Seeing and challenging your assumptions (isn’t easy)

About four years ago I was chastened by a student’s module evaluation. S/he was positive about my teaching, but noted that I had made a dismissive comment about men. As a historian of masculinity, I’m hardly anti-men, so I interrogated my memory and eventually realised s/he was referring to a session on marital desertion in the long eighteenth century. I had outlined the research (some of it my own) to the seminar group and in a throwaway comment said I despised these men who had abandoned their families in time of need.

Over time, I have come to think that my disparaging remark was not just something to avoid in the classroom, but represented a shortcoming of my research. I am happy with most of the conclusions I drew in my PhD research that became my first book Unquiet Lives, but there is one area that I now see as flawed. Interestingly, the problem is linked to my unquestioning preconceptions about marital desertion: that when the going got tough, men got going.

Okay, I wasn’t the only one to start from this viewpoint. For, example, it was thought that many of the husbands who deserted their wives and families used the army as an escape mechanism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This certainly fitted with the stereotype of the soldier of the Napoleonic wars as the ‘scum of the earth’. In 1813 the Duke of Wellington even commented: ‘I have often been induced to attribute the frequency and enormity of the crimes committed by the soldiers to our having so many who must have left their families to starve for the inducement of a few guineas to get drunk’.[1]

Yet, as Jennine Hurl-Eamon reveals in her recent fascinating article, ‘Did Soldiers Really Enlist to Desert Their Wives? Revisiting the Martial Character of Marital Desertion in Eighteenth-Century London’ this stereotype does not stand up to inspection. In fact, she demonstrates, poor men who left their families to join the army or militia often did so as a survival strategy and not to escape their obligations. In the army they at least had a stable income and wives could seek poor relief.

Jennine’s work makes me realise that it is not safe to assume that all the women who sought relief from the parish for themselves and their families due to their husbands’ absence had been abandoned. So I looked again at my chapter which deals with husbands who deserted their wives. It struck me that I had evidence which did not necessarily fit exactly into the story I was telling.

In my conventional story, men left families because the strain of supporting them became too much. Deserted families had similar characteristics, after all; spouses were in their early thirties and had several young children, typically aged five years and under. This point in the family’s life-course was when the full burden of provisioning fell upon the husband because his wife was unable to work, due to the demands of caring for small children, and the children were too young to contribute to the household’s income.

This correlates with the fact that ‘desertion’ was more widespread during periods of economic difficulties. My examples from counties in the north-east and south-east of England certainly peaked in the decades of the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s; a time of harvest failures, rises in food prices which outstripped wage rates, and disruption to trades caused by warfare and demobilisation.

I did note that the deserted families shared characteristics of pauper families who used deliberate strategies to improve their chances of survival, citing  Jeremy Boulton’s findings that poor families would split up with children boarded out and husbands leaving to take paid labour.[2] But I didn’t take it much further than that. Jennine’s article helps me re-see the material I collected and used – and that my preconceptions may have directed me down a narrow path. It is time to revisit the question of husbands leaving their wives and families.

Following Jennine’s lead, I can see that treating the examples of absent husbands as a whole obscures diversity and complexity. One example of this complexity is that some of the husbands did not run far. In fact they lived near their families but would not provide for them. This is not really desertion, although I grouped it as such. For example Benbrook Watson, a butcher of Iver, Buckinghamshire, was bound over by the quarter sessions in July 1737 for violence against his wife. He later left her, since in 1746 he was sent to Aylesbury Gaol for three months for turning out his wife and infant child and leaving them chargeable to the parish. He was then committed again two years later in September 1748 for having run away from his family. He was put in the House of Correction, until at least summer 1749, for failing to pay back the £2 16s his parish spent on maintaining his family.

Parish attempts to recover the sums they paid to support wives and families led them to hunt the absent husband. One parish, for example, advertised in  Jackson’s Oxford Journal, in 1759, that Samuel Johnson, a 35 year old day labourer from Bampton had eloped from his wife and children one and a half years ago leaving them chargeable. The advert offered a reward of one guinea for info about his whereabouts. Another overseer of the poor in 1765 advertised that if Daniel Harris, a 40 year old slater and plasterer of Holywell, Oxford, returned to his family within a week he would not be prosecuted. Had these men callously left their families?

Perhaps. But they might also have left home to find work. Nathanial Cole, for instance, was prosecuted as a vagrant by the quarter sessions at Northallerton in 1788.[3] His examination shows that he was a shipwright who had come from South Carolina, got married in Cumbria, worked at Lancaster, and then Hull. He got ill with dropsy and since he was unable to work at his regular job, he left Hull and travelled through Yorkshire to get work. His wife and three children lived with her widowed mother in Perth, Cumberland. At what point did such men shift from unlucky husbands trying to support families, to failing husbands, to deserting husbands?

There were also other reasons listed for men leaving their families. Some ran away because they feared being arrested for debt. Was that irresponsible and cruel, or a rational act? Did they think they helped their wives by leaving, given that it was men who were responsible for family debt? In 1772, William Saunders’ wife advertised in Jackson’s Oxford Journal to find her husband who had absconded from her and his large family. However, she added that this was because he was ‘deprived of his senses’. So was he insane rather than irresponsible?

When analysing my data I clumped it together to form tables and graphs, although the evidence about wives and children without men was collected from many different types of sources, including poor law records, where the women applied for relief, from quarter sessions records where parishes prosecuted men for leaving their families chargeable to the parish, and newspaper advertisements where parishes requested information about absent husbands. Now I notice that there were lots of different terms used in these records to describe the husbands, such as: deserted, absconded, runaway, leaving families chargeable, abandoned, absented themselves, and eloped. If I was researching this now, I would use NVivo to code these terms and think about their context and meaning to see if they offer clues about different types of poor families with an absent husband who was still alive. Were the all the descriptions synonymous or did they have slightly different meanings?

So this is a request for someone to do a little more research on the vocabulary of desertion as a way to know more about the motives behind these family splits. Were the husbands hard-hearted and irresponsible? Some wives specified this. Mary Craske wrote to Reverend Wise in Rochford asking for his assistance in getting her settlement parish to pay her poor relief, in 1803. She stated that her children were ‘discarded’ by her husband. But were others victims themselves of circumstances, poverty, and historians’ expectations?

Thanks to that perceptive student and to Jennine Hurl-Eamon’s questioning of assumptions, I see that it is time to find out more about desertion and challenge my own preconceptions.


[1] Cited in Jennine Hurl-Eamon (2014). Did Soldiers Really Enlist to Desert Their Wives? Revisiting the Martial Character of Marital Desertion in Eighteenth-Century London. Journal of British Studies, 53, p. 357.

[2] Jeremy Boulton, ‘It is extreme necessity that makes me do this’: some survival strategies of pauper households in London’s West End during the early eighteenth century’ in L. Fontaine and J. Schlumbohm, Household Strategies for Survival 1600-2000

[3] The men were punishable under the Vagrancy Acts and would be subject to being publicly whipped, committed to hard labour in the house of correction, and then forced to return to supporting their families.

Image: Soldier’s Wife Begging, sketched from life by Daniel Nklaus Chodowiecki 1726-1801 via Guerney Journey

“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.