Who Do You Think You Are?
1882: Married Women’s Property Act
This year saw the triumph of one of the great women’s causes of the 19th century: the right to control their own property
For most of the 19th century, married women had no legal identity separate from that of their husbands. They could not enter into agreements or testify in court without their spouse’s permission and crimes committed with the knowledge of a husband were his responsibility.
The principle of coverture (that a man ‘covered’ the wife) was enunciated by Sir William Blackstone: “The husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during her marriage.”
All a woman’s possessions automatically became the possession of their husbands on marriage. Campaigner Millicent Fawcett had her purse stolen and was outraged to find the thief was charged with “stealing from the person of Millicent Fawcett a purse containing £1 18s 6d, the property of Henry Fawcett”. Millicent literally did not own the contents of her own purse, in the eyes of the law.
Some of your ancestors who stayed unmarried did so from choice. They might have had an independent income that they wished to keep themselves. Not a few women, even those without great financial means, chose independence because they would not submit to the ‘yoke of marriage’, as it was often called by campaigners for women’s rights.
The campaigners were middle-class radicals, who were generally religious nonconformists. They set up a Married
THE MARRIED WOMEN’S PROPERTY ACT OF 1870 GAVE WOMEN THE RIGHT TO INCOME THEY HAD EARNED AFTER THEY HAD MARRIED
Women’s Property Committee in 1868 to push for reform and in a short time achieved the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, which gave women the right to income they had earned after they had married. This protected the industrious working-class wife from an idle, abusive husband who took her earnings as his legal right.
The way this act was framed addressed working-class abuse, but avoided correcting the middle and upper-class abuse of men who married women for money. After marriage, an heiress’s wealth automatically became her husband’s property. Many members of the House of Commons and the Lords had benefitted from this and were reluctant to change the law.
The increasing influence of women in the Liberal Party was a major factor on the side of the reformers. Campaigner Ursula Bright became an activist for many women’s causes. She was supported by her husband, brothers-in-law and nephews, who were all MPs, and respected her forthright, morality-based views. As a member of the executive of the Married Woman’s Property Committee she did more than anyone else to campaign for reform of these laws. A campaigning friend noted: “For ten consecutive years she gave her special attention to this bill…was unwearied in her efforts in rolling up petitions, scattering tracts, holding meetings.” It was impossible for a Liberal politician not to know that this issue was important to their womenfolk. The support women gave in election campaigning was important to political parties as the nation moved towards becoming a modern democracy.
When WE Gladstone came to power at the head of a Liberal administration in 1880, this was one of the issues the government was prepared to tackle. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 gave women more (though not complete) legal independence in financial matters. Now they could own property outright; buy and sell property separately from their husbands; and make contracts and wills. This will be apparent from family documents you may have seen from this time. A woman now had the right to sue in her own name and, less attractively, the right to be sued and to forfeit property if she were liable for damages (previously all her liabilities had been her husband’s responsibility). In Scotland there were similar but less extensive acts in 1880 and 1881. Here women still needed to ask their husband’s consent to use their own property, but gained greater rights of ownership and wider recognition of their legal existence as a person. Such was the law. However, in practice a more common view of the relation of husband and wife, in most marriages, was enunciated by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, one of the most popular books of the century. When a character tells Mr Bumble that the law supposes that wives act under their husband’s direction, he replies: “If the law supposes that, then the law is an ass – an idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor.” The meaning was that women were often in charge in a relationship whatever the law said, and your ancestors who read Dickens’ works knew it very well.
Domestic service was the largest occupation for women in England and Wales. The 1881 census shows one and a quarter million women, and fewer than a quarter of a million men in domestic indoor service. There were important regional variations dependent on the local economy: only three per cent of working class women were servants in Stockport and Preston, for example, as women worked in the large textile factories in these towns. The demand for servants was high, the average time spent in one post was three years. Wives and daughters of middle-class families had to get on with their servants as they worked alongside them in the kitchen and on laundry and mending. Families could not afford as many servants as they would like, and the number of servants a family had was an important indication of their status.
Servants often worked from 6am to 10pm, which was longer than factory workers. The person whose experience was the worst was the single servant of a small shopkeeper or tradesman. The maid-of-all-work might be used cruelly by the tradesman’s wife as she was just below the lady of the house in the social scale.
This year football made strides towards becoming the dominant national game. It saw the creation of clubs which were soon to be famous names: Tottenham Hotspur was founded as Hotspur FC; Queens Park Rangers was founded as Christchurch
Rangers; in Scotland Albion Rovers was set up and in Ireland, Glentoran FC.
There was also an indication of an important class shift. Football had been a game predominantly played by amateur middle-class people, who had the leisure for it. Gradually, with the popularity of the game, there was sufficient money in it from mass ticket sales for northern clubs to be able to pay their players. The ‘gentleman southerners’ were still amateur though they dominated the Football Association league. This year Blackburn Rovers became the first northern club to reach the FA Cup Final. They were beaten 1- 0 at The Oval by the Old Etonians, but that was the last time an amateur team would win the trophy.
In this year a new stream of light entertainment came from the pen of Thomas Anstey Guthrie, a 26-year-old barrister writing as FE Anstey. He was
pondering the awfulness of the school he had attended with a cane-wielding headmaster who would beat boys for any reason and for none at all when he came up with the plot of Vice Versa or A Lesson to Fathers.
This novel starts with Dick Bultitude, a schoolboy, telling his businessman father that he does not want to return to boarding school beatings. Mr Bultitude thinks all this is nonsense, school days are the best days of one’s life, and he wishes he were going instead of Paul.
Suddenly he becomes a boy again: he was holding a magic wishing stone brought from India which grants the bearer one wish. Bultitude begs his son to take the stone and use his wish to restore his father to adulthood, but Dick refuses. He wishes he could be a man and he takes on the appearance of his father. Now the adult gets to go to school and the schoolboy gets to work in the City in a story, which has so many comic situations that it has been filmed repeatedly. The story was a great success, meaning Guthrie never had to practice law and instead became a professional humourist, working for Punch magazine. Anthony Trollope was this year reading the novel aloud with his family when he laughed so uproariously he suffered a stroke and died. Sad as this was, it is a story the great novelist would have appreciated. Jad Adams is a writer and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society