marriage in 1830s Britain

The Sailors Bride, 1849. Engraved by H.Robinson after a picture by Bowness, published in Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1838.

In early nineteenth century Britain marriage was an assumed goal for both women and men at all social levels.  Men sought domestic comfort, companionship, sanctioned sex and the respectability that being a ‘family man’ brought: women sought economic security, companionship and the status accorded to married women. Both also probably hoped for love, and this period saw a great flowering of romantic ideals of romantic love in marriage, but it was often tempered by a more common sense awareness of the suitability of a potential partner. For women in particular, the choice of partner was crucial.  Middle and upper class women did not work outside the home after marriage, and while many labouring women did continue to work where they could, their wages were generally so much lower than men’s, (usually set at about half of the male rate) that they could seldom maintain themselves independently. Later attempts to increase women’s wages were often opposed in Parliament by those who argued that allowing women to earn enough to support themselves would remove their need to marry, ultimately threatening the very basis of society. It was widely assumed that the stability of British society rested on the solidity of the Christian family, in turn maintained by the domestic work of women in the home.

But there was in fact a significant group of men and women who did not marry at this time, either because they could not, or would not, and this proportion increased as the century progressed, to the great anxiety of social commentators. The numbers of unmarried women, often unkindly described as ‘redundant women’, were of particular concern. When the 1851 census identified that fully 42 per cent of women aged between 20 and 40 were unmarried, some argued that there should be more immigration schemes to send such ‘surplus’ women to the colonies.

Marriage was not an equal partnership. Once married, a woman had no separate legal existence: she owned no property and had no right to her own income, unless an elaborate settlement had been negotiated before marriage. Even wages she earned herself were the legal property of her husband. She had no right to the guardianship of her children and could only leave her husband’s ‘protection’ with his agreement. Marriage was intended to be for life and the authority of the man as head of the household was intended to be paramount. Domestic violence was common, most visible in labouring marriages, but also a source of shameful misery in an unknown number of outwardly ‘respectable’ households. Only in cases of extreme cruelty was a more privileged woman likely to seek legal redress, for fear of social ruin.  Divorce existed, on very limited grounds, but until 1857 could only be granted by an individual act of Parliament, at huge cost. A very small number of marriages was annulled in the Ecclesiastical Court, most on the grounds of non-consummation, and this court could also grant the right to a judicial separation, although without the right to re-marry. This so called divorce a mensa et thoro was only available to women who could prove adultery accompanied by life-threatening cruelty, but prevailing double moral standards meant that proving simple adultery by the wife was sufficient for men to obtain a legal separation.

Then as now, the success of marriages varied widely, and some of the tensions between married couples inevitably surfaced during the long voyages to South Australia. They can be traced through some of the accounts posted here. There were other very real pressures too, not least the stress of repeated childbearing and the pressure to maintain large numbers of children. But there is also clear evidence of sustained love and companionship and the terrible sadness that leaving a loved one behind could occasion.  Captain Robert Morgan of the Duke of York recorded his continual anxiety for his ‘beloved wife’, who was expecting their second child as he left, and rejoiced at every letter he received from her. ‘I tenderly love the partner of my life’, he confided to his diary, adding that parting from her ‘felt like cutting the tender string of life or the divideing [sic]of vine and branch’. (11 March 1836) It was an image thoroughly in line with the Romantic ideals of marital love then in vogue.

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