By Dr Joanne Chilman
This research was undertaken for a PhD on ‘Women before the Hull Courts in the Nineteenth Century’. It was found that a significant number of the cases were of women bringing their bastardy cases to the Hull courts due to changes in the Poor Laws.
In common with other studies, I expected to undertake a quantitative analysis of bastardy in nineteenth century Hull. However, I was amazed to find extensive background details of the circumstances behind the bastardy cases recorded in the Hull courts’ minute books. Details of courtship, rape, incest, sexual relationships of servants, sexual access to female servants by middle class males, wife desertion and common-law relationships were all revealed by the Hull bastardy records. Sexual histories, family background, employment and financial circumstances of the father, attempts to end or cover up the pregnancy and birth, denial and character assassination were each exposed.
Thus the Hull records are particularly rich and unique in their detail of bastardy cases, with full courtroom testimonies of the women, the men on trial in bastardy cases, their defence and witness statements. The qualitative value of the Hull bastardy records has yielded new knowledge and understanding of women’s difficult lives in the nineteenth century port town, in particular, attitudes towards women viewed as ‘fallen’ and ‘immoral’.
Bastardy cases, as with prostitution, reveal the harsh treatment by the nineteenth century Hull courts of women of the poor. Women sought financial support for their illegitimate children through the Hull courts, but at the price of hostile scrutiny of their sexual history and defamation of their character. My examination of the courtroom testimonies of women exposed the courts’ questioning of their sexual behaviour and respectability, something men in Hull bastardy cases were not subject to. The difficulties and hostility women faced when they bore a child out of wedlock, being labelled as prostitutes and sexually promiscuous, is evident in the records of bastardy before the Hull courts and had significant repercussions for women.
In the early nineteenth century, bastardy cases were heard by the Hull Quarter Sessions Court. The Hull Quarter Sessions Court records include minute books and bundles of records. Early Hull bastardy cases involved the local parish authorities seeking maintenance contributions from absent fathers when women and their illegitimate children became a burden on parish funds. Court action was brought by women as the requirement for receiving parish relief.
Affiliation orders in the Hull Quarter Sessions records provide the names and ages of the women and their illegitimate children, the father, the fathers’ occupation, financial situation and earnings. The records also provide details of place of birth of both parties involved; of interest in tracing migration patterns into Hull in the early nineteenth century of men and women from the rural hinterlands of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire seeking work.
The early nineteenth century saw women with illegitimate children and pregnant single women subject to removal from Hull under the Settlement and Removal laws, viewed as a financial burden on the parish and its’ middle-class ratepayers. Lists of the removals of women and their illegitimate children back to their last place of settlement appear in the Hull Quarter Sessions Bundles. Settlement and Removal were two aspects of the Old Poor Law.
Each person had a parish of settlement (usually where they were born or where their husband or father were born or had served an apprenticeship, or where they rented property worth £10 a year). A person who had moved away from their parish of settlement could be sent back (removed) when they applied for parish relief. This system was used for those who had become a liability on the parish and those who were likely to become so; in Hull unmarried pregnant women are identified as the majority of removals (it was also widely used for the removal of vagrants from the town). The removal could be to anywhere in the country or it could be to the next parish. Short distance removals were also common; women were removed from Sculcoates parish to the neighbouring parish of Holy Trinity, and vice versa.
Hull’s use of the settlement laws for the removal of women with illegitimate children is linked to a wider, significant shift in perceptions of illegitimacy. Concern about rising illegitimacy and of perceived working class female sexual immorality led to changes in the poor laws. The 1834 New Poor Law and its Bastardy Clause placed the burden of responsibility onto the mother rather than on the parish or the father. Women could no longer expect the parish to support them and their illegitimate children. Women were still given the right to charge fathers at the Hull Quarter Sessions and later Hull Magistrates Court, but without the backing of the parish and on the production of evidence of the relationship.
The Bastardy Clause left men free of responsibility for their sexual behaviour and placed it entirely on women’s shoulders. It was designed to protect men from false bastardy claims of women as well as removing the financial burden of illegitimacy from the parish. These legislative changes affected women’s ability to pursue the men who failed to support their offspring through the Hull courts with the law favouring men in bastardy cases
By the 1840s bastardy cases were heard by the newly formed Hull Magistrates Court. The Hull Magistrate Court Minute Books reveal a significant and growing presence of women before the Hull courts as women were forced to take their bastardy cases to court with the absence of parish financial help, and in an increasingly unsympathetic environment. My examination of bastardy cases before the Hull Magistrate Court reveal that illegitimate pregnancy was the result of a number of different situations and circumstances, including impregnation of their servants by middle class men, rape, incest, as well as courtship which failed to lead to marriage. What all Hull bastardy cases have in common is that they illustrate significantly how the ‘taint’ of sexual immorality followed women into the courtroom.
Bastardy cases detailed in the Hull Magistrate Court minute books reveal that women were subject to a courtroom experience which saw them accused of being prostitutes, of sexual promiscuity and having a number of male ‘followers’. Judgements were made about women’s respectability on the basis of appearance, language and demeanour, and women who dressed and spoke demurely were offered more sympathy by the courts. Male defence sought to raise doubt about the paternity of the child, especially when the father was of a higher social class and wanted to protect their reputation; Hull’s middle-class men were much more likely to have bastardy cases against them dismissed and leave the courtroom with their reputation intact at the expense of working-class women. Especially condemned by the courts were women with more than one illegitimate child; who regularly lost their bastardy cases.
My analysis of the Hull bastardy cases revealed that success for women depended on presentation to the court that they were not of loose morals but had sought respectable marriage. The focus on female moral character meant women had to prove they had been in a relationship with one partner whom they intended to marry, often using female witnesses to back up their story. Presenting the image of a wronged woman gained the sympathy of the Hull magistrates, who sought to promote marriage amongst the ‘feckless’ working class.
Despite being witnesses in the bastardy cases of men, in reality my study has found that it was women themselves who were on trial in the Hull courts for the ‘hidden’ crime of sexual immorality in bearing a child out of wedlock, revealing the sexual double standard that ran through the law. A social class as well as gender bias of the Hull courts meant women of the poor were often denied justice. However, in bringing bastardy cases to court, despite undergoing a humiliating and degrading experience, Hull women can be viewed as acting with agency in taking positive action to achieve the financial support that they desperately needed for their children.
Hull women of the poor also used the law in contrast to how the law was often used against them. In a hostile, unforgiving climate of poverty and a lack of social justice for women in an era before social welfare, this was a further survival strategy of Hull women of the poor who had a lack of options open to them.