An exploration of the social history of Britain….

Wife Beating in Victorian England…the ‘Rule of Thumb’

Ever wondered where the term, ‘Rule of thumb’ came from? It derived from old British legal traditions which considered a husband the ruler of his wife. Once married a husband could be held legally liable for his wife’s conduct in early modern times and as such, it was a widely held belief a husband could strike his wife for ‘lawful correction’ or to ‘order and to rule her’. A famous judge Sir William Blackstone’s wrote an influential book in the eighteenth-century called Commentaries on the Law of England and stated, ‘For as the husband is to answer for his wife’s misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his …children’.

In the nineteenth century, people were influenced by popular mythology of these ideas. Cartoons depicting a judge who had purportedly stated it was lawful for a husband to beat his wife provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb had appeared in the press in 1782, suggesting the question of the severity of a beating was ambiguous and one for the individual husband.

Whilst there was actually no legal validation for this, there was continued widespread contemporary belief there had been legal significance attached to the rule of thumb, which some have claimed perhaps was a euphemism for no rule at all.

In the latter half of the nineteenth-century however, domestic violence, or wife-beating as it was known in the Victorian era emerged as a serious social concern. This era saw a rise in the standard of treatment towards women and new notions of ‘manly’ behaviour corresponding to the practice of a moral, rather than physical, control over wives. Middle class religious and secular venues pushed an Evangelical campaign promoting ideas of education and morality, and non-violence to society.

Brutal fighting was a common occurrence on the streets of 19th century London

The everyday violence the British were used to such as state sanctioned whippings, hangings and brutal sports such as dog and cock-fighting were slowly being replaced by penal institutions and transportation to the colonies, and male aggressiveness once considered an integral part of English masculinity was promoted to become more law-abiding and self-disciplined, with the idea slights were avenged with self-restraint, prudence and forethought. These bourgeois or middle class values committed to a peaceful home and family life, and came to be considered the only way to live in Victorian England. Now more than ever it was assumed that men were in need of women to ‘elevate them and save their souls, as domestic and intimate ‘angles’. Queen Victoria herself nobly depicted her blissful, yet submissive status as a dutiful wife and mother, reinforcing the family as the defender of the social order, with any interference considered a threat to stability.

New law’s concerning recompense for women whom were severely mistreated by their husbands represented new outlooks toward domestic violence. In 1853 the Member for Lewes, a Mr Fitzroy, agitated against the manifestly inadequate penalties for aggravated assaults on women and children which resulted in the passing of the Aggravated Assault on Women and Children Act.

Down from the pedestal

By 1857, The Divorce and Matrimonial Clauses Act was passed under strong feminist pressure and ‘cruelty’ was included as grounds for divorce. Within the next few years the threshold of ‘reasonableness’ for such apprehension was lowered by a series of rulings. Whilst in reality the proceedings were expensive and only attainable to middle class women, whom to leave a husband had to prove adultery as well, the law in relation to marriage was now taking a leading role in the repression of violence. With the perception ‘wife-battering’ was as an index to the level of violence in society generally, alongside the idea it was threatening marriage as the normative state and the subsequent pressure for a husband to work, domestic violence was finally ‘brought out from the shadows’ and emerged as a social concern. One writer claimed ‘There is not….. any class in the world so subjected to brutal personal violence as English wives’.


Doggett, M.E., ‘Marriage, Wife-Beating and the Law in Victorian England’, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

May, M., ‘Violence in the Family: An Historical Perspective’, in J.P. Martin (ed.), Violence and the Family, John Wiley & Sons, 1978.

Tomes, N., ‘A “Torrent of Abuse”: Crimes of Violence between working-class men and women in London, 1840 – 1875’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1978, pp. 328 – 345.

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