Sexual Violence in Nineteenth Century England

© John Lea 2004


The eighteenth century, as we have seen, was a time of transition. We have already noted 

  • a blurring of crime and protest

  • a combination of modern and traditional elements in the legal system

  • the beginnings of modern system of police

The eighteenth century was also a transitional society in terms of sexual relations. In traditional rural agricultural society sexual relations were, according to some historians,  more equal than they became during the nineteenth century. (see Gillis 1985) Under the old rural domestic system of production, for example, families worked together as a unit.  There was also less of a distinction between public and private space. Community life, including recreation, was lived in the open, and on the streets. Women were accepted in public space - factories and fields. In the second half of the eighteenth century women (and children) were increasingly engaged in heavy industrial work (particularly in coal mines). Under such circumstances women were less dependent on men. There was less need for a women to 'get' a man. Premarital sex and cohabitation were more common.

To say that gender relations were more equal compared to what developed during the nineteenth century is not to say that there was equality of the sexes. It is simply to say that many of the particular disadvantages that women faced in modern industrial society were consolidated during the nineteenth century and were weaker in the eighteenth. But even in the eighteenth century women were the property of their husbands. Concern with rape, for example, was less a concern with violence to women than a concern – by men – that the loss of virginity was the loss of marriageable property. Rape prosecutions could be initiated by a husband or father who could prosecute for the rape of his wife or daughter. A woman had to show that she had resisted and thus prosecutions for attempted rape were more likely to succeed than prosecutions for rape. Remember also at that time the victim herself was responsible for initiating the prosecution.

In matters of gender and crime there is, as in other areas, a rough distinction to be made between the beginning and the later part of the nineteenth century. It is in the latter period in particular that modern gender and family relations become consolidated, to the disadvantage of women. 

early industrialisation

The first half of the nineteenth century was a period of extreme degradation and brutalisation, and crime was rising. Conditions of living bred brutalisation among factory workers crowded into insanitary slums. Some feeling of this poverty and brutalisation and the way it affected sexual relations is given by Frederick Engels in his 1844 classic, The Condition of the Working Class in England. He graphically described the situation in Manchester

            "The husband works the whole day through, perhaps the wife and also the elder children, all in different places; they meet night and morning only, all under perpetual temptation to drink; what family life is possible under such conditions? Yet the working-man cannot escape from the family, must live in the family, and the consequence is a perpetual succession of family troubles, domestic quarrels,  most demoralising for parents and children alike. neglect of all domestic duties, neglect of the children, especially, is only too common among the English working people..." (Engels 1845/1975 4:424-5)

Co-habitation, a degree of sexual freedom for young women (factory maids) but under such conditions sexual violence but also prostitution, rape were undoubtedly increasing: 

            "Next to intemperance in the enjoyment of intoxicating liquors, one of the principal faults of English working-men is sexual licence." (4:423)

The working class, "with no means of making fitting use of its freedom" turns to drink and sex which are carried to excess (423). This excess is related to poverty and insecurity: what is the point in deferred gratification and 'respectability' when there is no security in life (4:424)

For young women working in the new factories the danger of what would now be called ‘workplace harassment’ was immense. 

            "It is, besides, a matter of course that factory servitude, like any other, and to an even higher degree, confers the jus primae noctis upon the master. In this respect also the employer is sovereign over the persons and charms of his employees. The threat of discharge suffices to overcome all resistance in nine cases out of ten, if not in ninety-nine out of a hundred, in girls who, in any case, have no strong indictments to chastity. If the master is mean enough... his mill is also his harem; and the fact that not all manufacturers use their power, does not in the least change the position of the girls. In the beginning of manufacturing industry, when most of the employers were upstarts without education or consideration for the hypocrisy of society, they let nothing interfere with the exercise of their vested rights." (4:441-2)

We have some figures which suggest the proportions - for those rapes that came to trial - from various categories of offenders. Historian Anna Clarke produced the following percentage distributions of various victim-offender relations in rape cases from recorded convictions at the Old Bailey (London) and the North East Assizes (Newcastle) for the period 1801-29  (Clark 1987)


North East










Fellow Worker or Lodger



Master (employer) or his relative






note the larger number of Masters as offenders in London - but this would be the case in the factory towns. Maybe victims were more likely to report as easier to find other employment. Similar levels of acquaintance rape. Less date rape but high levels of acquaintance rape

Also in eighteenth and early nineteenth century less clear notions of appropriate role for middle class women. Aristocratic women would have lovers etc. Men were libertines. When, in 1820 George IV tried to divorce Queen Caroline for adultery he faced a wave of public criticism as a total hypocrite given his own affairs.

In late eighteenth century, as Anna Clark (1987) notes, the likelihood of rape not used very much as a warning to women/ form of social control. There was not such a clear concept of appropriate feminine behaviour as emerged in the nineteenth century. As far as middle class women were concerned, in the literature of the period, she argues, the rapist is in the home:

“public discourses about rape were not addressed to the women who did traverse streets and fields. For middle-class women, gothic and sentimental novels expressed a constant fear of rape, but the attacks often took place within the home, inflicted by wicked guardians, fathers, uncles, lovers, masters, or suitors.” (Clark 1987: 44)

Victorian moralism

Modern industrial capitalism engineers a new social division of labour. Women's loss of economic independence developed at an increasing pace after 1840. This period saw the beginning of the consolidation of family life around modern gender roles in which women were increasingly excluded from wage work and became housewives dependent on their husbands as ‘breadwinners’ while the range of occupations open to women narrowed to little more than domestic service. This doctrine of the ‘two spheres’ retreated women, and of course domestic violence, from public view. Except of course in the poorest sections of the working class where it still took place on the streets. The family ceases to play a role as a productive unit, as in pre-modern society, but becomes rather the site of reproduction—of labour power and also of the respect for authority and hierarchy which are central in putting labour power to work for capital. The consolidation of the new family life is, therefore, a crucial aspect of the 'moralisation' of the working class which we have noted in previous lectures. The middle class family resembles in some respects the commercial enterprise. The employer as master of his employees is paralleled by the husband as master of his wife and children. The domestic (home) sphere of middle class family life is insulated from the public world of politics and commerce which is now very much the world of men. In the working class the withdrawal of women from work, after marriage, and their retreat into motherhood and homemaking becomes the aim of reformers. But an important consequence of this, as we shall note presently, is that the domestic sphere of family life becomes isolated, not only from public gaze, but also from the effective scrutiny of the new criminal justice institutions: the police and magistrates courts. The aim of state intervention during the nineteenth century is that of the reform and strengthening of the family as a self-regulating institution and this is to a considerable extent at the expense of its susceptibility to regulation by the criminal justice agencies.

Victorian middle class culture was changing in other respects. There was a growth of growth of sexual repression as industrialisation brought about the development of the middle class ethic of 'rationality' and abstinence (saving and investment in the future rather than enjoyment now). This bourgeois ethic now distinguished the ‘hard working’ middle class merchants and industrialists from the decadent drinking and vice ridden Aristocracy who lived off their rents and in their London clubs. Of course the better off members of the middle class in reality wanted nothing better than to join them. The dependent state of women in this scheme of things is emphasised by Caroline Conley:

"In order to merit protection a woman had to be obedient, submissive, and incapable of defending herself. Chivalry was reserved for those women who both needed and deserved protection -- a relatively select group. The right to protection was based on the assumption that women were weaker, softer, and generally very different from the strong men who protected them. Therefore protection was often reserved for middle class women. While it was possible for a working class woman to be respectable, some of the more delicate aspects of the feminine ideal were clearly beyond her." (1991: 71)

Middle class reformers and religious leaders aimed to spread these notions of family life and ‘respectability’ to the working classes. As we have noted previously, during the first part of the century the working class was feared as the ‘mob’ or the ‘dangerous classes’. The solution was seen as ‘police’. But this was progressively displaced by notions of reform and moral education. The aim was to create stability and an orderly working class who would provide a reliable labour force. The development of Sunday Schools, free elementary education, public health and housing improvements were all seen in this light. An important dimension was the transmission of what we would now call ‘family values’ to the working class. Evangelicals and the police as well, focused on the ‘fallen woman’ as in need of spiritual guidance

The effect on sexual violence

The changing position of women in the family was reflected in the public sphere. Family life is continually more privatised and less lived in public. This had an profound effect for example on the treatment of domestic violence (violence by men to women in the home). Violence by husbands to wives and children in nineteenth century working class communities was, according to historian Joanna Bourke:

“…not random but was subject to legitimating rites and rules. The distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ violence was sharp… If the man wasn’t ‘boss’ of the home he wasn’t considered to be a man. Equally, however, excessive violence dragged down everyone’s reputation. Rules about ‘legitimate’ violence set the tone of a neighbourhood and it did no-one any good to break them.” (Bourke 1994: 73)

Such violence seemed to fall during the second half of the nineteenth century along with the general downward trend in crime rates. In London the number of aggravated assaults recorded in the police courts dropped from 800 in 1853 to 200 in 1889 and continued falling throughout the twentieth century. (Bourke 1994: 72) Historians have, however, questioned how far this decline reflects changes in the actual level of violence. There is evidence that it rather reflects both a weakening of those elements of communal regulation which could then form a basis for the social relations of crime control combined with a conscious attempt by state intervention to shield the family from criminalisation in the interests of its consolidation as a self-regulating institution of hierarchy and personal authority.

Thus Nancy Tomes (1978) in her study of wife-beating in London during the second half of the nineteenth century portrays a situation at the beginning of the period in which the

“… tensions culminating in conflict as well as the actual beating were highly visible… it is clear that neighbours regularly watched and even participated in each other's personal quarrels.” (Tomes 1978: 329). 

Such intervention frequently involved neighbours attempting to 

“… prevent or moderate a wife beating by a combination of surveillance and reproach. When a fight seemed likely they watched a couple closely... Surveillance was usually accompanied by reproaches for the husband... The most common community response to a wife-beating was simply to help the wife, either by nursing her or offering her shelter.” (Tomes 1978: 336)

But the removal of life from the streets impeded this communal surveillance - domestic violence increasingly took place in private. The actual reported amount of domestic violence was decreasing during the second half of the century as with other crime. But according to Tomes, this may well have been simply a result of its increasing invisibility.

“The decline may be an artefact of the erosion of community control over individual behaviour. As working class families moved to larger homes in suburban areas, their violence may have become more private. Neighbours could not interfere as easily in family violence that they could neither see nor hear. Also if wife-beating was increasingly defined as shameful, the wife would be less likely to seek help.” (1978: 341)

From an earlier period of communal ‘unruliness’ in which the relations between the sexes were more combative, the development was towards a new stable patriarchal family centred on a less aggressive ‘domesticated manliness’ (Davidoff and Hall 1987) emphasising the husband as protector and provider. The wife, following her middle class counterpart in steadily withdrawing, after marriage and childbirth, from the world of work, found her position weak. The price paid by women for a decline in violence was a new definition of femininity in terms of dependence and submissiveness. “Having repudiated the idea that women were aggressive, fit partners for combat, they had no alternative but to embrace the middle-class view of women as weak, fragile, passive creatures who needed ‘natural protectors’.” (Tomes 1978: 342) Thus violence is delegitimised but less by virtue of its coming to be seen as a relationship between victims and offenders with the associated ideas of legal equality, than as a violation of the principles of hierarchy and inequality upon which the family is based. As with the high status business offender the family patriarch is seen as sufficiently deterred by the shame and disgrace of failing to effectively govern his domain without losing his temper rather than through his reconstruction as criminal offender.

The result is thus a reduction in public visibility of, and the flow of information to the criminal justice system about, violence in the private sphere of the home.. Sources of information and public surveillance progressively weaken during the nineteenth century. Crime control in working class communities consolidates, as we have seen in previous lectures, around publicly visible ‘street’ crime. As family life moves away from this public visibility, a process led by the suburbanisation of the better-off sections of the working class, it moves away not simply from communal self-regulation but also from a public availability of information about violence which may be transmitted to the criminal justice agencies. Increasingly the only person in a position to report the violence is the victim. The community as a key component in crime control is displaced through the privatisation of violence. This is accomplished by the status of the family as private space into which the intervention of outsiders is a violation of privacy and ‘none of their business’ and by the consolidation of the bourgeois model of female passivity which entails the victim, increasingly isolated from support networks, being encouraged by both fear of her husband and by affection to take on the belief that she is the perpetrator and provocateur by failing in her duties as a ‘good wife’. 

The declining visibility of domestic violence is reinforced by the very measures taken to increase the stability of the family. The aim of state action--through legislation and social policy--increasingly becomes that of fostering the process of self-regulation by the family. Where violence occurs the question of criminalisation is increasingly displaced by that of sustaining and preserving the family. In his study of nineteenth century family conflict in both middle and working class families, James Hammerton (1992) counsels against too much reliance on Magistrates court statistics showing a decline in domestic violence,

“… for the simple reason that during the period of statistical decline these courts increasingly became courts of conciliation as well as summary conviction. With the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878, which provided for separation and maintenance allowances for wives of husbands convicted of aggravated assaults, local magistrates courts increasingly took on a more paternalistic role, eager to intervene in an attempt to make the wife forgive, the husband reform and the family reunite, and thus avoid the fragile division of slender economic resources. Magistrates, together with a growing army of police court missionaries, probation officers and clerks of the court came to see themselves as marriage menders.” (1992: 39) 

Criminalisation was being displaced by a body of social policy oriented to strengthening the family as an autonomous self regulating institution. The criminal justice agencies themselves were becoming assimilated to this task. During the Great Depression of the 1880s and 90s middle class fear of the habits of criminal classes spreading back into the ranks of the respectable working class whence they had been so successfully expunged, led to further interventions of criminal law into the family. But most of this legislation, such as the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 and the Punishment of Incest Act of 1908 were aimed at criminalising departures from family norms, as with incest and male sex with under age girls, rather than the violence that lay within the family. (Zedner 1995) The family as such when functioning properly was, rather like the commercial company, considered best left to regulate itself. Criminalisation, with its potential for the reconstruction of conjugal relations as relations between legal equals, victim and offender, threatened that process. Just as in business crime the full force of criminalisation is reserved for the weak and marginal; it is only the poorest and most unstable families which the welfare agencies will hand over to criminal justice. The consolidation of the private sphere shut the criminal justice system out of the family. The overriding concern was to defend the stability of the family rather than treat the perpetrator of domestic violence as a criminal offender. This problem has of course continued right up to the present day.

Women in Public Space

Where women are largely confined to the private sphere of the family, when they do move into public space they are more likely to do so in a particular role: governed by the moral economy of place and space: wives going shopping, mothers fetching children etc., on their way to legitimate entertainment – the Music Hall perhaps –and properly escorted accompanied by husband or parents etc. With the expansion of shopping areas, middle class women travelling by train from the suburbs to shopping expeditions in the West End of London and to city centre cafes and ‘tea rooms’ provided a legitimate space for a measure of female independence. 

But women in public faced the intrusive gaze of men, and the distinction between respectability and non respectability in mode of dress, appearance etc., became continuously more important. Important strategies of dress, walk, not looking back when stared at had to be developed, and any women who appeared outside these conventions was open to labelling as deviant, prostitute etc. 

Jack the Ripper

Between August and November 1888 five murders of prostitutes took place in the Whitechapel area of London, a mainly working class, low wage ‘sweated labour’ district. These murders were accompanied by acts of sexual mutilation. The ensuring media ‘moral panic’ – was an occasion for late Victorian sexual fantasies about the dangers to free women walking the streets and about unchecked male sexual fantasies. The hidden message was ‘women: know your place!’ (Further material can be found in )

further material on the Ripper murders

Judith Walkowitz’s book City of Dreadful Delight (see below)
Brief summary of Ripper murders from the Metropolitan Police Museum
Robert Haggard:  Jack The Ripper as the Threat of Outcast London (University of Virginia)


Clark, Anna 1987, Women's Silence, Men's Violence: Sexual Assault in England 1770-1845, London, Pandora Press (Routledge).
Conley, C. 1986, 'Rape and Justice in Victorian England', Victorian Studies vol. 29 part 4..
Conley, C. 1991, The Unwritten Law: Criminal Justice in Victorian Kent., Oxford University Press.
Bourke, J. (1994) Working Class Cultures in Britain: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge.
Davidoff, L. Hall, C. (1987) Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1750-1850. London: Hutchinson.
Engels, F. 1845/1975, The Condition of the Working Class in England (in Marx, Engels, Collected Works volume 4.), Moscow, Progress Publishers.
Gillis, John 1985, For Better, For Worse, British Marriages 1600 to the Present, Oxford University Press.
Shorter, E. 1977, 'On Writing the History of Rape', Signs 3:2 pp 471-82.
Hartmann, A. Ross, E 1978, ‘On Writing the History of Rape’, Signs 3:4 pp 931-6.
Porter, R. 1986., ‘Rape: Does it have a Historical Meaning?’ in S. Tomaselli R. Porter eds. Rape: An Historical and Social Enquiry, Oxford, Blackwell..
Tomes, N. 1978, 'A Torrent of Abuse: crimes of violence between working class men and women in London 1840-1875', Journal of Social History 11 pp 328-45.
Hammerton, J. 1992, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Married Life., Routledge.
Walkowitz, J. 1992, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London. London: Virago.  
Zedner, L. (1995) 'Criminalising Sexual Offences Within the Home.' in Loveland, I. ed. Frontiers of Criminality. London: Sweet and Maxwell.