Charles Dickens and the Law: (5) Hard Times

In my piece about David Copperfield, I described the institution called Doctors’ Commons and how its demise had coincided with the enactment of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. In Hard Times, a brief exchange touches on this history a little later on.

When Stephen Blackpool, the novel’s unsung hero, begs his employer Josiah Bounderby to tell him whether there is any law which would help him to free himself from his drunken spendthrift wife, the conversation runs on like this:

“Now, I tell you what! There is such a law…. But it’s not for you at all. It costs money. It costs a mint of money.”

“How much might that be?”

“Why, you’d have to go to Doctor’s Commons with a suit, and you’d have to go to a court of Common Law with a suit, and you’d have to go to the House of Lords with a suit, and you’d have to get an Act of Parliament to enable you to marry again, and it would cost you (if it was a case of very plain-sailing), I suppose from thousand to fifteen hundred pound… Perhaps twice the money.”

“There’s no other law?”

“Certainly not.”

“Why then, sir”, said Stephen, turning white, and motioning with that right hand of his, as if he gave everything to the four winds, “’tis a muddle. ‘Tis just a muddle a’ together, and the sooner I am dead the better.”

“Pooh, pooh! Don’t you talk nonsense, my good fellow, about things you don’t understand; and don’t you call the Institutions of your country a muddle, or you’ll get yourself into a real muddle one of these fine mornings. The institutions of your country are not your piece-work, and the only thing you have got to do, is to mind your piece-work. You didn’t take your wife for fast and loose; but for better for worse. If she has turned out worse – why, all we have got to say is, she might have turned out better.”

Charles Dickens’ novel about Coketown, a Lancashire mill-town in the 1840s so redolent of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”, was first published in 1854.  Eight years earlier, in a passage from which Dickens drew his inspiration, Mr Justice Maule is reported as having told a defendant convicted of bigamy:

“Prisoner, you have been convicted of the grave crime of bigamy. The evidence is clear that your wife left you and your children to live in adultery with another man, and that you then intermarried with another woman, your wife being still alive. You say that this prosecution is an instrument of extortion on the part of the adulterer. Be it so; yet you had no right to take the law into your own hands.

I will tell you what you ought to have done; and if you say you did not know, I must tell you that the law conclusively presumes that you did. You ought to have instructed your attorney to bring an action against the seducer of your wife for criminal conversation. That would have cost you about a hundred pounds. When you had recovered (though not necessarily obtained) substantial damages against him, you should have instructed your proctor to sue in the Ecclesiastical Courts for a divorce a mensa et thoro. That would have cost you two hundred or three hundred pounds more.

When you had obtained a divorce a mensa et thoro, you should have appeared by counsel before the House of Lords in order to obtain a private Act of Parliament for a divorce a vinculo matrimonii which would have rendered you free and legally competent to marry the person whom you have taken on yourself to marry with no such sanction. The Bill might possibly have been opposed in all its stages in both Houses of Parliament, and altogether you would have had to spend about a thousand or twelve hundred pounds.

You will probably tell me that you never had a thousand farthings of your own in the world; but, prisoner, that makes no difference. Sitting here as an English judge, it is my duty to tell you that this is not a country in which there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. You will be imprisoned for one day, which period has already been exceeded as you have been in custody since the commencement of the Assizes.”

Between 1700 and 1857 there had been 314 private Acts of Parliament of this type, mostly initiated by wealthy husbands. Adultery was the sole grounds for divorce, although a wife might only obtain a divorce if her husband’s adultery was compounded by life-threatening cruelty.

It was against this background that the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was enacted. During the Bill’s passage through Parliament, William Gladstone (supported by the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, son of the anti-slavery campaigner and otherwise known as “Soapy Sam”) attempted to kill it by a filibuster, protesting that it represented a usurpation of the authority of the Church. The Bill achieved two main objects. It transferred the divorce jurisdiction of Parliament to a new Divorce Court, and it replaced the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastic courts in matrimonial matters , a reform which brought to an end the exclusive rights of the proctors in Doctors’ Commons to handle this type of litigation.

As I wrote in my David Copperfield piece:

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 created a new Divorce Court, in which barristers and advocates could both appear.  In future the law of England was to view marriage as a contract (which could be dissolved if one party was found guilty of conduct which the law regarded as a fundamental breach of the marriage contract) and not as a sacrament (when only a private Act of Parliament could dissolve a marriage).

Dickens must have been very pleased.

A little later, Mr Bowderby terminates Stephen Blackpool’s employment with immediate effect because although he has incurred unpopularity through his refusal to support a militant trade union faction at work, he also tells his employer bluntly that strong-arm tactics against the ring-leaders will achieve absolutely nothing.  There was no law to prevent summary dismissal for no just cause, even though the prospects of the dismissed employee obtaining alternative work in the same town were absolutely nil. Workers kept their jobs at the whim of their employer: hence the movement towards trade unionism which was a feature of the industrial relations scene in the Lancashire mills at the time. Indeed, three weeks after Hard Times began to run as a serial, strikes were still breaking out at four mill-towns in mid-Lancashire – at Wigan, Bacup, Burnley and Padiham.

Fast forward to the present day, and we read how it is being alleged that agency workers at a sports warehouse in Lancashire have been losing their jobs according to a three-strikes policy, whereby they may pick up a strike for lateness, “attitude”, absenteeism, chewing gum or some other  trivial infraction of company rules, and possibly all three strikes in a single shift.

Policies like this would not have been unfamiliar in Coketown nearly 200 years ago.

3 thoughts on “Charles Dickens and the Law: (5) Hard Times

  1. Alisdair Smith

    I live in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire which has a road called Doctors Common Road. I have never understood why it should be called that, there is obviously no Court building of any significance and no obvious practitioners although the road will pre-date 1857. Do you have any idea why it might have got that name?


  2. Pingback: Charles Dickens and the Law: (5) Hard Times — Henry Brooke – Bermuda Legal

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