‘Your husband can take everything you have and sell it’. Why the right to vote really mattered.

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1882 saw an important breakthrough in women’s rights. Not quite as important as the vote perhaps, but more practical, at least for women who worked for a living (as most working-class women did). The Married Women’s Property Act (45 & 46 Vict. c.75) fundamentally changed the prevailing principle under which women who married became subservient to their husbands in law. The legal term of ‘feme covert’ effectively removed the rights of married women to any property they owned, including those they brought into the marriage or those they acquired afterwards, even if those goods were purchased with money they had earned themselves.

It was a disgraceful state of affairs that the 1882 act swept away. Women now had a legal identity; they could buy, sell and own property, and could sue and be sued in law. They were also now liable for any debts they ran up (so the new legal status has some drawbacks!)

However, while the act was passed in 1882 it was not applied retrospectively. This meant that women who married before the act became law were not protected by it. This led to the following situation at Westminster Police court in September 1888.

Two women came to see Mr Biron to ask for his help. Neither were named by the court reporter who seems to have been using their examples to highlight the limitations of the law in this area. The first applicant was a ‘decently dressed’ if poor woman whose husband had left her six months previously. She came to beg the magistrate for a separation order because he’d come back suddenly and had started to sell the contents of her home.

He didn’t work, she said, and chose instead to sell the things she’d bought with her own money. He had a history of violence towards her and she was now afraid that as well as stripping the family home of furniture and clothes he would start hitting her again.

‘You could have brought him here for the assault’, Mr Biron told her.

‘I did’, she said, breaking down in the witness box, ‘but, like a fool, I did did not go against him’.

She had brought him to court before for his violence but when asked to testify had, like so many women before and since, refused to give evidence against her abusive partner.

‘Can he take my bit of furniture?’

Having ascertained that she had married 18 years ago (in 1870) Mr Biron told her:

‘Your husband can take everything you have and sell it’.

‘It cannot be so cruel’, the woman exclaimed, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

The magistrate assured her that he would put a stop to any violence but there was nothing else he could do for her. ‘That is the law, madam’.

The second woman had a similar tale to tell. Her husband had lost a good job and didn’t seem inclined to look for another one. Instead he had started to sell their marital property, much of which she had scrimped and saved to acquire. He had even removed the children’s bed while they had been sleeping in it!

She too had been married since 1870 and so she too was unable to benefit form the 1882 legislation. Through her tears this woman told the magistrate that she could see no future for her and her children but the workhouse. ‘She bought the furniture, and if her husband could sell it, that was a bad law’.

Mr Biron agreed, ‘that is possible’ he said. The law had been altered he added, ‘but it doesn’t affect you’. This was little comfort to the poor woman who shuffled out of the box and made her way out of court.

It was ‘bad law’ and now I believe we wouldn’t legislate in such a way that only protected women after a certain point. There is an acceptance that retrospective legislation is sometimes necessary to redress long-standing grievances and legal wrongs. I cant imagine why this wasn’t done in the 1880s unless we are to understand that the male dominated political system didn’t think that women mattered that much, especially the wives of working-class men. Which is why, of course, women needed the vote. Once women had the vote men could no longer ignore their voices and their rights.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 10, 1888]

A real life ‘Long Susan’ is booked at Marlborough Street

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In 1864 Parliament passed the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts (the others were enacted into law in 1866 and 1869). These were the result of a two year investigation into the causes and spread of sexually transmitted infections in the armed forces. In the aftermath of the Crimean War the British state had been shocked by the state of soldiers and sailors and the high levels of disease amongst them.

This prompted attempts to curb prostitution, or at least regulate the trade. The Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) allowed local authorities to take women off the streets and forcibly examine them for signs that they were carrying an STI such as syphilis or gonorrhoea. The women could be kept in lock hospital for up to three months to ensure they were ‘clean’ before they were released. This was later extended to one year.

In effect then this amounted to medical imprisonment, without trial, for working class women who were deemed to be prostitutes (which in itself was not a crime). It was only applied in garrison and port towns and this, and the obvious fact that men were not forced to be examined and treated (although they were encouraged) meant the acts had limited effect.

The CDA were not applicable to London in 1864 and the capital was synonymous with vice and crime. Prostitution was a problem, particularly around the theatre district and Haymarket, where prostitutions mingled with respectable women in their attempts to attract business. Street prostitution was often tolerated by the police so long as it was not overt: operate quietly and you would be left alone – make yourself too visible (i.e being drunk and disorderly) and you could expect to be ‘pinched’.

A safer and more comfortable option was a brothel. Here a small group of women could ply their trade under one roof and be afforded some small protection from violence and police interference. Of course the police raided brothels but those in the West End, which catered for a higher class of client, were often protected and paid for that protection.

From time to time however, even these felt the touch of the long arm of the law. In October 1864 Anne Melville – a ‘stylishly dressed female’ – was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street charged, on a warrant, with keeping a bawdy house (a brothel). The case was brought by the vestry of St Martin’s and conducted by a solicitor, Mr Robinson. Anne, who clearly had the funds, was defended by her own legal representative, Mr Abrams.

A policeman (Sergeant Appleton 26 C) gave evidence and the court quickly established that 32 Oxendon Street was indeed a brothel. The warrant against Anne had two other names on it and Mr Robinson explained to Mr Tyrwhitt that they had both been before the Sessions of the Peace the day before but Anne had been hard to find. In absentia the Sessions had decided that Anne also had a case to answer. He asked that the prisoner be sent directly to the Sessions to take her trial.

Mr Abrams objected to this course of action. He said the Sessions would be over by now and he asked for bail, saying there was no reason to suppose his client would not give herself up. The brothel was now closed up, he added. His intention was to keep Anne out of prison if he could possibly help it. The prosecution and police were unhappy with this suggestion: Anne had led Sergeant Appleton a merry dance thus far and they had no confidence that she would respect bail in the future.

Mr Tyrwhitt was persuaded by the defence however, although he opted to set bail at a very high amount. Anne was obliged to stand surety for herself at £80 and find tow others at £40 each. In total then her bail amounted to £160 or nearly £10,000 in today’s money. Prostitution at that level was evidently a lucrative business.

He also commended the vestrymen for pursuing a prosecution against one of the larger brothels and not simply concentrating on the ‘smaller ones’. I imagine he meant he was keen to see action being taken against the sort of premises often frequented by ‘gentlemen’ of the ‘better sort’ and not simply the rougher houses used by the working classes. At the quarter sessions Anne pleased guilty to keeping a brothel and was sentenced to six months at Westminster’s house of correction. She was 26 years of age and reminds me of Susan from the BBC’s Ripper Street.

The CDAs were finally repealed in 1886 after a long campaign by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts . Butler’s campaign politicised hundreds of women and gave them an experience which they would later take into the long running battle for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile madams like Ann continued to run brothels which were periodically the  target of campaigns to close them down. Notably there was just such a campaign in the late 1880s which resulted in women being forced out of the relative safety of East End brothels and onto the streets, where ‘Jack the Ripper’ was waiting for them.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 06, 1864]

 

Does the lack of the vote excuse you from obeying the law?

My method of research for this blog is quite simple. I use today’s date to search back through the newspaper records for a police court hearing with a corresponding date. I thought I might look for a day in June where there was a previous general election given the turmoil of the last few weeks, but there were only two elections in June in the 1800s  (1807 and 1826) both a little too early for the reportage of the Police Courts. So instead I’ve opted for 1859 when the election was held just a few weeks earlier, on 31 May.

That election was won by the Liberal Party and returned Lord Palmerston – he of gunboats fame – as Prime Minister. Palmerston won a significant majority of 59; a figure either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn would have been delighted with on Thursday. However it represented a decline for the Liberals (or Whigs as they were then) from the previous ballot in 1857 when their lead was 100 seats.

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‘A leap in the dark’ (Punch cartoon)

This political cartoon refers to Lord Derby’s comment that Disraeli was taking a ‘leap in the dark’ when he sponsored the second Reform Act – which he considered an astute political move. By using popular support for reform to introduce a Bill extending the vote to urban working-class electors, he believed the Tories would stand to gain in subsequent elections.
Catalogue reference: LIBRARY Punch, p. 47 (3 August 1867)

[from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/docs/punch1867.htm%5D

Perhaps the writing was on the wall because in 1865 the Tories got back in. This was the last general election under the system introduced after the Great Reform Act of 1832, a new reform act in 1867 extended the suffrage (see cartoon reference above) to include many more people and arguably set in motion the move towards the one-person-one-vote system we have in place today. In took the reforms of 1884, 1918 and 1928 to finally do that however.

I doubt any of this concerned Charles Webb in the weeks after the 1859 general election. As a ‘ruffianly looking, middle-aged’ man dressed as a ‘builder’s labourer’, Webb almost certainly did not have the right to exercise his vote whether he wanted to or not. Like most of the poorer class in Victorian society he was unenfranchised, not being considered fit to vote as he did not own property.

We can speculate as to whether this bothered him or not, or indeed whether this lack of a political voice in some way disconnected him from a sense of social belonging. Does a person who has no political rights in a society therefore have no social responsibilities? If you are not part of the mechanism of making laws then can you perhaps be excused for not obeying them?

These are philosophical questions and again I doubt they crossed Webb’s mind as he watched a procession of charity school children march down Cheapside towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Webb was seen by a policeman, PC Legg, who observed him walk into Post Office Yard with another man. He watched as Webb took a purse out of his pocket, extracted a few silver coins (which he gave to the other man) then threw the purse away. The implication was that Webb had stolen the purse (with the aid of his accomplice) and was disposing of the evidence. He moved in and arrested Webb but the other man got away.

At the police station Webb refused to give his address and denied all knowledge of the purse. When the case came before the magistrate at Mansion House, (which was the Lord Mayor, as the City’s chief lawman), Webb explained why:

‘Well of course I did, but I never saw that purse before and I never touched it’. He then aimed a verbal swipe at the policeman: ‘Ain’t you paid for not telling the truth?’

The clearly frustrated copper then told the Lord Mayor that he had searched the prisoner and found that he has specially adapted his coat for picking pockets, an accusation that Webb vehemently denied.

‘My Lord’ began PC Legg, ‘he shoves his hands through his pockets which are open at the bottom, and work in that way’, demonstrating to the court with the accused’s coat.

‘Why what do you mean by that?’ responded Webb, ‘D’ye mean to say I’m a thief? I am as honest as you are, and works hard for my living. Can’t yer see that them ere pockets is worn away at the bottom?’, he finished, prompting laughter in the courtroom.

When the policeman insisted his version of events was correct (as it undoubtedly was) Webb returned to his theme of accusing the officer of lying. ‘Yes I dare say you’ll say so; but you’ll say anything , cos of how your’e paid for it’

This was probably an opinion shared by many of London’s criminal fraternity who had little love of the New Police and saw them as an extension of the old semi-professional watch, their-takers and informers of the previous century. Magistrates generally took the word of a policeman over that of a working-class man, especially if he looked (as Webb did) like a ‘ruffianly’ individual.

The alleged pickpocket was remanded in custody while the owner of the purse, or more information or evidence, was sought. We don’t know what happened to him after that, but I would expect he spent some time off the streets at society’s expense.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 10, 1859]