The rights of the de facto husband: domestic violence in the landlady-lodger relationship in Victorian society

The bottle, by George Cruikshank

Much has been stated about the ambiguities existing in the landlady-lodger relationship, with the Victorian landlady acting, in part, as de facto wife. Yet, while the sexual aspect of such a relationship has been widely discussed, other “rights” of the lodger in terms of his status as de facto husband have been overlooked. Addressing this, today’s blog post looks at the place of domestic violence in this complicated relationship. In working-class communities throughout this period, a husband had the right to beat his wife. However, what was not permissible was to ‘beat…the wife of another man’.[1] So where does the lodger sit in this social code? Using coroners’ inquests to examine the experience of lodging in someone else’s home in Victorian England I have come across numerous cases of domestic violence existing between a lodger and landlady where their relationship would be better defined as living as man and wife.[2] In such cases, it is unsurprising to see such behaviour going unchallenged by the community. Yet, I have also come across acts of violence enacted by a lodger on his landlady where there is no evidence of a sexual relationship and even, as in the case discussed below, where a lawful husband is present in the household.

In 1894, lodger and labourer, 40-year-old John Last, died from pneumonia in his landlady’s home, 17 Stoke Street, Ipswich. Called to provide evidence at the inquest, his landlady, Maria Vincent, wife of Robert Vincent, stated that Last had lodged in their home for the past 14 years. In recent times, she revealed, Last had become ‘a heavy drinker’, so much so that he went without food to afford his habit.[3] During these drinking bouts, Maria Vincent found herself to be the target of Last’s violent outbursts: ‘On Friday week he was intoxicated and ill-treated her, as was his custom … A week or two back he gave her a black eye’. Such was the violence on some occasions that ‘she had to fetch her husband’.[4]

Given the routine physical abuse that Maria Vincent was suffering at the hands of her lodger, I am forced to ask the question why had Last been permitted to remain in the Vincent’s home? It could be argued that his presence was an economic necessity, a necessary evil so to speak. However, given the relatively high demand for lodgings in the town, it would not have been difficult for the Vincent’s to have found a more amenable lodger. It seems more likely that the answer lies in the length of time that Last had been lodging with them. As noted above, Last had been living with the Vincent’s for 14 years and this long-term status, his continual financial contribution to the household purse, would have elevated his status in the household as more like family than a lodger. This is affirmed in the questioning of the coroner’s court when the matter of Maria Vincent’s care (or lack thereof) of her sick lodger was raised. The jury ‘thought that after [Last] had lived at the house so many years he should have been looked after’. This, they believed, had not been adequately done by Maria Vincent and thus she was apportioned some blame for her lodger’s death. Notably, the coroner’s court make no remark as to the violence Last dispensed upon his landlady. Indeed, one newspaper covering the case omitted this part of Maria Vincent’s statement entirely.

The case of John Last suggests, therefore, that there was a grey area between violence enacted out on a wife by a husband and that enacted out upon the wife of another man. Within that grey area was the male long-term lodger, whose growth in status in the household appears to have sanctified beating his landlady.

[1] For details on this, see Nancy Tomes, A “Torrent of Abuse”: Crimes of Violence Between Working-Class Men and Women in London, 1840–1875, Journal of Social History, Volume 11, Issue 3, Spring 1978, Pages 328–345,

[2][2] For an example of this, see the case of Ipswich lodger, John Miller, in V. Holmes, In Bed with the Victorians (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 68-69.

[3] John Last ‘boarded himself’ and thus Maria Vincent was not financially obligated to provide her lodger with regular meals.

[4] Ipswich Journal, Jan 6, 1894; East Anglian Daily Times, Jan 4, 1894, p. 5.

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