‘Rip the feather bed open’: Domestic Violence and Working-Class Marriage in Victorian England

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The week’s episode of A House Through Time ventures out of 10 Guinea Street to follow the story of its former maid-of-all-work, Hester, who upon leaving service found herself trapped in a violent marriage. For many such women, in a society that largely tolerated marital violence (to a point), their stories, like Hester’s, only come fully to light after a tragic death—in this case, her sister-in-law’s fatal fall. The coroner’s court, as this episode showed, revealed to the public intimate details of her marriage that would have otherwise remained behind closed doors. Coroners’ records are a great source for understanding Victorian working-class marriage, as the coroner was the one public body at the time who could gain unprecedented access to these homes during their investigations. Their thorough questioning, not always sticking to the matter in hand, bequeaths the researcher rich and detailed documents pertaining to all aspects of working-class marriage.

Like Hester’s experience, the coroner’s inquests I have used in my own research revealed that no room provided a sanctum from domestic violence. The bedroom served as a key arena for such abuse. As Shani D’Cruze found, working-class wives were sometimes ‘dragged’ to the bedroom for a beating after an argument broke out in the kitchen.[1] When grievances that had begun in the day overflowed into the night, as married couples came together in bed, their quarrels even deprived them of sleep.[2] Sleeping wives, having retired to bed before their husband’s return from an evening’s drinking, perhaps in an attempt to avoid strife, could find themselves hauled from their slumber by an ‘inebriated’ husband.[3] Equally, as Bourke finds, some ‘husbands might find themselves sleeping in bed alone every night if they refused to obey their wives’ or returned home drunk.[4] And, in the following case, I reveal how the marital bed itself could be used as a tool of abuse and control, its violation symbolising a complete breakdown of marital relations.

When 17 year old Rudd Wilson was found drowned in the River Gipping in December 1861, the ensuing inquest held by the Ipswich Coroner demonstrates the extent to which the bed as an object could be used by a working-class husband to assert dominance over both his wife and children. Called before the coroner’s court to provide testimony as to the events that led up to her son’s suicide, Sarah Wilson detailed the family’s tumultuous Christmas. It emerges from Sarah’s testimony that her husband, milkman Henry Wilson, had been depriving her of sleep for some time. Sarah stated, ‘He would frequently draw away the bed and the mattrass [sic] so that I should have nothing to lie on’. Sleep deprivation was, and still is, a common tactic used by abusive spouses.[5]

As the abuse escalated, Henry Wilson continued to violate the marital bed through its physical destruction. The various local newspaper reports pertaining to his son’s suicide state that on December 22, Henry Wilson had returned home ‘the worse for drink and began to ill-treat his wife, giving her several blows’.[6] When their son, Rudd, attempted to intervene, his father—having found a knife despite the best efforts of his wife to lock them away in a cupboard[7]—turned on him before proceeding upstairs to ‘rip the feather bed open’.[8] Sarah then told the coroner’s court, ‘While he was cutting open the bed my son did not hit him, but he pushed him down onto the bed, and my husband got up and swore he would kill my son’. At this point, Rudd escaped the family home and Henry Wilson turned his attention to his children’s bed, with Sarah informing the coroner’s court, ‘He even tore the children’s bed-clothes up to prevent them from sleeping’. Turning on children, as Elizabeth Foyster states, was ‘an additional tool of cruelty that husbands used against their wives’.[9] Thus, having violated both the marital bed and his children’s bed, Henry Wilson’s actions were not one of symbolised sexual violence upon his wife but an assertion of his total dominance over the domestic space and his entire family.

In such extreme cases of violence, wives and their children in working-class communities would flee to neighbours who were frequently all too willing to provide temporary shelter.[10] The coroner’s court discovered that Rudd Wilson, having fled the family home, had been taken in by friends in nearby Globe Lane that Christmas week. Another of Ipswich’s frequently abused wives, Mary Chapman of Cooper Street, stated at the coroner’s inquest held after her husband’s suicide in 1873 that he was ‘much addicted to drink [and] was very violent. [I] had often to flee for protection. [I] often ran away to escape [his] violence, and had sometimes hidden under the hedge’. However, Mary Chapman usually found a bed for the night in the nearby home of her brother-in-law, while her husband slept off ‘his drunken fit.’[11] Yet, Sarah Wilson and her other children, despite having no bed in which to sleep, remained in the house—‘I and my husband occupied the same bed until this week … I have not been undressed since Monday night last week. I have not been in the bed-room’. Where and on what she slept during this time is not noted. Nonetheless, her absence from the marital bed revealed to all those present in the coroner’s court the Wilson’s complete breakdown of marital relations.

As well as berating Henry Wilson over his ‘unfatherly manner’—which the jury concluded had played a significant role in his son’s suicide—the court, though not there to investigate the marital relations of the Wilsons, also verbally reprimanded Henry Wilson as to his conduct towards his wife. Pushing notions of the domestic ideal and reframed manliness, the middle-class coroners and their ‘respectable’ juries, like those of the magistrate courts, implored working-class men to refrain from unreasonable levels of violence against their wives. Thus, directed by the jury, the coroner addressed Henry Wilson, ‘You have shown great brutality towards your wife when you were in drink … We think you have acted a most unkind part to your wife’. Violence, they stated, was not the means by which the working-class male asserted control over his household: ‘If it were possible that I could say anything that would make an impression on you it would be to never indulge in drink to excess, and never lift your hand against your wife or against your children. You can only exercise influence over them by kind and considerate conduct and by good example … Let it be the means of making for a future of a comfortable home’. In his reply to the coroner, Henry Wilson excused himself, as did many other working-class men in defence of the violent conduct towards their wives, by stating that ‘there [was] fault on both sides’ and that his wife had provoked his actions. Provocation was a common and often successful defence of violent husbands called before the criminal courts.[12]

On hearing this, Mrs. Wilson was called again before the coroner who stated to her, ‘I hope you will take a word of advice. He is impatient: do you be conciliatory. Don’t return evil for evil. Endeavour not to check or reproach him’. Such a remark from the coroner is fairly typical, as Anna Clark asserts, ‘Women often found themselves blamed for the violence they endured’ to some measure, at least.[13] Nonetheless, in light of the ‘great brutality’ that had been heard and acknowledging Mrs. Wilson as mostly the victim in this case, the coroner did advise her to seek the readdress of the magistrates if her husband continued his violent ways. This she duly did the following month, after her husband once again assaulted her and, in consequence, Henry Wilson found himself imprisoned for six weeks.[14] Henry returned to Sarah after his imprisonment, as revealed in the coroner’s inquest held into his daughter’s suicide just four years after her brother’s suicide and by the same means. Rumours were abound regarding her father mistreating her and while he admitted to slapping her, the coroner’s court concluded that she was mostly ‘kindly treated’ by her father and that, unlike the case of her brother, he was not accountable for her suicide.[15] However, in a prior newspaper report regarding an assault upon his wife, Henry was recorded as saying he ‘told his daughter she might go and drown herself as the other b—- (meaning his son) had done’. Despite all this violence and tragic loss, Sarah, like Hester, remained with her husband. But where else could these women and their children go?

More accounts of Victorian working-class marriage can be found in my book – In Bed with the Victorians. Google preview. Publishers website.


[1] Shani D’Cruze, Crimes of Outrage: Sex, Violence and Victorian Working Women (UCL Press, 1998), 75-76.

[2] Amanda Vickery, “The Bed,” A History of Private Life. BBC Radio 4, Sept 28, 2009. Also see Joanne Bailey (Begiato), Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 121.

[3] D’Cruze, Crimes of Outrage, 75-76.

[4] Joanna Bourke, Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (Routledge, 1994), 74, 77.

[5] D’Cruze, Crimes of Outrage, 68. Similarly, Joanne Begiato’s work on the marital power balance in the long eighteenth century provides an example of a violent husband ‘forc[ing] his wife to sit up at night when she was heavily pregnant’, Bailey, Unquiet Lives, 116. In D.H. Lawrence’s Son and Lovers (1913), Walter Morel in a drunken stupor throws his pregnant wife out of the house into the cold night, bolting the door. Only when he woke from his slumber did he unbolt the door. Also see, Caroline McGee, Childhood Experiences of Domestic Violence (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2000), 81.

[6] Judith Rowbotham, “‘Only when drunk’: The Stereotyping of Violence in England, c. 1850-1900,” in Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850-1950: Gender and Class, ed. Shani D’Cruze (Longman, 2000), 164-65. Also see Tomes, “Torrent of Abuse,” 332-33.

[7] The action of locking away knives in the presence of a drunk and abusive husband was a common strategy employed by working-class wives at this time. Tomes, “Torrent of Abuse,” 333.

[8] Such abuse centring on the marital bed is also evident in other periods. For example, in early modern England, Laura Gowing found cases of wives being ‘dragged’ out of their beds and their bedsheets cut up by their husbands. Laura Gowing, “The Twinkling of a Bedstaff: Recovering the Social Life of English Beds 1500–1700,” Home Cultures, 11, no. 3 (2014): 283-84, doi: 10.2752/175174214X14035295691355. Meanwhile, Begiato describes a 1799 case where one husband was sewn up in the bed-clothes while he slept, in order that his wife could beat him. Bailey, Unquiet Lives, 132.

[9] Elizabeth Foyster, Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1857 (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 137.

[10] Foyster, Marital Violence, 190; Tomes, “Torrent of Abuse,” 336.

[11] Framlingham Weekly News, Oct 18, 1873, 4; Ipswich Journal, Oct 14, 1873, 2.

[12] Martin Wiener, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness and Criminal justice in Victorian England (Cambridge University Press, 2004),, 34, 171-91; Annmarie Hughes, “The ‘Non-Criminal’ Class: Wife-beating in Scotland (c.1800-1949),” Crime, History & Societies 14, no. 2 (2010): 31-54. Also see Tomes, “Torrent of Abuse,” 338-39; and, Bailey, Unquiet Lives, 117-20.

[13] Clarke, Struggle for the Breeches, 262.

[14] Suffolk Chronicle, Dec 21, 1861, 6; Suffolk Chronicle, Feb 27, 1864, 8-9.

[15] Ipswich Journal, Oct 3, 1868, 10.

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