On a bit of a fishing trip for coverture snippets in 19th C newspapers (diolch unwaith eto, Welsh Newspapers Online), to get a sense of ‘lay’ understanding of the law in this area, it came home to me how interested, and how frequently disapproving, 19th C newspapers were when use was made of coverture as a defence to a claim for payment – i.e. when a woman said that she was not obliged to pay a sum of money, because she was married at the relevant time. The tone of reports is very much that this is something of a dodge. My instinct is always to be on the woman’s side (not an academic article, so I don’t have to pretend to be all neutral observery) since she is there existing within a system which does not work in her favour on the whole, and why should she not use this defence, which comes as the logical consequence of discriminatory property rules? She might well be married, so why should she not use that fact?
There is what struck me as a slightly unusual report of this sort in the Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser for 15th February 1850. This tells of a case in far-away Warwick, at the county court. There, the ‘buxom dame’ of my title, a certain Mrs Knowles, was facing one Mr Tidmarsh, a draper. The woman was dressed in mourning clothes, ‘weeds’, to mark the passing of her recently deceased husband, and the draper was trying to make sure that he was paid for supplying them: ‘£5 17s. for funeral articles of female attire’. The potential problem for the likes of Mrs Knowles was one of timing: we would imagine that the mourning attire would be ordered after her husband’s death, and that, therefore, she would be a widow. That, in turn, would mean that she was not a feme covert any longer, and could not use the coverture defence to a claim for payment for the clothes. Mrs Knowles, however, had an answer to that: she had, she said, ordered the clothes during her husband’s life, at his command. She thought that that would put the deal safely back into the ‘during coverture’ time-frame, and let Mrs Knowles off the hook. It didn’t work, however – coverture did not cover what was thought to be ‘too ready compliance’ with a request to get the mourning clothes sorted. Drapers and suppliers of gloomy black things across the country probably breathed a sigh of relief. Had it gone the other way, they might have had real problems getting paid when a husband died.
Maybe Mrs Knowles was ‘trying it on’, but the idea that Mr Knowles had in fact given a ‘dying command’ of this sort isn’t entirely impossible, is it? The Victorians were so very formal and maudlin about death ritual that I can just about imagine some expiring bloke obsessing about what his (buxom) wife would wear at the funeral, and trying to get it all organised ahead of time.
Anyway, as it turned out, Mrs K would have had to stump up for the deathwear – but at least the prevailing custom of remaining in black for quite some time would have meant that she would get a decent amount of use out of it, I suppose.