During the 1800s wife beating was extremely common and only caused outrage if it was exceptionally brutal or endangered life. There was a widespread belief among ordinary people, male and female, that it was every man’s ‘right’ to beat his wife so long as it was to ‘correct her’ if she did anything to annoy or upset him or refused to obey his orders. The editor of the Hull Packet (7 Oct 1853) remarked that wife-beating was ‘being accepted as the habit of the nation’. The phrase ‘a stick not thicker than his thumb’ was often bandied about. Most magistrates disagreed; only a small number upheld that husbands had such a right. Lord Lovaine ‘could not comprehend the distinction between a man who beat his own wife, and a man who beat another man’s wife’.
For hundreds of years husbands have cited an old Common Law (i.e. a law created by precedent or custom, not statutory or written law) that made it legal for them to beat their wives for various ‘offences’ such as lack of obedience to him. Various sources say that it was indeed once included in Common Laws or England, Wales and Ireland.
For hundreds of years it was thought to be the law of the land by both sexes, most especially among the poor most of whom were of course illiterate and relied on hearsay and oral tradition for what small legal knowledge they possessed. This meant that most women who were ‘moderately’ beaten believed they had no legal redress, and only sought the protection of the law when she (or her friends/family) felt the man had gone ‘too far’.
Some judges and magistrates also believed that men had this right in Common Law and so, although they personally frowned upon violence against wives, they tended to be lenient with the violent husband. In most cases, right back to the 1500s, a husband found guilty of wife-assault was merely bound over to keep the peace.
Despite the horrible frequency of wife-beating cases, those that came to court were the tip of the iceberg, because it was one of the most under-reported crimes, for a number of reasons. Firstly, women were raised in a culture which accepted a certain level of wife-beating as the norm. Wives often didn’t even know they had any legal right to complain about such treatment. Women were, in addition, raised to believe that they ‘deserved’ a certain amount of violence if they had failed as wives (they had doubtless been beaten as children for various faults, failings and transgressions). Furthermore, taking a husband to court represented a criticism of his actions and a challenge to his authority, his right to be master in his own home. Taking him to court also transgressed social and religious expectations of wifely submission. Lastly, it was a dangerous move: bringing the law into a man’s private sphere wasn’t likely to improve his temper, and men frequently threatened that if their wives put them in charge, or testified against them, they would pay for it with their lives.
Rarely was the outcome of any court case in any way beneficial to the victim. As has been mentioned, either she had to pay the fine for her own assault, or she lost her family’s entire income while her breadwinner was in prison for months. So, as far as punishments go, she could not win. Ironically, a better outcome for her was leaving her assailant unpunished but bound over to keep the peace for six months. In theory this should have worked both as a warning not to beat his wife again, and should have prevented him from beating her in retribution for bringing the case to court. The very best she could hope for was to be beaten less often, or less harshly, or, if she was really lucky, that the beatings would cease altogether, possibly to be replaced by sullen resentment and verbal abuse for the rest of her life.
Marriage was considered to be the very basis of society, something to be held together no matter what. Until 1923 the sole ground for divorce was adultery. This meant that even if her husband beat her daily for fifty years, starved her, locked her in the house, gouged out both her eyes with a red hot poker or jumped on her belly until she miscarried, broke her bones time and again, no working class wife could get a divorce. But a single, brief, sexual liaison with another man instantly gave her husband legal grounds to divorce her, keep any money she brought into the marriage, and prevent her from ever seeing her children again. Rich women who could prove their husbands’ adultery and cruelty could obtain ‘a divorce a mensa et thoro’ (from bed and board) for £1,500. This was a legal separation with no right of remarriage.