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‘Four seas’ and an island delusion: some thoughts on ‘bastardy’ doctrines

[This was also posted last week on the Centre for Law and History blog]

In August 1850, a jury in Liverpool heard the case of Wright v. Holgate. The jurors’ job was to make a decision about the ‘legitimacy’ of a child, Tom Wright. Was this three-year-old the ‘lawful’ offspring of Thomas Wright, butcher and cattle dealer, and his late wife, Susannah, or was he another man’s son, and thus a ‘bastard’ (specifically, an ‘adulterine bastard’)? The question had arisen during a dispute about property of the Holgates, Susannah’s family, who were cattle dealers of some standing in the Halifax area. If Tom was ‘legitimate’, he had a share; if he was a ‘bastard’, he did not. The jury heard a selection of views on the former spouses from acquaintances and neighbours, brought in to comment on whether they had had the opportunity to have sex at the relevant time, so that Thomas might be Tom’s biological father, and on the character of Susannah. She was portrayed, in the somewhat gossipy testimony,  as ‘no better than she ought to be’, and given to entertaining a variety of men other than her husband at her house. After only a short discussion, the verdict of the twelve male jurors came back: ‘bastard’.[1]

 

As far as the law of the time was concerned, that was the end of Tom Wright’s importance, and, since the relevance of ‘bastardy’ in legal and social terms diminished massively over the course of the twentieth century, this case might well raise in the minds of modern legal scholars that cold dismissive phrase: ‘of no more than antiquarian interest’. Even so, I am going to use this post on our newly-launched blog to suggest that there are, in this case, and in this area, some things which are worth the attention of thoughtful legal scholars of the twenty-first century, as well as those of us who are unashamed of our antiquarian tendencies.

 

‘[B]ound in with the triumphant sea’ [2]

Though the case ended up in a common law court in the port city of Liverpool, much of the action had taken place inland, in Halifax and Rochdale. That being so, my maritime references might seem a bit inappropriate, but there is a justification for getting a bit nautical when considering the law of adulterine bastardy. Accounts of it often mention a particular test for whether or not a husband would be presumed to be the father of the child: had he been ‘within the four seas’ at relevant times for procreation? The phrase was mentioned in the judge’s summing up to the jury in Wright v. Holgate:

‘When a married woman has a child, the presumption is in favour of its legitimacy. Formerly, indeed, the presumption was, that if the husband continued within the four seas, and was alive at the child’s birth, such child could not be a bastard. But now the law allows inquiry…’

 

Here, we see the splendidly named judge, Sir Cresswell Cresswell, taking a moment to contrast the enlightened times in which he and the jurors were living with what he saw as the less perfect doctrine of former times. He felt it important to tell them that the question as to whether a husband was, or was not, ‘within the four seas’ at relevant points was once  something close to being decisive of the legitimacy of a child borne by his wife: if the opportunity of access was shown, using this criterion, no further inquiry as to the probability of there having been sex between the spouses, or the likelihood of somebody other than the husband being the child’s father, would be permitted. As well as the touch of self-satisfaction that things were so very much better in the world of 1850, we may note that there is something of a lack of specificity as to just when ‘formerly’ was. The legal past is an undifferentiated mass, unworthy of closer consideration.

In fact, the law on adulterine bastardy in general, and the place of the ‘four seas’ idea within it, had been far from unchanging over previous centuries. My research in this area has led me to conclude that the question of whether or not the husband was ‘within the four seas’ was not always – perhaps not usually – quite as central as Cresswell’s statement implies. The treatment of the ‘four seas’ phrase, from its first appearances in medieval cases,  shows different levels of emphasis, as well as movement between less and more literal understandings, and between geographical and political interpretations of the ‘seas’ and the land they were taken to enclose.

There were always difficulties with delineating the ‘four seas’. Despite Shakespeare’s best efforts to suggest that it was a ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’, England never has been, an ‘isle’ (‘sceptred’ or otherwise). The inconvenient existence of a land border, rather than a sea, between England and Scotland was never quite overcome, there were complications to the west: was Ireland ‘within’ or ‘without’ the western sea, and what of more distant ‘possessions’ of the English crown? The neat phrase ‘within the four seas’ did not make a very sure foundation for a rule about presumed legitimacy, and it was de-emphasised, and weakened in practical importance, from the eighteenth century onwards.

Its day was long over by 1850, yet it continued to hold the imagination of those discussing this area. Sir Cresswell Cresswell was not alone in his reference to ‘the four seas’; they continued to echo in commentary into the twentieth century. This lingering is probably due, in part, to the power of a well-turned phrase on the mind and memory of common lawyers. An attractive image or phrase may draw attemtion to one part of a more complex area of doctrine, at the expense of inconsistent or qualifying factors which are less amenable to neat encapsulation.[3]

That leads me to ask why ‘within the four seas’ was an attractive concept to common lawyers of the ninetennth and twentieth centuries. I would like to suggest that its appeal lay in its fitting in with broader currents in the self-image of the common law, as a robust, independent, intellectual ‘island’, keeping at bay the ‘foreign’ forces of civil law and canon law. The law on bastardy was marshalled as an example of the distinctive nature of common law, holding back the tide of other ideas. An account of another, more prominent, nineteenth century ‘adulterine bastardy’ case was, for example,  at pains to point out England’s defiance of attempts to introduce ‘foreign’ rules with regard to legitimation:

‘In England the sturdy independence of our ancestors soon checked the encroachments of the priesthood. Neither the civil nor the canon law ever formed part of the law of the land.’[4]

Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that there was mutual reinforcement between the idea of the common law as an intellectual island, aspects of its idiosyncratic and precocious centralised development acting somewhat as  ‘a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands’, and the idea of the pre-eminence of a test founded upon the assumed existence of England as a discrete and identifiable sea-bordered landmass.

 

Concluding and continuing thoughts: a father for ‘no man’s son’, dried up doctrine and Doggerland

I started with a young child, his future prospects apparently settled by a brief jury discussion and a stark verdict of ‘bastard’. Another phrase which will be familiar to those who have looked at this area, (or, indeed, at nineteenth century literature), would seem to apply: as a bastard, he was filius nullius – no man’s son. If he really was regarded as not having a father, we might have expected his care to be left to the local workhouse. I am cautiously optimistic, however, that entries I have found on the census for 1851 and 1861 show that Thomas Wright, despite having been found to be a ‘cuckolded’ husband, and not to be the father of Tom, did look after the child, providing a home for him in Rochdale, and setting him on his way to receiving at least some education. As with ‘within the four seas’, so with ‘filius nullius’:  too great a focus on a well-turned phrase, taking as literal what was understood to be at least partly metaphorical, could divert us from a more complicated reality.

Like the ‘four seas’ idea itself, much of the law which obtained in the case of Tom Wright has now been swept away, and, if we want to know who is a child’s biological father, then DNA testing can give a virtually conclusive answer. Nevertheless, I think these remnants have much to tell us about lives and thought of the past, about solutions to what seemed to be matters beyond human knowledge, about proof and policy, about how common lawyers of one era thought of and used the law of the even deeper past. Since we know that a vivid maritime image can stay with us, I will end with the one which always comes to my mind when dealing with such material: it is that of Doggerland – an area formerly of considerable human activity, now beneath the sea as a result of climate change. Most of us will never visit it, but it is important to know it is there, both for practical modern purposes, and also for deeper understanding of those who have navigated these spaces before us.

Thank you for your company on this brief voyage.

Gwen Seabourne

August, 2021.

[1] See, e.g., Times  20th July, p. 7 and 20th August 1850, p. 7, Manchester Guardian 21st August 1850, p.6. Halifax Guardian  24th  August 1850, p. 3,  27 July 1850, p. 7; Globe 20th  August 1850, p. 4; Evening Mail 22nd  July 1850, p. 3. Report: ER 175 503; 3 Car. & K 158.

[2] Shakespeare, Richard II, Act II, Scene 1, John of Gaunt.

[3] See, e.g., Andrew Culley and Michael Salter, ‘Why study metaphors?’,  K.C.L.J. 15 (2004), 347-366.

[4] Denis Le Marchant, Report of the Proceedings on the Claim to the Barony of Gardner (London, 1828), xxx.

Images – the watery one is from the port of Liverpool, ft. a dock of the period and some water, which seemed appropriate. The bovine one is a nod and a moo to the trade of the Holgates and Wrights – cattle in the Halifax area).

This material comes from a current project on bastardy, I will be presenting a fuller version as a paper at the Society of Legal Scholars conference in September 2021 (paper all written and recorded in case of emergency – so I did something useful in recent self-isolation!), and some of it will probably feature as part of a chapter I am writing for the ‘Known Unknowns’ project, headed by Dr Andrew Bell and Dr Joanna McCunn

“Whoso[ever] bulleth my cow …”; of beef and ‘bastardy’ in nineteenth-century Halifax

My current obsession is Wright v. Holgate, a case from 1850 (I know – ludicrously up to date …!). It is going to form part of a paper I’m giving at the SLS conference in Durham at the beginning of September. In fact, I have got so into it that I might use it as a sort of framing device for the whole thing.[1] The paper is about fairly doctrinal legal things (though I’d like to think that there are some deeper insights too) but there is certainly more to the case than I will have time to deal with there, so I think it deserves a bit of a blogging as well.

The case, which appears in contemporary newspaper reports and a law report,[2] starts with a will, that of a cattle dealer from Halifax (West Yorks) a certain Jonas Holgate. Let’s call him JH 1, since, as you might guess, what with naming of sons being a bit conservative at this point, there is also another Jonas Holgate who is relevant here, the less than lovely JH 2. Anyway, JH 1 owned some property in the Halifax area. There were several Holgate offspring, including JH 2 and a daughter, Susannah. JH 1’s will left shares of his property to each of the children, and after them, to their lawful offspring (i.e. legitimate children). By 1850, both JH 1 and Susannah were dead, and there were disputes about the property. The whole thing was in Chancery, under the name Patchett v Holgate, and there is more to it than this question, but one thing which did come up for argument was whether Susannah had lawful issue. A Master in Chancery reported in the affirmative: there was a son, Tom Wright, who was born to Susannah whilst she was married to one Thomas Wright (butcher and cattle dealer). So, young Tom would succeed, we might think. Easy. But no.

It was objected that the child was not the lawful issue of Susannah and Thomas, but was in fact a bastard (specifically an ‘adulterine bastard’): another man was the child’s biological father. Bizarre and cruel as it now seems, this question of legitimacy/bastardy was a crucial one at the time: if Tom was legitimate, he would get the property, but if he was a bastard, he would get nothing. It would be good for the other descendants of JH 1 – JH 2 amongst them – if he was found to be a bastard, since that would make their shares in the old man’s property bigger.

Why did the question of illegitimacy arise here, and how was it solved? Well, it is worth rewinding a few years and filling in some key details of the less-than-happy family life of the Holgate-Wright dynasty.  Susannah and Thomas had married in 1836. In 1839, however, they had separated ‘by mutual consent’. Tom was born on 7th March 1847.  At this point, Susannah and Thomas were still legally married: their separation appears to have been private or informal. There were allegations that Susannah had been having sex (or ‘connection’ as they prefer to say) with people other than Thomas during this separation. As the lawyers in the case make clear, however, the fact that other men might be the biological father of a child was not enough for the child to be held a ‘bastard’ at law – if there was some prospect that the husband was in fact the father – i.e., if he had had ‘access’ to Susannah at the relevant time – then the law was supposed to make it hard to ‘bastardise’ the child, deploying a presumption of legitimacy.

Thomas gave an affidavit, swearing that he had in fact had ‘connection’ with Susannah on a number of occasions since 1839. Both had remained within the same area, sometimes both in Halifax, and at other times Thomas went as far as Rochdale (Boobdale as one of the newspaper machine-transcribed accounts has it – foxed by a smudge along the bottom of the row – and I know I shouldn’t chuckle at breast-related slips, but, clearly, still got some growing up to do …) but actually that is not so very far from Halifax, and his cattle-focused work meant that he had to come to the cattle market at Halifax every so often. He stated that, on these occasions, he and Susannah had indulged in bouts of  outdoor connecting. This did not pass the lawyers without objection – one apparently finding Thomas’s claim that he had ‘had  intercourse with Susannah a number of times, in open air, within half a mile of Halifax’ ‘utterly incredible’.[3] There was some wrangling over what sort of evidence could be used to get to the bottom of paternity disputes like this. I will get into that a bit more in the SLS paper, but for now, let’s just say that it was decided to send the dispute about (il)legitimacy over to a common law court for determination, so off it went to Liverpool, to a hearing before Cresswell J (the marvellously named Sir Cresswell Cresswell) and a jury. It now goes under the name of Wright v. Holgate (or Holdgate), or in the English Reports, as Tom Wright (an infant) v. Jonas Holdgate and Others.

After the disputes about whether it was acceptable to hear Thomas Wright’s affidavit about bouts of spontaneous al fresco connecting with Susannah, one might have thought that care would be taken to ensure that only unimpeachably fair and relevant evidence was allowed to reach the jury’s ears. Not at all. There was a great deal of gossip about the deceased Susannah, who, clearly, was not able to defend her own reputation or her son’s interests. She was no better than she ought to be, and violent with it. It is hard to see how violence could be relevant to the issue, as opposed to simply being a bit of additional mud-slinging. More prejudicial than probative, anyone?  Probably not surprisingly, a jury of Victorian men who passed a cetain property qualification, decided to withdraw from her, from Tom and from Thomas the benefit of the doubt. A bastard Tom was found, and that was the end of his participation in the Chancery suit.

There is certainly much here which seems deeply questionable from a modern, liberal, perspective, in any case deploying the concept of ‘bastardy’. I think that there are also relevant criticisms of this particular case within its own time and terms – thus, I think that the interpretation of rules of evidential exclusion were inconsistent, and the summary of the law on bastardy prior to 1850 certainly included inaccuracies. More on all of that in the SLS paper.

The thing I want to finish on here is a little reflection about the role of Thomas Wright, and the fate of Tom Wright. As noted, following the decision in Liverpool, Tom Wright disappeared from the property case. He was a bastard, as far as the law was concerned. The case was focused on his status with regard to his mother’s family, but the finding also implied, as a matter of logic, that he was not the legitimate child of Thomas Wright either. Thomas would have been entirely within his rights to leave the child, and his maintenance to others, such as the local workhouse, or one of Susannah’s alleged ‘paramours’. Apparently he did not do this, however. I checked census returns for 1851 and 1861 and turned up something which struck me as a bit heart-warming. ‘Thomas Wright’ is not, of course, the rarest of names, but when I found a pair of Thomas Wrights living in Rochdale, with a man named Wilkinson (the same surname as of one of our Thomas Wright’s employers, in Rochdale), with young Tom having the right place and year of birth, and Thomas senior and John Wilkinson described as ‘butchers’, I think I can be cautiously optimistic that I have found a less-than-miserable ending for our pair. Thomas the elder has gone by 1861, but 14 year old Tom is now a ‘pupil teacher’, living with John Wilkinson and others, which does seem to indicate a degree of fortune greater than one might have imagined. Thomas Wright comes out of the story rather well, I think. He swooped in after Susannah’s death, when JH 2 had put Tom into the local workhouse, had paid for his care, and clearly had taken him off to try and make a life together in Rochdale. I suppose that, up to 1850, we might have interpreted this as an attempt to keep control of a potential cash-cow (sorry) – as Thomas did involve himself in the litigation surrounding JH 1’s property. After the finding of bastardy, however, any such ungenerous interpretation has to be abandoned. I think it’s hats off to Thomas Wright. Perhaps he was ‘in a low condition of life’, as one newspaper sneered,[4] but he comes across as rather less mean-spirited than others in the tale, and, in particular, the charmless uncle of young Tom, Jonas Holgate 2.

GS

1st August, 2021.

 

 

 

 

[1] It is a bit of a gift that the case has a heavily bovine context, since there is a frequently-trotted-out proverb about legitimacy and marriage in medieval and later sources, ‘Whoso bulleth my cow, the calf is mine’ – grim but memorable, isn’t it? Will be working with that, though have rejected a more elaborate metaphorical structure running that proverb together with another common tag in adulterine bastardy, relating to the husband’s presence ‘within the four seas’. May have looked up ‘sea cows’ at one point, and toyed with the idea of finishing with a picture of a Steller’s sea cow (extinct), but luckily realised that that was too pretentious even for me.

[2] Newpapers, see, e.g., Times  20th July, p. 7 and 20th August 1850, p. 7, Manchester Guardian 21st August 1850, p.6. Halifax Guardian  24th  August 1850, p. 3,  27 July 1850, p. 7; Globe 20th  August 1850, p. 4; Evening Mail 22nd  July 1850, p. 3. Report: ER 175 503; 3 Car. & K 158. (There are also potentially relevant papers in the National Archives: TNA C 14/847/H142, but I am still not able to get at those).

[3] Evening Mail 22nd  July p. 3.

[4] Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 24th  August 1850 p. 8.

Photo by Quaritsch Photography on Unsplash