The struggle for the breeches (or the ‘bloomers’ in this case!)

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The nineteenth-century Police Courts were full of assault, much of it perpetrated by men and most of that ‘domestic’ (in other words where the wife or female partner was the victim). Most studies of interpersonal violence have found that men are most likely to be accused of assault in all its forms (from petty violence to serious wounding and homicide); women tended not to be violent or at least were not often prosecuted as such. When women did appear before the magistracy charged with assault it tended to be for attacking subordinates (children and servants) or other women. It was very rare for a woman to accused of hitting or otherwise assaulting a man.

There are good reasons for this and it is not simply because women were somehow ‘weaker’ or even less violently disposed than men. For a violent action to become a statistic it needs to be reported and then (usually) prosecuted if we are going to be able to count it. Historians talk of the ‘dark figure’ of unreported crime and there is widespread agreement that this figure is particular dark where domestic violence is concerned.

The gendered nature of Victorian society made it very hard for a man to report an assault against him by a woman. The mere fact that he had allowed a female to abuse him (to repudiate his ‘authority’) was bad enough in a society which was highly patriarchal. But to compound that by admitting in public that he had been bested by a woman was considered shameful. I am not suggesting that women were frequently beating up their male partners but I suspect the real figure is higher than the records suggest.

So when a man did bring a prosecution against a woman it is not surprising that it made the papers, and (as in this case) provided an opportunity for amusement at the man’s expense.

When Jeremiah Lynch lost his first wife to cholera he took on a woman to help him keep his house together. Lynch, a tailor living in Redcross Street near the Mint, was elderly and employed a vibrant young Irish woman named Carolina. He had hired Carolina in October 1850 and for nine months she had performed her duties admirably. In fact so diligent was she that in July 1852 Jeremiah (despite the age difference) proposed marriage to her which she accepted.

This soon turned out to be a terrible mistake however as Carolina, now Mrs Lynch, appeared to transform into quite a different person from the amenable servant he had married.

He ‘had not been tied to her many days before she exhibited her true temper, by demanding possession of all his money, and wanting to wear the breeches’.

When he refused her demands she smashed all his crockery. At first he ‘overlooked her mad conduct’ but on Friday 19 September 1851 she came home at six and started on him again. She complained (in an example of gender role reversal) that he had not prepared anything ‘nice for tea’ and knocked him about the head and body. She declared that ‘she would wear the breaches’ he told the magistrate at Southwark Police Court on the following Saturday morning.

‘So’, the magistrate asked him (to mounting laughter in the court) ‘she is desirous of wearing the Bloomer costume?’

If Lynch responded it was not recorded but Carolina did speak in her own defence. She told his Worship that the tailor (described as ‘sickly-looking old man’ by the Standard‘s reporter) was ‘a nasty old brute’ who ‘ill-used and starved her’.

Jeremiah Lynch denied this but the magistrate didn’t convict her of the assault. Instead he granted a separation, perhaps acknowledging that Lynch had some responsibility in the matter. He further required that the tailor should pay his former housekeeper 10s a week. In the end then this was probably a fairly successful outcome for Carolina, if not for Jeremiah. In this struggle for the breaches then, it was victory for the ‘fairer’ sex.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1851]

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