“every Husband had a Right to Beat his wife”

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 5: Marital cruelty in action

Catherine’s accusations against her husband are difficult to read, though they are by no means the most disturbing of the cruelty cases I have read. Society knew that men could be cruel, though it didn’t necessarily condone it, as this powerful image from the George Cruikshank’s series The Bottle (1847) shows, ‘Fearful quarrels, and brutal violence’:

L0007411 The bottle, by George Cruikshank

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In fact, William Ettrick was not especially vicious or violent. This was a period when it was easiest to get a separation if your husband’s violence threatened your life and thus many cases detailed extreme abuse. William did not make Catherine fear she would die; but he wore her down with his consistent contempt, minor acts of abuse: a blow to the face and some rough outbursts where he hurled things at her. The abuse was far more what our society would describe as mental abuse.

Let me outline it here. But remember a few things about historical evidence like this. It is derived from Catherine’s Libel, which detailed acts of violence, but in addition described all the features that made William a bad husband. The courts were not just interested in extreme violence; they wanted to know what made a man impossible to live with. Like other litigation, this was an adversarial case. William denied the claims, or re-interpreted them for the court. We can’t know the truth. But the evidence tells us what was considered to be intolerable in married life.

Like other cases, the abuse fell into four broad categories.

So, first we learn that William was verbally abusive. He swore and cursed Catherine throughout their marriage. He told her she was lazy, ugly and old. The latter seems odd, since she was the same age as him and not yet 40 when she left him. Perhaps worse, he compelled their two children to call her these names and pull her by the nose. He declared that he would never be happy till she was dead. William admitted he sometimes got bad tempered but denied he verbally abused his wife.

Secondly, Catherine brought evidence that William did not provide for her. He wouldn’t give her money for clothes, necessaries or provisions) when she asked. He told her

he had a Right to Lock her up and Feed her on Bread and Water thro’ a Grate and that every Husband had a Right to Beat his wife

(Although, just to reiterate for now, husbands only had the right to correct their wives, not beat them!). He wouldn’t let her have a fire in her bed chamber during winter because he said coal was too expensive. In contrast, William said that he had indulged her in her desires and kept at least one maid and one man-servant to wait upon her.


Thirdly, like many other men in such cases, William denigrated Catherine’s status. Usually husbands took away their wives’ much prized autonomy over the household government by metaphorically and literally removing the home’s keys from them and handing them and the management over to servants. This really undermined married women’s sense of self.

William being William, attacked Catherine’s social status in a more unusual way. She accused him of stating:

Wives should and ought to be nothing but Vassalls and Slaves to their Husbands

Catherine also complained that he treated her like his servant. ‘Genteel,’ as her lawyer described her, yet William demanded that she run after his cows and horses in the fields when they were getting into the wrong place while being driven from area to another. This was NOT what a mayor’s daughter was bred to do! In defence, William said he sometimes asked her to provide this service, but never compelled her to do so.

High Barnes manor

Finally, there was physical violence. Remember here that William did not commit extreme violence in comparison with some other accused husbands, which offers us interesting insights into what contemporaries saw as men’s cruelty. Catherine said that if William fell into a passion (uncontrolled rage, something like madness) he struck her on the head. He admitted that he gave her a ‘box’ round the ears once.

One of his bouts of bad temper even entered neighbourhood lore. I’ve mentioned before that William had rather firm views about sociability, which were not one would expect of a polite gentleman. He grudgingly entertained, but expressly forbid the household to prepare any puddings because he said they were too expensive and the bane of social discourse. In August 1763 Catherine made custard for a dinner that they gave to entertain neighbours. On discovering this rebellion he flew into a rage and threw a very large wooden dish at her [she said it hit her head, he said it missed], then kicked her through the kitchen and the hall, and put the custard down the ‘necessary’ – the eighteenth-century toilet. All this was in front of the servants.

1764 was the turning point for Catherine. On 15 December he ‘forcibly got into her Bed’ though she strove to prevent him, knowing ‘his Cruelty and Brutish Behaviour would not cease’ but was obliged to yield herself to him’. This is clearly a claim of marital cruelty; though remember that was only criminalised in the 1990s in England. She says this made her realise he would never alter his barbarous behaviour and she was tired out with his

Barbarous Treatment of her she having done and submitted to more than could be expected from a slave.

On the 14th January she packed, told her husband she was going to visit her aunt, begged him to take care of the children, left and never returned again. She immediately had William bound over by the quarter sessions to keep the peace towards her. William, one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for County Durham, brought before the General quarter session of the peace in Durham city! Having obtained some legal peace of mind, she then initiated the separation case at Durham church court.

Several women who sued their abusive husbands, abandoned their cases fairly quickly, perhaps because the couple reached an agreement, or the husband felt threatened enough to promise to end his cruelty. For Catherine, though, thanks to William’s stubbornness and sense of self-righteousness, this was to be the start of more years of trouble.