Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland in the 18th Century

My PhD and first book explored married life from 1660 to 1800 through records of marital conflict that included quarter sessions records, church court cases, and newspaper advertisements. All of it was written up and has gone off to live its life out there in the academic netherworld.

Yet, there are some marriages which have never quite left my mind. Sometimes it is just because they were pretty astounding people or events, or because they seemed to offer rich insights into the conventions of married life. The problem with academic writing is that you can’t write at length about these kinds of favourite stories. Or they turn your scholarship into narrative: A VERY bad thing!

So I’ve decided that rather than let these marriages simply rumble at the back of my mind, I will use my blog to tell the stories – but with some commentary included which may assist anyone interested in the period or marriage more generally.


I’ll start with the Ettrick spouses whose unhappy marriage is recounted in a 1765 court case appealed to York. At the heart of this is the rather infamous William Ettrick for whom I have nurtured an unsavoury fascination ever since I read the extremely rich cause papers at the wonderful Borthwick Institute of Historical Research. If you want to see the documents yourself, take a look at the Consistory Court Cause Paper Database here. All in all, it is a richly detailed, very evocative case-study of relationships between a husband and a wife and a father and his children. Indeed, the story of the Ettricks is so detailed, that to do it justice I will tell it over several episodes. These, I hope, can be read independently, or as a series.

Episode One:  a bit of an overview to get you interested …

The Ettricks were one of the leading gentry families in Sunderland. They lived in High Barnes in Sunderland and – somewhat ironically – William Ettrick was the local Justice of the Peace.


We know a lot about William and Catherine’s marriage because William’s ill treatment of his wife forced her to seek a separation on the grounds of cruelty in 1765. Though most people were unable to divorce and remarry until the mid-nineteenth century matrimonial law changed – they could go to the ecclesiastical courts and obtain permission to live apart from their spouse on the grounds of either cruelty or adultery.

Catherine had suffered taunts, humiliation in front of servants and neighbours, economic neglect, occasional blows and kicks, all ministered by a husband who claimed that she was his ‘slave.’ William had the financial means to mount a vigorous defence, and the case was appealed before the archdiocesan court of York and then on to the Court of Delegates (national appeal court for ecclesiastical courts in London). The case dragged on for 3 years. This resulted in an amazing 2000 or so pages of court papers.

In this long, bitter struggle the rich details of a marriage between two entirely unsuited people was laid bare. I’ll show you how the separation tells us how people thought about family relationships in the eighteenth century and what male behaviour Georgians understood to be cruel. I’ll also reveal how local authorities, servants, and family offered support to abused wives and worked hard to counter a husband’s worst excesses of power in the household.

Watch this space!


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