Today, I am researching (in so far as it is possible, without usual access to libraries, archives etc.) a late instance of the writ de ventre inspiciendo – ordering the inspection of a woman claiming pregnancy, by women, in civil proceedings. It has come up in my research on ‘Unknowns at the Start of Life’ for a swiftly approaching paper (April), and needs a bit of thought. The case was heard in Knight Bruce VC’s court, on 8th May, 1845.[i]
It involved a dispute about a trust. A ‘gentleman of the name of Blakemore’ had some property – he held it as tenant for life, and the remainder was held by trustees on a thousand year term, on trust to provide money for Blakemore’s issue, and the remainder was for the people bringing the action here.
The petitioners were not able simply to have the property, however, because there was a competing claim, from the ‘gentleman of the name of Blakemore’s wife: this woman claimed to be pregnant with Blakemore’s child, and, if that was so, then the child would be entitled to money from the trust. It was therefore in the interest of the petitioners to cast doubt on this claim to be pregnant with Blakemore’s child.
The petitioners proceeded with the doubt-casting by portraying both Blakemore and his widow as dubious characters. It is not altogether clear why they needed to have a go at Blakemore himself, but apparently there were affidavits which ‘represented [him] to have been a man of dissolute and intemperate habits’. It was probably with a view to having a go at both of the spouses that they stressed that he had ‘married the barmaid of an inn in Wales’ (not just some barmaid, but a Welsh barmaid – just at the time that Welsh women were about to be insulted quite horrendously in the treacherous Blue Books, as being of extremely easy virtue). Blakemore had, so they said, come to London, leaving his Welsh barmaid wife behind, and died in January 1845. He was dead then, so the petitioners couldn’t have a go at him any further, but they had not finished with the widow Blakemore. They said that she had ‘carried on adulterous intercourse’ with the groom of her husband, during the latter’s absence before his death, and after she was widowed, had started to live with the groom ‘as man and wife’ (and as if that was not bad enough ‘at a certain public-house in Wales’, and the ‘subsisting connection’ was ‘one of sin’ (rather than there having been a second marriage).
The report is a little telegraphic (v. much the latest thing – see how on point my tech reference is?) but it is clear that an order was made for an inspection of the widow, by a ‘jury of women’. Although some of the evidence on behalf of the petitioners seems to have been not that the widow was not pregnant, but that she was not pregnant with her dead husband’s child, the inspection would not have been of any value in relation to that issue. Perhaps the point is that they were trying to discredit both the existence of a pregnancy which had begun during the marriage, and also, if that failed, to do the more difficult job of rebutting the presumption that the child of a married woman was her husband’s issue. This had become a little less difficult in the first part of the 19th C, but very strong evidence was still required.
So, the petitioners’ case can, perhaps be understood. The puzzle, from my point of view, is that there does not seem to have been much interest in the press. Why did I expect that there would be? Well, sex, adultery, class, bashing the Welsh – good ways of getting people to read your paper, I would have thought. Then there is also the de ventre inspiciendo process itself – now something of a rarity in civil cases, and, when it was proposed in a case in 1835 (of which more in a later post) it was considered quite, quite scandalous, and cruel. Could the difference possibly have been that between a respectable English tradesman’s wife – easily believed to be too delicate to be poked and prodded (the situation in the Fox case of 1835)– and a Welsh barmaid, who could not be imagined to have any finer feelings? Surely not.
Further details on the parties, the story, and whether there ever was an inspection of the body of the much-maligned Welshwoman will have to await the great re-opening of the archives. Another one for the pile!
[i] Blakemore v Blakemore 1 Holt Eq. 328; 71 ER 769; In re Blakemore, 14 L.J. (NS) Ch. 336 (1845).