The Southwark magistrate helps two wives obtain a brief respite from their abusive spouses

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George Wright so badly mistreated his young wife, Emma, that after 18 months of marriage she had walked out of his life, and had gone to live with her mother. During that time she had not taken a penny of his money but had ‘maintained herself’ independently of him. In July 1881 however, the pair had run into each other on the New Kent Road, and this had ended badly.

George Wright may have gone looking for Emma; he was aware that she had a new man in her life and was accustomed to ‘walking out’ with him and her sister, something that annoyed him greatly. When they met he assaulted her, knocking her to the street and kicking at her while she lay there helpless.

Emma was badly hurt and her sister helped her get some medical attention before making a formal complaint to the police about George’s behaviour. In court even George’s own sister testified to her brother’s cruelty and this helped make it an easy case for the Southwark magistrate to adjudicate on. He awarded Emma a judicial separation (as close as he could get to granting her a divorce under his powers), and ordered her husband to pay her 10s a week in maintenance.

Both this case and the next one reported that day at Southwark Police Court , that of  a 33 year-old ironmonger named Stafford, accused of assaulting his wife, were presented under the headline ‘Matrimonial Causes’. This referred to the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) which was the first piece of legislation to give wives some semblance of control over their marriages. It hardly offered equality in marriage as we might recognise or understand it today but it was a hard fought victory for women nevertheless and it made some small difference to women of the middle or upper classes. For poorer women like Emma Wright or Mrs Stafford it did little but perhaps did at least establish some legal grounds for separation in abusive situations.

Wife beating was widespread in the nineteenth century and not just in working-class homes. It was here however that the spotlight tended to fall with drink and fecklessness being attributed as causal factors in so many women being attacked in their own homes.  Wllliam Stafford was sent to prison for three months at hard labour for the beating he handed out to Eliza, his wife. The justice also separated the couple and similarly ordered William to pay her a regular sum of 7s and 6d for the support of her and her children.

Emma Wright then was lucky, she had escaped from George’s violence, for the time being at least. But a full divorce and the opportunity to be a ‘respectable’ married woman with someone else (rather than simply being a ‘common law’ partner) was still a relative pipe dream. Moreover, while she had bene awarded 10s a week, there was little to ensure that it was paid other than to constantly be prepared to drag her husband back to court time after time.

So it was a victory of sorts, but possibly a short-lived one.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

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