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


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.

Work­ing women

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.

Football fever

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.

Comic cre­ations

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

 ??  ?? Mr Bum­ble’s wife hu­mil­i­ates him in front of the pau­pers in Oliver Twist Bri­tish Lib­eral Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Ewart Glad­stone in 1882 Who Do You Think You Are?
Mr Bum­ble’s wife hu­mil­i­ates him in front of the pau­pers in Oliver Twist Bri­tish Lib­eral Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Ewart Glad­stone in 1882 Who Do You Think You Are?
 ??  ?? Mil­li­cent Fawcett, fem­i­nist and suf­frag­ist, circa 1885
Mil­li­cent Fawcett, fem­i­nist and suf­frag­ist, circa 1885
 ??  ?? Who Do You Think You Are? An­thony Trol­lope died laughing while read­ing Guthrie’s book
Who Do You Think You Are? An­thony Trol­lope died laughing while read­ing Guthrie’s book

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