‘Judge Thumb’ or Sir Francis Buller, 1st Bt (‘Judge Thumb’), by James Gilroy (1782)
As I mentioned in previous post about domestic violence the Aggravated Assault Act (1853) was well intentioned. Under its term magistrates could send men that beat their wives or partners to prison for up to six months at hard labour and it was considered necessary because of the widespread abuse that women (most visibly working-class women) received in mid nineteenth-century England.
However, not everyone agreed that it was a good idea and some pointed out its flaws and unexpected side-effects. Mr Yardley, one of the capital’s Police Court Magistrates was clearly not a big fan of the new act. While he recognised its purpose he declared that one of its effects was ‘to make […] women a good deal worse, and he had made his mind up to punish drunken and disorderly women brought before him as severely as he could’.
His words presupposed of course that the reason that men beat their wives was because they were disobedient, slovenly and drunken in the first place. Rather than questioning the rights of men to discipline their partners the law was actually trying to limit the amount of violence they used rather than stop it altogether. Yardley was of the school of thought that physical punishment was appropriate so long as it did not go too far. In that regards he was a echo of the possible apocryphal Justice Buller who suggested that men might beat their wives so long as they only used a stick ‘no thicker than their thumb’.
Yardley delivered his statement on the new act during a hearing at Thames Police Court when a man had appeared in court asking for help and guidance on controlling his own, rather disobedient wife. The ‘very respectable man’ (who was not named by the reporter, no doubt to save his blushes), told the magistrate that his wife was an incorrigible alcoholic.
‘The applicant, whose anxieties and troubles were depicted on his countenance, said that his wife was repeatedly drunk; that she had made away with a good deal of property to indulge her propensity for strong drinks; and that when he expostulated with her, she abused him, and used the most foul epithets towards him’.
She had sold off his property to feed her habit and in desperation he had even offered to separate with her and grant her half his navy pension of £60 a year. She had refused his offer and continued to torment him. He wanted help from the court to deal with her but the magistrate was unable to offer any.
Had she been violent towards him? No, the only ‘violence’ was verbal. The poor man was clearly at his wits end and feared that if he tried to repress her with force he would find himself on a charge under the new act and would soon be facing a spell in prison.
Yardley sympathised with him but reiterated that his hands were tied. In his opinion the Aggravated Assaults Act had seemingly emboldened women and innocent men like the applicant were likely to continue to suffer the consequences. He wanted it known that he would deal severely with any drunk and disorderly woman that came before him but that was little comfort to the anonymous husband in his court.
‘Can’t you compel my wife to accept of a separate maintenance?’ he implored the magistrate. ‘No’, said Yardley, ‘I cannot give you the least assistance’.
[from The Era, Sunday, August 28, 1853]