Angels, whores, and wives for sale.

While researching for my novel, Leap the Wild Water, I was shocked by the extent to which women in the 19th century were suppressed in all spheres of their lives, and the appalling double standards they were subject to. Generally, women were seen as either angels or whores, depending on their virginal status at marriage.

Women were generally regarded as the property of men. In 1824, a woman called Lydia Jones was produced for sale with a halter around her waist. In 1815, William Jones, a 79 year old pauper of Llanwrst, sold his wife for 3 farthings having been married for only 3 weeks; as late as 1863, a man in Merthyr Tydfil sold his wife to a fellow workman for the grand sum of £3. Not until 1870 were women allowed to inherit property without it passing immediately to their husbands.

Unmarried mothers, like Megan in Leap the Wild Water, suffered worst of all. They were publicly shamed and such was the trauma of this that many abandoned or killed their babies rather than suffer it. Up to 1834, the parish poor law authority would prosecute men for maintenance of the children of unmarried mothers. Then this law was changed so that the Poor Law Unions would start proceedings on behalf of an unmarried mother, only if she could ‘provide corroborative evidence of paternity’ – a practical impossibility, sex being a very private activity, and given the shame and approbation heaped upon a woman’s head were she to admit to engaging in sex before marriage – she would hardly be likely to do so publicly!  Such was the farcical nature of laws made by men in relation to women. The Poor Law Royal Commission was responsible for this change and it  was brought about to protect ‘ eligible but innocent bachelors and accused men of being coerced into unwanted marriages’.

The Bishop of Exeter warned against such a change in the law as he feared that it would lead to a great increase in numbers of babies being left at the workhouse doors. He said; ‘You will harden the heart of man and increase his selfishness to an intensity of which we have never yet believed him capable’. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Times newspaper and the poet, Coleridge. In 1864, John Brownlow expressed sympathy for these ‘basically decent girls’ who were seduced by promises of marriage, and spoke of how they were humiliated in open courts in front of a gawping male audience. Few were this sympathetic to the plight of these abandoned young women. To the puritanical chaplain in the New Forest, Rev. Herbert Smith, all unmarried mothers were ‘fornicators and adulterers’ and their children deemed ‘offspring of sin and profligacy’.

It was a brave young woman, indeed, who would make any attempt at obtaining justice. An example of the treatment women received in court is that of Agnes Roberts. In court, she said she had attempted suicide by throwing herself in the Llanelli dock, after being abandoned by the father of her unborn child. Thomas Ludford, the defence lawyer asked if she referred to the new dock, adding, ‘it has no water in it yet’. This was met with laughter from the all male audience and her case failed.  There was also the case of John Lewis, who in 1900 was up for three charges of rape against a 14 year old girl in the dock district of Llanelli. Judge Bingham threw the case out of court, claiming it was ‘ a trumpery of a case’ and that the girl in question had suffered ‘nothing more’ than an indecent assault.  He went on to say that such cases were scandalous – because they gave that part of the world a bad reputation!

Given the age of consent at the time, many of these young women so cruelly treated were no more than girls. The age of consent in Western countries during the mid-19th century was between 10 and 13 years old. In Britain, it was raised to the upper limit of 13 years in 1868 following a long campaign by William Thomas Charley, barrister and MP for Salford. He had campaigned for it to be raised to 21. Not until the end of the 19th century was it raised to 16.

Seventy-five percent of births in workhouses were illegitimate – being pregnant and unmarried meant absolute poverty for a woman. Turned out by their families, and shunned by their communities, many were forced to abandon their babies on workhouse or church steps rather than see their babies starve. The insanitary conditions of the workhouses were such that most of these babies died, anyway, of disease. In a society where women were regarded as the evil seductresses of men, it made no difference if a woman’s pregnancy was the result of rape – she was likely to be seen as having brought it on herself, and the man involved viewed as having been provoked.

In recent years, I’ve heard similar arguments brought against women who have been raped while intoxicated by drink. It seems to me that we’ve come a long way; we’re no longer chattels and we are able to be financially independent, but to what extent do sexual double standards still prevail?

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy, historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow     The Calling of the Raven updated book cover     Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water:

The Calling of the Raven:

Anywhere the Wind Blows:

You can also follow the author:





Resources and interesting further reading on the subject of this blog;

Secret Sins by Russell Davies.

Hope and Heartbreak by Russell Davies.

Massacre of the Innocents by Lionel Rose.


25 thoughts on “Angels, whores, and wives for sale.

  1. Brilliant post – and made my blood boil! No, I don’t think the double standards have changed that much – nor maybe ever will. It seems to be a biological fixture in some brains, that women are possessions. I once heard a psychologist comment as follows on the large number of women killed by men: “Men kill to possess – and women kill to escape”. That is so sadly relevant still today. I also read that men who kill women are given lesser sentences than women who kill men. Not sure if that still applies but might be worth looking into.

    • You are right on the money with what you say, Malla. I explore the theme of domestic violence in my sequel to Leap the Wild Water. In those days, it was rife. While writing, I became aware that those men who perpetrate domestic violence these days must view their wives as possessions, just as men did in the past. They are incapable of seeing that their wives are entitled to a life of their own and so seek to control every aspect of their existence. How they would have loved to live in the past when their behaviour would have been sanctioned and approved by church and society.

  2. A really excellent post, Jenny. It is hard to read how it used to be but have we all really come a long way? Maybe in the west but not so in other parts of the world where girls are still being stoned to death or whipped in public after being raped and impregnated. Makes my blood boil too 😦

  3. In some countries, it seems like the sexual double standard still prevails. In other countries, much has (but we still have a ways to go). I am grateful that I was born in the 1960’s (not the 19th century) and in a free country like Canada. My heart goes out to those that are trapped in places where they are still treated as possessions and they do not have the freedom to explore every facet of their being. How many great minds, revolutionary spirits and world-changers have been squashed, chained into believing they are a mere possession?

    • Thank you for your salient comments, Diane. It is shocking and tragic that so many women still live under those constraints which our female ancestors had to endure.

  4. Very interesting Jenny – and atrocious too. As for your last paragraph, I think that there needs to be some sexual education around the fact that if a woman is too intoxicated to give her consent to sex and it still goes ahead, then it’s rape. I’ve raised this issue in my own writing, albeit in a work of fiction. It’s more common than people realise and many rapes go unreported because the woman doesnt know she has been raped.

  5. Jenny, I think it’s still true everywhere, but nowhere more than in Africa. Women there take contraceptives in secret to avoid getting pregnant (and so sentenced to a life of virtual servitude) as a result of rape from partners, boyfriends or just chance encounters. A woman is still seen as a possession and chattel in many African cultures. Luckily there are many wonderful souls who are prepared to go into deeply rural areas to administer these contraceptives. The women would otherwise have to chance.

  6. Excellent post Jenny – so glad to have discovered you! This post struck a raw nerve in me. These are issues I feel deeply about and in my novel (as yet unpublished) I too have dealt with the issue of a woman having a child out of wedlock and about being forced to abandon it. Being a virgin is still a huge thing in the part of world I come from (India) and though things are changing in the metros, not much has changed in the interiors. If a woman is raped, then she must have invited it! She must have been provocative and so the fault is all hers. She is either a Goddess or a vamp. She is never allowed to be a woman. And now that i lived in the West for nearly a decade, I see that, things are better here but covert and insidious oppression still takes place and sometimes under the name of freedom, exploitation of her body takes place and marketed as empowerment.
    Well that’s enough of my rant! 🙂 And thank you so much for visiting my blog!

    • Dear Anjali,
      You are a kindred spirit! What you speak of happening in India is the same culture of belief that was the norm in my great-grandmother’s time. I agree with what you say – things seem better here, but on the surface. Sexism, chauvinism, and misogyny are rife. You speak so eloquently. In a way, what is happening now is worse because, as you say, exploitation is disguised as empowerment when it is anything but. These are the subliminal messages our young woman are growing up with and it frightens and worries me. So glad to have met you. I am following your blog of beautiful and wise writings. I’m so looking forward to your novel! I hope we will stay in touch.

      • Indeed we are! 🙂
        Thank you so much for your thoughtful response and I look forward to a continued sharing of thoughts and emotions. I look forward to your amazing writing!

  7. Hi Jenny,
    reading your excellent post and the replies it received has been a sobering experience. You described the outrageous treatment of women in the 19th century, but I regret to say that it was just as bad in the 20th century and in many places is not much better today.
    I’ve read the true story of Philomena Lee and the appalling suffering she endured in the Ireland of relatively recent years. Thankfully it wouldn’t happen today but I still see examples of discrimination of women by stealth, especially involving those in the less privileged classes. Thank you for highlighting this important issue.

  8. Its really sad that this all still goes on today. We have to look at how slavery ended, and try to follow some sort of path to end this treatment of women. I say when there is a way for women to easily convert to being a man, men will start treating women as they should have all along..

  9. Hi Jen – Good post. I have your book in my pile, hope to get to it soon. I am currently reading Fabulous Life, a biography of Jane Digby, a woman who could easily fit into the 1980s except she lived in the early 1800s. Was divorced by her husband for adultery (when a bill granting divorce had to be heard in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords) and led quite a scandalous life, in the terms of that day. I have been fascinated so far. We are so LUCKY to have been born in enlightened countries, even if not yet perfect for women.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s