Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Review: Kane, Bronach; Williamson, Fiona (2013) Women, Agency and the Law, 1300–1700, Pickering & Chatto.

This collection of ten essays concerns the interaction of ordinary women with the legal system of England and Wales. A common theme running through them is the extent to which the individual narrative of female petitioners, defendants and witnesses can be extracted from deposition statements, despite the mediation of court clerks in the creation of those documents.
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1.          Your Oratrice: Women’s Petitions to the Late Medieval Court of Chancery:

 Cordelia Beattie.

The Court of Chancery during the late medieval period is particularly interesting because married women could bring cases in their own right, rather than having to be represented by their husbands. Beattie’s sources are extant bills from mid-fifteenth century which, on first appearance, show them to be formulaic and written in the third person. However, what makes them more interesting is that Chancery was an early court of ‘equity’ where the Chancellor was empowered to judge cases according to ‘conscience’, rather than applying strict rules of evidence. Taking one case as a micro-study, Beattie claims to have picked up on the use of third-person reported speech and ‘slips’ between the lawyer and contributor which reveal something of one petitioner’s voice about her own predicament.

2.          Echoes, Whispers, Ventriloquisms: On Recovering Women’s Voices from the

            Court  of York in the Later Middle Ages: Jeremy Goldberg.

Goldber’s essay centres on the case of Marrays v Rouclif and the petitioner’s suit that his wife be restored to him: the case was singled out because of the large number of female deponents. Goldberg contends that, unlike Inquisition records for heresy, depositions given for private litigations before the Court of York were “not the product of fear” but given willingly. He argues that, while some servants and employees may have been pressured to give their evidence this was a very different dynamic of power to that experienced during the Inquisitions. 

Goldberg contends that despite the use of standardized text by court clerks, the system allowed for individual experiences to show through and that the depositions examined provide evidence of the credibility and background of the deponents. From an examination of the case papers he concludes that, although the wife’s testimony was “crafted” it was not “invented” and something of her life experiences are still available to us and that the same is true for other men and women who testified before the canon law courts. 

3.           Women, Memory and Agency in the Medieval English Church Courts:

             Bronach Kane.

Kane examines the gendered relationship between the written, bureaucratic record and oral memory. In doing so she distinguishes between the role of elite women in preserving historical and literary texts and perceptions of female memory in a legal context. Her primary sources include a pool of more than 600 private cases from the church courts of York from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and a small collection from the Court of Canterbury from the thirteenth century. Acknowledging aspects of coverture that restricted female voices, Kane nevertheless raises the possibility that experiences of manorial and customary courts influenced the way some women interacted with the ecclesiastical courts. 

Kane notes that ordinary men and women were likely to have acquired some knowledge of canon law through church sermons and responses to confessions, allowing both of them to exercise greater agency in the ecclesiastical courts than one might expect. The case studies selected demonstrate the presence of women in ecclesiastical courts, their understanding of judicial processes, and the importance of memory in acquiring that understanding and in order to establish their credibility as witnesses. As in the preceding essays, Kane observes opportunities for the individual female narrative to emerge. 

4.         ‘Utterly and Uuntruly He Hath Deceived Me’: Women’s Inheritance in Late

            Medieval England: Rosemary Horrox.

This essay concerns the will of Jane Stapleton, made in 1518, in which she asks that her executors put right the fraud committed against her by her natural son, and it demonstrates the power of the written word in legal disputes. The history of Jane’s complaint lay in an attempt to settle land acquired by a first marriage on children born of a second marriage, diverting it away from any surviving children of the first marriage. The family connections which form the basis of this dispute are complex and difficult to follow but six pages in the crux of the case becomes clear when we get to an extract from Jane’s will. Having said that, this is a rich data source with great potential for use by social historians and genealogists. 

In highlighting discrepancies between the accounts given by the son and that set out in Jane’s will, Horrax points to evidence of Jane’s “bitterness” towards her son. What becomes evident is the importance of written documentation which provides insights into Jane’s relationships with her husband and son, and as an individual through the bequests set out in her will. Horrax asserts that the will “emphatically” represents Jane’s voice in a way not possible had her case has survived in the form of court depositions. Further evidence of the authenticity of that voice is provided by additional material demonstrating the lengths Jane went to in order to ensure that her executors carried out her wishes after her death. 

5.        ‘She Hym Fresshely Folowed and Pursued’: Women and Star Chamber in Early

          Tudor Wales: Deborah Youngs.

Youngs’ study provides evidence of some of the earliest female plaintiffs to travel form Wales to initiate proceedings in the court of Star Chamber (1536-1542). Her essay centres on a micro-study concerning two cases submitted in 1530-1532 when the court was under the chancellorship of Thomas Moore and includes an overview of the origins, proceedings and jurisdiction of Star Chamber which ranged from breaches of the peace to debt, slander and perversions of justice. 

Youngs explains the fragmented process of government in Wales prior to the Act of Union, 1542, and the scope for mismanagement and corruption. The volume of cases initiated by Welsh complainants during the period surveyed was very small and none of verdicts have not survived. Nevertheless, Youngs argues for the place of these bills in telling particular stories about sixteenth-century society. The contents of the two bills examined concern the murder of the husband of Denise Williams and the rape of Kathryn Robert the daughter of a minor gentleman. Both Denise and Kathryn were the petitioners in their own complaint and, Youngs argues, provide evidence that these women were informed and proficient in legal procedures within their local jurisdiction and in Star Chamber.

6.           Women and the Hue and Cry in Late Fourteenth-Century Great Yarmouth:

            Janka Rodziewicz.

The primary source for this essay was 35 entries in the leet court roll for Great Yarmouth between 1366 and 1381. It considers the nature of the hue and cry as a mechanism which enabled non-elite women to be involved in the maintenance of law and order within of their communities. Rodziewicz observes that although women did not often play an active role in the formal practices of law enforcement, they could raise and negotiate disputes at court and were regular users of the practice of hue and cry. She argues that these records demonstrate not only the active participation of women in the use of hue and cry but that they understood how to use it to their advantage. Through an analysis of the records, Rodziewicz concludes that, while on some occasions the use of hue and cry conformed to the notion of the weaker woman in need of protection at other times (such as when a wife raised a hue and cry following an assault upon her husband) it inverted the assumption of proscribed gender roles. 

7.         Gender and the Control of Sacred Space in Early Modern England: Amanda



Flather sets out to interpret female involvement in popular iconoclastic attacks in Essex at a time when sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Protestants were calling for greater reformation of church services and ceremonies. An examination of gendered participation in attacks on church property leads her to observe the dominance of men in damage caused to fonts and the common prayer book, while women might express their discontent through the rejection of the traditional ‘churching’ of a woman after childbirth, the wearing of a veil in church, or through the care (or neglect) of clerical vestments when undertaking cleaning duties.

Flather relies on the testimonies of men and women to the Committee of Scandalous Ministers, set up in 1644, to provide insights into the forms of conduct a woman was prepared to condemn. While she acknowledges the possibility of “personal animosity” in some of the allegations against ministers, she argues that female testimonies provide evidence of the capacity of married women to control male ministerial power in certain church activities in order to defend the protestant doctrine. 

8.            The Travails of Agnes Beaumont: Bernard Capp.

The story of Agnes Beaumont concerns a family argument over non-conformism which took place in 1674 and the fallout from that dispute was subsequently published in ten separate editions between 1760 and 1842. At the time of the disagreement, Agnes’ father died and she was accused of causing his death by poisoning, although a coroner’s jury found no evidence of foul play. Further complications arose in Agnes’ life when she challenged her father’s will.

While it is unlikely that Agnes put her side of the story down on paper until some years after the main events of her story took place, Capp maintains that the “narrative has the flavour of an oral account” because of its conversational style. He further maintains that the authentic voice survives because her papers were not published until many tears after her death and were not subject to any mediation by a husband or close male relative. Capp picks up not only on the dimension of faith in her story and also on evidence of the lack of autonomy and privacy in Agnes’ life. He favourably contrasts her account with other women’s spiritual autobiographies which he finds to be more passive and conforming to gendered conventions, not least in part because they were written with the intention of publication for a specific audience. 

9.        Parish Politics, Urban Spaces and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century

          Norwich: Fiona Williamson.

Williamson explores women’s words, defamation and urban spaces against the concept of a “unified ‘neighbourhood’ identity” in the multiple parishes comprised within Norwich. Her main primary sources are defamation suits from the Norwich diocesan court, where depositions provide evidence of residence, the parties, their relationships and social networking. In particular it focuses on a long-running dispute between the Frogg and Austin families during the 1660’s, which was acted out on the local streets, in church and in the courtroom. The dispute which formed the subject of court proceedings was led by one key female aggressor, rather than her husband, concerned a dispute over church pews and highlights the relevance of the different social status of the two families. The dispute led to instances of verbal abuse used in the street and parish church, thus making their neighbours witnesses to the alleged defamatory statements.
This case, Williamson argues, demonstrates the importance of the individual parish within its wider urban setting, how social relationships were negotiated, and the ways in which a parish might respond to issues of reputation, status and honour.

10.        ‘With a Sword Drawne in her Hande’: Defending the Boundaries of Household

            Space in Seventeenth-Century Wales: Nicola Whyte.

Whyte’s paper concerns the spatial boundaries of the household, both physical and moral, in relation to household identities and gendered behaviour. Her primary sources are cases which concern forcible entry (a crime) and dissiesin (lawful seizure of property) presented in the court of Star Chamber during the reign of James I. 

Whyte observes the active role of some women in defending their interests in property, while other women acted in contravention of the various rights attached to property. This study, she argues, reveals contemporary anxieties about self-sufficiency and agency within the household unit. Whyte reminds us that houses cannot be viewed in isolation as a particular entity when they might form only one constituent part of a larger estate, which elements might be physically unconnected in space and spanning a long period in time. Using a range of cases studies, she demonstrates the autonomy of women in responding to the threat of dispossession by their responses to actions taken by constables and bailiffs in distraining goods and in protests involving enclosure breaking.
This collection of  essays provide new insights for those less familiar with the early courts and offers new interpretations of depositions, often dismissed as a legal construct, and in doing so their respective authors uncover female voices from the archives.

Monday, 29 September 2014

The History of Crime from a Legal Perspective: Gender and the Yorkshire Food Riots, 1740.

British Crime Historians Symposium 4, 26 September 2014.
Paper presented by Dr Rhiannon Markless, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Roehampton.

This paper focuses on judicial responses to the men and women who participated in food riots that erupted during the spring of 1740 in the West and North Ridings of Yorkshire. The background to the rioting was that two consecutive harsh winters resulted in the failure of the harvests and the loss of livestock. Prices of grain increased by almost 100 per cent during the first six months of 1740 and there was real fear that basic food stuffs would become unaffordable or even unavailable. 

Magistrates were empowered to manage those concerns by controlling grain prices through the Assize of Bread and Ale, while other statutes allowed them to regulate the trade and movement of grain. However, there is no evidence that an Assize of Bread was held in either the West or North Ridings in the spring of 1740. In contrast, the East Riding remained peaceful where quarter session records show that an assize of bread was held each year as a matter of course. Merchants in the East Riding were also brought before the quarter sessions when they failed to comply with the terms of their trading licences. It seems that justices for the East of the county were far more sensitive to local concerns than their colleagues in the rest of the county.
Prisoners brought from the gaol, York, July 1740.[1]
       George Parker, cloth maker
       Samuel Parker, cloth maker
       Robert Conyer, cloth maker
       John Webster, cloth maker
       Martha Awtey, spinster
       Thomas Secker, clothier
       Ann Earnshaw, spinster
       Grace Askwith, wife of Benjamin Askwith, labourer
       William Nussey, blacksmith
       Joseph Mitchell, cloth maker
       Peter Whitworth, husbandman
       William Fisher, cloth maker
       Matthew Fenton, carpenter
       Joshua Awtey, cloth maker
       Joseph Thomas, cloth maker
       Richard Swallow, cloth maker
       John Jackson, cloth maker

If we look at list of prisoners above, we can see that the majority of men indicted for their part in these food riots were described as cloth workers. The reason for this is that regions of England which had a thriving cloth industry, such as Yorkshire, tended not to be self-sufficient in food production and working people were, therefore, more responsive to changes in food pricing. Nevertheless, despite the large numbers of men and women reported to have participated in the food riots, quarter session and assize records indicate a failure to charge all but a few men and even fewer women with any offence, of which even fewer were actually convicted.
The types of offence that might be committed during the course of a riot included the act of riot, theft, trespass to property and trespass to the person. Each category of offence could be broken down to more specific offences: so, for example, an act of riot encompassed a rout, common law riot and statutory riot; while the definition of theft similarly had statutory and common law definitions. Statutory and common law offences co-existed, unless specified otherwise by Parliament.
To clarify, the common law offence of ‘participation in a riot’ was a misdemeanour involving three or more people who gathered together with the intent of committing an unlawful act and then set out to commit it. A ‘rout’ was a misdemeanour which arose in similar circumstances, without evidence of any other offence. The Riot Act of 1715 created the capital offence of riotous assembly, involving twelve or more people.[2] In those circumstances a magistrate was required to read out a proclamation for the crowd to disperse, failing which, those who remained were committing a capital offence. Magistrates tended to interpret the Act as restricting their authority to proceed against any rioters until the hour had passed.[3] Although indictments arising out of the Yorkshire food riots are couched in terms of ‘riotous assembly’, the statutory description, it appears from the sentences imposed that men and women were convicted for one of the common law misdemeanours. It is possible that grand jurors were reluctant to find that participation in the capital offence had been established or petty jurors to convict for the more serious offence.

The riotous events that occurred in the area around Dewsbury in the West Riding occurred over a three day period. They demonstrate an intense weekend of unrest in the area where an estimated numbers of between 100 and 1,000 men and women were observed participating in the riots. What is clear from the court records is that both male and female representation in the court records was greatly understated.
Events began one Saturday morning when about 400 men and women assembled at Dewsbury in order to prevent the export of corn to Lancaster. Rioters went on to attack carts carrying grain, pulled down or damaged mills and destroyed much of the grain they could not carry. The rioters were intercepted by the High Sheriff and local M.P. The statutory Proclamation to disperse was eventually read out and, although there were some reports of stone throwing, the mob dispersed within the prescribed hour.
Six men were charged with riotous assembly when they appeared at the next quarter sessions. The bills against each of them were dismissed by the grand jury. Another four other men appeared at quarter sessions one year later charged with riotous assembly. One defendant was acquitted and three ‘submitted’ to the court, of which at least one of them was ordered to pay a fine, indicating that he was convicted for a misdemeanour.
Why were no women charged? – As observed by E.P. Thompson and others, it is possible that woman and children were present at the beginning of the food riots but dispersed once their point had been made, and before the hour following the proclamation to disperse had expired.[4] The legal situation in England and Wales was further confused on the point as to whether the law offered any special protection to women involved in riot, expressed in Dalton’s practice directions for JP’s:
If a number of women (or children under the age of discretion) do flock together for their own cause, this is no assembly punishable by these statutes, unless a man of discretion moved them to assemble for the doing of some unlawful act.[5]
The legal confusion continued and was perpetuated by Robert Southey in the early nineteenth century:
[W]omen are far more likely to be mutinous; they stand less in fear of the law, partly from ignorance, partly because they presume upon the privilege of their sex, and therefore in all public tumults they are foremost in violence and ferocity.[6]
Therefore, there may well have been a generally held, if erroneous belief, that a woman could participate in a riot without being legally pursued at law. Alternatively, the situation was deliberately misinterpreted by some, to the advantage of women.
Two women were identified as verbally abusing one mill worker, so that he feared for his safety and fled from the area, though no prosecution for that offence appears in the quarter session records. The male victim may have been too embarrassed to publicly admit that he had been intimidated by two women. He may also have been satisfied that they had been punished by a remand in gaol for two months on other charges pending their trial.
On the subject of theft, the 1737 Corn Act created a felony of theft from a granary, or the destruction of a granary or its contents, punishable by transportation for seven years.[7] However, there was a problem in establishing theft where multiple parties owed the grain held in a mill house. The question was: whose grain had been stolen and by which rioter? Yorkshire assizes and quarter sessions records suggest that charges of theft from ‘unknown’ persons generally failed. In the aftermath of a riot it would have been difficult to establish who took the grain if the goods were not found in the possession of the accused or there was no evidence to establish that the accused had passed the stolen goods to a third person.
In the Yorkshire riots, female rioters appear to have been more closely concerned in verbal threats and criminal damage, such as removing slates of roofs to allow access by male rioters, who proceeded to ransack the granaries and steal sacks of grain. That created a problem in providing evidence of any form of burglary – where one person both broke and entered a building. There was no specific offence of criminal damage at this time and removal of the slates was a civil trespass, which might be pursued in the civil courts for damages. These events suggest the operation of coverture, so that female participants were protected from the full force of the law.
As listed above, fourteen men and three women were brought from the gaol to answer two charges of theft at the Yorkshire assizes in July 1740. William Nussey and Matthew Fenton were singled out as having been “very active” in the riots and, as neither man was employed in the cloth trade as were the majority of rioters, it is possible that they were singled out as ringleaders. The grand jury dismissed the bills against two male and each of the three female defendants: the five of them would have spent at least two months in gaol on remand pending that decision. Charges against the remaining twelve men for theft were found, following which, eight men were found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.
Reports of the riots and thefts mention some names more often than others, possibly because they were better known (or more notorious) in the community. Therefore, certain individuals account for more than one entry on the database of offenders. The ninety-four entries in the court records arising out of the riots consist of only thirty-five men and twelve women accused of one or more offences. William Nussey was cited as being concerned in seven different incidents arising out of the riots but convicted for just one act of theft, for which he was ordered to transportation for seven years. The failure to prosecute all the claims against Nussey and others is likely to have occurred because the courts tended to take the view that a successful conviction for one offence negated the need for a conviction on lesser or similar charges.
There are a number of reasons that might explain the relatively low number of men and women charged with offences arising out of the riots. It seems that the overriding aims of those holding office was to appease the masses by invoking trading regulations, while demonstrating judicial action taken to protect the propertied class. Prosecutions for ‘pure’ riots lay with local government officers but when riots were associated with larceny, as with the food riots, they might delegate those responsibilities and require mill owners and the like to enter into recognizances to prosecute. Otherwise, minor assaults, trespasses to property and criminal damage were matters that might be settled privately outside the court structure or under civil actions for trespass.

The overall outcome from the assizes was that five men received some form of punishment by way of fine or gaol and another ten men were ordered to be transported for seven years. Four men convicted at the assizes appealed against their sentence to transportation, although Judge Reynolds (the assize judge) advised the Secretary of State that, in his opinion, the sentences should stand as an example to others. However, no one was capitally convicted for statutory riot and all claims against female rioters failed.

So why did all the indictments of female rioters fail at the assizes? It would be unfair to describe female roles as merely subservient given the descriptions of their activities. The actions of both male and female rioters were audacious: thefts did not take place in secret, substantial damage was caused to property and some victims were threatened with violence. Women were present in significant numbers and were as active as men; they were no less of a threat and no less deserving of punishment than men.

The pre-trial processes do not provide evidence of gender divergent attitudes when more than 20 per cent of people referred to the assize and quarter sessions for their participation in the riots of Dewsbury were female (a slightly higher percentage of women than generally seen in either court at the time). The failure to bring those women to trial either points towards a gendered dimension in the decision-making process of the grand jury who may have dismissed the charges against them or that private settlements were agreed on the misdemeanours. As a result, attitudes of the petty jury and assize judge to female rioters are untested for the Yorkshire riots.
Failure to prosecute any man or woman on a capital charge under the Riot Act may be explained in terms of evidential difficulties once the hour had passed and crowds dispersed, or, more probably, because of the preference of local magistrates to restore and maintain peace in the community. Nevertheless, despite the risk of further inflaming the rioters, a number of protestors were seized at the scene of the riots and held in gaol pending trial. If men had been convicted in great numbers, imprisoned or transported, there would have been a knock-on effect to their employers in the local textile industry.
In conclusion, once indictments against the male rioters came to trial on capital charges for breaking and entering, they may have failed if a woman carried out the ‘breaking’ and a man gained ‘entry’ into a building. Charges for theft may have failed if there were problems identifying what goods had been stolen and by whom. There were further evidential problems in identifying the owner of stolen grain when a miller held corn belonging to multiple farmers. Evidential technicalities may have played at least as great a part as gender in determining which individuals to name in the bills of preferment. The same evidential issues also allowed a sympathetic grand jury to dismiss an indictment or a petty jury to find a defendant not guilty, or guilty of a lesser offence.
My point is not that gender was not relevant but that consideration of gender etcetera was not necessary until all other evidential and procedural stages were completed.

[1] TNA ASSI 44/55, Gaol Delivery York July 1740.
[2]  1 Geo. I, c.5 (1715) Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies.
[3] Hayter, Tony (1978) The Army and the Crowd in Mid-Georgian England, London: Macmillan.
[4] Thompson, E.P. (1971) ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, No. 50, pp. 76-136.
[5] Dalton, Michael (1705) The Country Justice, London: William Rawlins and Samuel Roycroft.
[6] Southey, R (1814 edition) Letters from England, London.
[7] 11 Geo., II, c. 22 (1737) ‘An Act for punishing such persons as shall do injuries and violence to the persons or properties of His Majestey’s subjects with intent to hinder the Exportation of corn’.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Some observations on servants and the judicial process in eighteenth-century Yorkshire.

While legal authority lay with the king, his secretaries of state, judges, sheriffs, justices of the peace and parish constables, authority within the family lay with the head of each household and the rights of servants were subsumed within those of their employers. There was a common association in the minds of society generally between domestic service and theft, illicit sex, pregnancy and infanticide and conduct books warned female servants about dishonesty, entering into quarrels and on matters of chastity with men servants, the master, his sons and gentlemen lodgers.
Eliza Fowler Haywood

Eliza Fowler Haywood (1743) A present for a servant-maid. Or, the sure means of gaining love and esteem, London: T. Gardener.

(1771, Revised) A present for a servant-maid: containing rules for her Moral Conduct both with respect to Herself and her Superiors: The Whole Art of Cookery, Pickling, and Preserving, &c, &c. and every other Direction necessary to be known to render her a Complete, Useful and Valuable Servant, London: G. Pearch and H. Gardener.

The freedom to move in domestic settings allowed domestic servants to acquire knowledge from friends, neighbours and other servants of what goods were available and when and how access to them might be obtained. In response to an outcry among wealthy householders over a spate of burglaries thought to have been organised by servants of poor character, the Servants' Characters Act 1792 was passed to forbid staff from supplying false character references. The act was used only once in a successful prosecution before it was repealed in 2008. The records for Yorkshire are fairly quiet on the topic of domestic theft and it is possible that minor offences were dealt with summarily within the household by some form of ‘moderate correction’ or the servant dismissed without a reference and effectively punished through subsequent loss of character.
Theft from a master or mistress came within the common law definition of crimes of fraud and dishonesty when victims handed over goods or money willingly to one of their servants and acquisition did not include the necessary taking ‘by force of arms’ for theft. However, a statute of 1529 created an exception to the common law and made it an offence for a servant to appropriate or ‘embezzle’ goods from his or her master where the value exceeded 40shillings.[1] Therefore, when Daniel Drummond was found guilty at the York Assizes of theft from his master of three guineas (63 shillings) he was sentenced to transportation for seven years.[2] Another employee who admitted to having accepted a stolen half guinea from Drummond, in return for not reporting him, escaped prosecution for receiving stolen goods by giving evidence against Drummond, although it is possible that he was punished informally by the loss of his employment. 
A female servant, Ann Willoughby, was charged under the same statute when she was accused of the theft of a gold coin valued at 36 shillings from the top of a chest in her master’s house and £6 in coins from inside the same chest on an earlier occasion.[3] Her mistress explained that the gold coin had been left out to trap a suspected thief and that she saw that Willoughby “made a pretence to seek” for the gold coin and “found” it on the floor. Willoughby was charged with the theft of the coin but acquitted at her trial. If no evidence were presented to prove that Willoughby stole other money from inside the chest, any offence committed by her fell below the statutory 40 shilling threshold and a direction to acquit would have been inevitable. 
In the absence of many similar cases for the county one may conclude that justice was deemed to be served by some combination of the return of goods stolen, an arrangement whereby the servant ‘worked off’ the value of goods taken, some form of corporal punishment by the master, or the dismissal of the accused servant with loss of good character and no references.
By the eighteenth century, two magistrates sitting at the petty sessions were empowered inter alia to imprison a servant for up to one year for an assault on his or her master. In contrast, masters and mistresses were entitled to use ‘moderate’ methods and a ‘reasonable’ instrument in chastising a servant, over whom they had natural authority. The reasonable use of physical abuse could be justified in terms of upholding order in a household, so that many incidents of abuse were ignored.
  BBC, Blackadder
Nevertheless, justices of peace were seen to undertake thorough investigations into complaints of excessive assaults upon servants and this is particularly evident when allegations were made against adults accused of the physical and sexual abuse of children and young people. In 1771, husband and wife, John and Hannah Walker were jointly convicted of a prolonged and vicious assault upon a thirteen year old Elizabeth Owens who lived and worked in their home as a domestic servant. The indictment for that assault ran to over six pages, detailing fifty days of systematic abuse.[4] Nothing is known of the girl’s background but it is possible that she was one of the poor children of a parish who had been apprenticed into domestic service, in which case she was vulnerable to both physical and sexual abuse. John Walker did not plead “not guilty” but submitted to the court, possibly because he accepted his right to beat his servant as response to any domestic disorder. The couple each received a small fine for their actions, the standard punishment for an assault at this time. However, the impetus for the investigation and prosecution appear to have come from the parish and justices of the peace who acted on behalf of the community to punish anti-social behaviour, regardless of the victim’s circumstances.
The murder of a master by his servant fell within the category of ‘petit treasons’, for which a female servant would burn at the stake and a male servant hang.[5] While a man’s violence towards his servant was perceived in terms of the ‘natural’ authority a man held as head of his household; reciprocal violence by a servant was subversive and a threat to social order. Therefore, when Thomas Butler was unsuccessful in his attempt to poison his master he was convicted of a misdemeanour and sentenced to a term of two years in gaol, at a time when other men convicted of manslaughter might expect to be released immediately after being branded on the hand.[6]
Female servants were put in a particularly vulnerable position if they became pregnant by a member of the family they served. In 1774, John Scott was convicted of murdering a female servant (who already had a three year old child by him) by giving her a fatal abortifacient.[7] Sir Henry Gould, the presiding judge, made no recommendation for mercy but added a requirement that Scott’s dead body be dissected and anatomized after he had been hanged. However, a private petition for mercy must have been made by a person or people of influence because by the following assizes his sentence had been commuted to transportation. 
One year later, John Bolton was accused of strangling his servant, Elizabeth Rainbow.[8] Bolton was a married man with five children who six years previously had taken in a young boy and girl (Elizabeth Rainbow) from a local foundling hospital to work and live in the family home. It is likely that Rainbow was in her teens when she died and the enquiry into her death revealed that she was pregnant with Bolton’s child at the time of her death. Bolton was convicted of her murder, sentenced to hang and his body dissected and anatomized, although he committed suicide in prison before the sentence could be carried out.
ECCO – Eighteenth-Century Collections On-line
The physical appearance of a female servant could play a significant part in her experience as a victim of a sexual assault. The broadside account of Bolton’s assault includes the prosecutor’s reference to the girl’s good looks in connection with the temptations to her master. He stated in his opening speech that “it was to be her misfortune to be handsome”, as if to explain Bolton’s behaviour, and it serves to underline the difficult position of a young girl living in close proximity with those on whom she was wholly dependent for her support and well-being.
The outcomes of master/servant relationships were unbalanced when many acts of new-born child murder were alleged to have been undertaken by female, domestic servants living with or near their employers, yet few women would have had the courage to accuse a master or his son of an initial rape. The fact that many servant girls appear to have given birth in secret in their employers’ houses is remarkable since it required a woman to keep her pregnancy secret. It is the secrecy surrounding a pregnancy and birth that raises questions as to whether other members of the household really were ignorant of a pregnancy or whether a ‘blind eye’ was turned unless, or until, the discovery of a baby’s body forced them to address the matter.
       The 1624 statute on concealment reversed the standard burden of proof, so that an unmarried woman accused of murdering her baby was obliged to prove her innocence.[9] Indictments for infanticide were viewed in terms of punishing immorality, although by the 1770’s there was far greater awareness of the vulnerability of domestic servants, in particular, and doubts were being expressed on the accuracy of available forensic evidence.
In general, while violence might be condoned when it was directed to uphold household order, recourse to the judicial process might be sought when a master or mistress was perceived to have abused those powers.

[1] 21 Hen. VIII c.7 (1529): Embezzlement by servants Act.
[2] TNA ASSI 45/20/1; ASSI 41/2, assizes, county of York, March 1735.
[3] TNA ASSI 45/22; TNA ASSI 42/6 gaol delivery, city of York, March 1742.
[4] WRY Rotherham, QS4/37, August 1771.
[5] 25 Edw. III Stat. 5. c.2 (1351), Treason Act.
[6] TNA ASSI 41/3, Crown minutes, York, March 1741.
[7] TNA ASSI 45/31/2; TNA ASSI 42/8; TNA, ASSI 41/6, York County, July 1774.
[8] Williamson, W. (c.1775) The Trial at Large of John Bolton, Gent., York.
[9] 21 Jac. I, c. 27 (1624): An Act to prevent the destroying and murdering of bastard children.