assault, others tried to urge leniency for their husbands’ crimes. This was not necessarily out of sympathy or love; if a man was sent to jail for assault, his income would stop and it would be his wife and children who would suffer financially, forced to seek parish relief or face destitution. One petition held by The National Archives (TNA) illustrates this.

In 1834, when Barbara McMillan petitioned the Home Office for clemency on behalf of her husband, Archibald, – who had been convicted at the Edinburgh Court of Justiciary for assaulting her and sentenced to 18 months in prison – the reasons given were the conventional “grief and misery”, but also having “a young family to support”.

This situation was made clearer in another case of the same year. TNA holds details of a Chelsea Pensioner, John Robinson, who was convicted at the Middlesex Quarter Sessions in February 1834 for assaulting his wife Elizabeth, while both were inmates of the Grosvenor Square workhouse in London. Both John and Elizabeth petitioned for clemency on several grounds; John’s distinguished 35-year career in the British army and his age (65) were both mentioned, together with an old head injury that apparently made him “deranged” – but money also came into it. While John was in prison, on a six-month sentence, parish officers retained a quarter of his army pension to pay for his wife’s upkeep in the workhouse.

John then came to a private arrangement with Elizabeth to give her half of his pension “if she does not trouble him any more”. In addition to his prison sentence, John had been asked to provide a financial surety for his good behaviour, which he couldn’t find. In light of his lack of money, and the desire of the parish officers to avoid having to provide for John’s wife, he was pardoned.

The rules governing the issuing of poor relief was gradually tightened over the 19th century, and affected women more than men. Some 19th-century Poor Law Boards, such as Manchester, stipulated that when a husband had been sent to prison after being convicted of a crime, poor relief would not be granted to his wife. This means that if a man had been convicted of assaulting his wife, and was subsequently imprisoned, his wife could then be left destitute by his imprisonment.

Women in an abusive relationship who were reliant on their husband’s income, however small or precarious, would therefore have to weigh up the risk of physical assault versus financial ruin – something that might well dissuade her from reporting an assault to the authorities.

Changing attitudes towards domestic abuse

The change in attitudes towards appropriate male behaviour and the inappropriateness of domestic violence might also have affected the views of magistrates – making them, perhaps, more sympathetic in their responses to females complaining of assault, and harsher in their attitudes towards the accused men.

In 1797, the Telegraph reported that Charles Leland had been put into a “lock-up room” by a local magistrate “out of revenge for his wife’s ill treatment” – a statement that makes it sound as though the magistrate was being obvious in his disapproval of Leland’s actions towards his wife.

Wife beating, 1847
Public attitudes towards domestic violence changed Getty Images

Over the first half of the 19th century, attitudes continued to change and modernise. By 1847, some newspapers were taking a mocking tone when describing the draconian poor laws and continued existence of some old-school, conservative judges. For example, magistrate and MP Sir James Knight-Bruce, who later became the first Lord Chief Justice, was described as “protector of the traditional thumb- thick cudgel law” by the Hampshire Telegraph.

Sir James had stated that he did not think a schoolmaster should have been dismissed from his post after beating his wife, because the beating “was done in private”; a continuance of the 18th century belief in a husband having jurisdiction and total control over what happens within his own house. The fact that newspapers were willing to criticise his opinions as conservative and old-fashioned shows that such thinkers were becoming a minority by the mid-19th century.

Domestic abuse reforming acts

In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed, which widened the availability of divorce – previously the recourse of the wealthy few who could afford the process of getting a private bill passed, and who were willing to submit to the likelihood of a public debate about their marriage in parliament. There was a large increase in the number of divorce petitions immediately after the Act was passed, but these were still a tiny number compared to the number of married couples in England and Wales.

Coverture, which restricted married women’s ability to leave their abusive husbands, effectively came to an end after the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. 14 years earlier, novelist George Eliot had written about a petition for women to have a legal right to their own earnings, “as a counteractive to wife-beating and over evils”. The 1870 Act finally allowed women to own the money they earned and to be able to inherit property.

It allowed the money women earned through their work to be regarded as their own property. It also enabled them to separate from their husbands and maintain their children, if they had their own property or inheritances. However, it did not allow women who had married before the Act was passed to recover their property.

Another key piece of legislation passed during the Victorian era that helped married women was the 1873 Custody of Infants Act, which allowed mothers to gain custody of any of their children under the age of 16 – provided it was in the child’s interest. Under the previous 1839 Act, custody was only given to the mother if the child was under seven, although this was still an improvement on the situation prior to 1839.

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These Acts may not have stopped domestic violence from taking place but they recognised both the economic pressure on some wives to stay with abusive husbands, and the emotional pressure of those mothers who were forced to choose between their children and their physical safety. One thing remained the same, though – the bravery of those women who did seek to end their violent relationships, by going to friends, neighbours, magistrates or the police, regardless of the risk.

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