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.
You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.
Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd
The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd
Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK
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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.