Wife beating in Victorian England …The ‘Rule of Thumb’ …

Ever wondered where the term, ‘Rule of thumb’ came from? It derived from old British legal traditions which considered a husband the ruler of his wife. Once married a husband could be held legally liable for his wife’s conduct in early modern times and as such, it was a widely held belief a husband could strike his wife for ‘lawful correction’ or to ‘order and to rule her’. A famous judge Sir William Blackstone’s wrote an influential book in the eighteenth-century called Commentaries on the Law of England and stated, ‘For as the husband is to answer for his wife’s misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his …children’.

In the nineteenth century, people were influenced by popular mythology of these ideas. wife beatingCartoons depicting a judge who had purportedly stated it was lawful for a husband to beat his wife provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb had appeared in the press in 1782, suggesting the question of the severity of a beating was ambiguous and one for the individual husband.

Whilst there was actually no legal validation for this, there was continued widespread contemporary belief there had been legal significance attached to the rule of thumb, which some have claimed perhaps was a euphemism for no rule at all.

The upper classes did not condone violence, and considered the fights between working class husbands and wives, which would spill out onto the crowded streets of London, as one part of a generalized ‘savagery’ of the uncivilized masses. th48AWEHFEThe Middle class considered working class males fundamentally primitive, with areas such as Liverpool docklands or Lancashire mining areas barely ‘civilized’ and whose masculine nature had not yet been properly disciplined.

In 1816 The Morning Post reported a ‘Daring Robbery’ which described two villains entering a shop of a Mr Moses Levy, upon whom they beat and threatened to murder, along with his wife. They then robbed the shop of various articles, during which time an accomplice stood outside the shop door and told passers-by whom heard the noise that it proceeded from Levy who was beating his wife! Needless to say, the assumption was the passer-by’s walked on!!

The law in Victorian England sanctioned a degree of physical force as male patriarchy was considered integral to a smooth running of society. Whilst women came to magistrates to charge their husbands with assaulting them, the courts at this time usually reserved judicial treatment for extreme cases of domestic violence involving death or extraordinary injury in the early nineteenth century. Lesser violence was considered disgraceful by the courts but not necessarily treated as criminal. There was also a persistent idea of wives being tolerant toward a degree of ‘rough usage’ by husbands, so the courts stressed violence didn’t represent for the poor what it would for higher classes, and hence required lesser treatment.

In a case of, ‘Breach of the peace’, a beaten wife stated upon questioning as to her complaint, ‘Complaint! What would I complain against him for! I have a right to complain of those that wouldn’t let him alone. I dare say I ain’t a bit better than him. At any rate, he is the father of my children, and he works for ‘em, and why should I stand a lick now and then, if he fancies it? God bless your Lordship and leave us to settle the business ourselves.’ The prosecutor then turned to the Lord Mayor and stated, ‘She’ll manage him better than we can, my Lord’ with the defendant permitted to go upon the assurance that he would never take a drop of gin again, except in the company of his wife! Whilst contemporary observations of living conditions amongst the poor poignantly explained this through material dependence, others felt women just accepted it as part of working class life.

In the latter half of the nineteenth-century however, domestic violence, or wife-beating as it was known in the Victorian era emerged as a serious social concern This era saw a rise in the standard of treatment towards women and new notions of ‘manly’ behaviour corresponding to the practice of a moral, rather than physical, control over wives. Middle class religious and secular venues pushed an Evangelical campaign promoting ideas of education and morality, and non-violence to society.

wife beating 2The everyday violence the British were used to such as state sanctioned whippings, hangings and brutal sports such as dog and cock-fighting were slowly being replaced by penal institutions and transportation to the colonies, and male aggressiveness once considered an integral part of English masculinity was promoted to become more law-abiding and self-disciplined, with the idea slights were avenged with self-restraint, prudence and forethought.
These bourgeois or middle class values committed to a peaceful home and family life, and came to be considered the only way to live in Victorian England. Now more than ever it was assumed that men were in need of women to ‘elevate them and save their souls, as domestic and intimate ‘angles’. Queen Victoria herself nobly depicted her blissful, yet submissive status as a dutiful wife and mother, reinforcing the family as the defender of the social order, with any interference considered a threat to stability. thCD2UMAEJ

New law’s concerning recompense for women whom were severely mistreated by their husbands represented new outlooks toward domestic violence. In 1853 the Member for Lewes, a Mr Fitzroy, agitated against the manifestly inadequate penalties for aggravated assaults on women and children which resulted in the passing of the Aggravated Assault on Women and Children Act.

One middle-class reformer placing a ‘Warning to Wife-Beaters’ in the Leeds Intelligencer in response stated, ‘Among the signs of the times which cannot be looked upon as evidences of improvement, or proofs of any other description of ‘progress’ than the progress of barbarism, there is one which has latterly become of such frequent and increased occurrence, that it has forced itself upon the attention of our rulers, and obliged a reluctant legislature to interfere on behalf of a suffering and much abused class’. Whilst the passing of the 1853 Act was considered by one parliamentarian to ‘extend the same protection to defenceless women as they already extended to poodle dogs and donkeys’, magistrates with summary jurisdiction could now impose heavy fines on males under 14 with up to 6 months imprisonment, with or without hard labour.

By 1857, The Divorce and Matrimonial Clauses Act was passed under strong feminist pressure and ‘cruelty’ was included as grounds for divorce. Within the next few years the threshold of ‘reasonableness’ for such apprehension was lowered by a series of rulings. Whilst in reality the proceedings were expensive and only attainable to middle class women, whom to leave a husband had to prove adultery as well, the law in relation to marriage was now taking a leading role in the repression of violence. With the perception ‘wife-battering’ was as an index to the level of violence in society generally, alongside the idea it was threatening marriage as the normative state and the subsequent pressure for a husband to work, domestic violence was finally ‘brought out from the shadows’ and emerged as a social concern.
One writer claimed ‘There is not….. any class in the world so subjected to brutal personal violence as English wives’.

Whilst these new notions of masculinity remained hotly contested in parliament and the courts, with one famous judge Edward Cox describing the ‘termagant’ wife who made the home a living a hell, it was the deviation from bourgeoisie norms and notions of marital relations parliamentarians were most concerned about. Subsequently, in 1878 an amendment to the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed. This gave magistrates and judges the power to grant a separation in court to a wife whose husband had been convicted of an aggravated assault, along with the custody of children under ten and weekly maintenance. This proved the first real escape route for battered wives and the conditions for real social change. The next quarter century saw new legislation in the form of The Married Women’s Property Acts of the 1870’, 1880s and 1890’s, each contributing to wives leaving their husbands through the ability to support themselves and her children by her own efforts.


Doggett, M.E., ‘Marriage, Wife-Beating and the Law in Victorian England’, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

May, M., ‘Violence in the Family: An Historical Perspective’, in J.P. Martin (ed.), Violence and the Family, John Wiley & Sons, 1978.

Tomes, N., ‘A “Torrent of Abuse”: Crimes of Violence between working-class men and women in London, 1840 – 1875’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1978, pp. 328 – 345.


2 thoughts on “Wife beating in Victorian England …The ‘Rule of Thumb’ …

    1. Hi James, yes it absolutely has, hence ‘popular mythology’ in my blog. Judge Thumb was a real judge and purportedly stated this – but there is no evidence he ever said this in court, contemporaries at the time however were influenced by cartoons which claimed he had. Thanks for your comments!

Leave a Reply