Under the terms of the Married Women’s Property Act (1882) the law stated that:
A married woman shall, in accordance with the provisions of this Act, be capable of acquiring, holding, and disposing by will or otherwise, of any real or personal property as her separate property.*
The act built upon a previous (and more famous) one from 1870 which is credited as one of the first moves towards the emancipation of wives from the total control of their husbands. That the legislation was new in 1884 is evident from this report of a hearing at Clerkenwell Police court in April of that year.
A Mr. A Peartree came to court to prosecute a teenage domestic servant on behalf of his wife. Mrs Dinah Peartree operated a shop at 181 Caledonian Road in north London, and the girl – Lydia Pye – was employed by her. Mr. Peartree acted as the manager but it was his wife’s enterprise, and he was at pains to say so in court.
He told the magistrate (Mr. Hosack) that over the past six weeks things had been going missing from the business and suspicion had fallen a boy that also worked there. He had been dismissed but ‘goods still continued, however, to disappear’ and eventually Mrs Peartree spoke to Lydia about it.
The young girl denied the suggestion that she’d stolen and decided to brazen it out with her employers. She produced her box – wherein all servants seemed to have kept their own possessions – and it was opened in the presence of a policeman. Lydia must have been hoping that her bluff would not be called because when the box’s lid was lifted several of the missing items were revealed. These were ‘a number of tumblers, jugs, and other tableware’ belonging to Mrs Peartree.
In court a ‘painful scene unfolded’. Lydia had come with excellent references and now her mother appeared in court to see her daughter’s shame. She (Mrs Pye) was horrified that Lydia should have stolen from her mistress.
She told the justice that ‘she never could have believed that her daughter would be guilty of dishonesty. Her parents were known to be honest people, and had trained her to the best of their power to be honest too. She must have fallen among bad companions’, she added, ‘or it never could have happened’.
Reluctantly, Mr. Hosack decided to be lenient on this occasion. As it was a first offence he gave Lydia the option of paying a fine (of 20s) or she would go to prison for 10 days.
I’m not condoning the theft but it strikes me that what Lydia was doing was starting a collection of household goods that would serve her if she had to set up a home in the next few years. Servants and shop girls earned very little, hardly enough to save for a future marriage and perhaps she thought that the Peartree’s wouldn’t miss such relatively trivial accouterments of everyday life. I wonder also if the boy who was falsely accused and sacked was enquired after and given his job back (if he wanted it) because he seems to be the real victim in all of this.
I’m also curious that while the new legislation seemed to empower a wife to act independently it was her husband that pressed the charge in court. Maybe she had the shop to run and it was a practical decision, but maybe the business was in her name but he controlled their affairs.
[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 19, 1884]
* 18 August 1882 45 Vic. C. 75