Thoughts and questions: written sources on 19th – early 20th century domestic violence

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street life in LondonIn the previous post, I outlined some of the written sources relating to 19th – early 20th century Domestic Violence (DV) that I’ve so far examined. This post briefly discusses preliminary thoughts on why and how these texts might inform PSP research.

Contextualising the present

As well as interesting in its own right, written evidence for DV in earlier periods is important when studying the recent past, most obviously in order to contextualise behaviour and thought, by considering change over time. It is important to know the extent to which, and in what ways, the past influences the present. By questioning relationships between ideas and practices over time, at varying scales of spatial analysis (the local, regional, national, global etc.), we are able to consider how wider structures (such as political institutions) not only affect what the individual and group does, but also how they think.

Put up and shut up?

Contrary to what popular culture might today lead us to believe, 19th – early 20th century sources indicate that not all saw DV as acceptable behaviour. Victims, neighbours, and the police and legal system, often contested and condemned abuse, which commonly included emotional abuse, such as threats and intimidation, and financial abuse, usually manifest in the withholding of income, as well as physical violence. But these sources also contain some of the potentially damaging attitudes that remain with us today: disbelief, notions of provocation, inadequate legal system and lack of support, and the salacious consumption of human misery as reported in newspapers.

Not unexpectedly, discrepancies are evident within and across even a few documentary sources, taken from only a small range of the written evidence, which acts to remind us not to reify communities by taking the voice of one or two, to speak for the many (a tendency I sometimes encounter through local and family history engagements).[i] These sources support what has been recognised through sociological, anthropological, and other historical studies, viz. that community identities are multifarious  shifting, situationally dependent, and enacted through the various social and cultural experiences that take place over time, within a given space (which itself is liable to change).[ii]

Same for everyone?

We certainly cannot essentialise DV experiences in the past: difference groups within communities encountered abuse in different ways – understandably, considering the varied social networks through which communities were made.[iii] Particularly important for my work is the realisation that, though ostensibly relating ‘what happened’ from the perspective of ‘insiders’, childhood memories, and the contemporary testimonies of men, and perhaps, many women, reflect very specific viewpoints.[iv] We cannot assume that all women were part of such networks – or even that support within these networks was assured.[v] Nor can we exclude the possibility that some children (and possibly some men) may have had access to otherwise closed female networks of mutual support centring upon the home – the older sister, on the fringe of adult female networks, might sometimes share information with her younger brother, who might also over hear ‘women’s talk’.[vi]

Questions, questions…

As I continue with research, the following questions (amongst others) will be in mind when analysing the sources relating to the neighbourhoods that PSP will study – though it is unlikely that I will be able to answer them to a satisfactory extent. To what extenthow and why did family and neighbours ‘stand by’ or protect women – especially those who ‘took’ a perpetrator of violence ‘to court’, particularly within areas defined as ‘poor’ and as ‘crime-ridden’? How were children ‘taught’ (explicitly and / or implicitly) and how did the learn about the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of DV, and in what ways might this have varied within and across time and place?[vii] And to what extent, and in what ways did men discuss DV, and how did this compare to actual practices?

I anticipate that bringing the potential material evidence into play when approaching these questions will be a significant challenge, but might first be approached by adopting geographical and ethnographic techniques, and exploring the built environment. To get the ball rolling, my initial – somewhat tentative and crude – foray into the material culture of DV is to consider the significance of the ‘belt’ and ‘strap’ in household violence, exploring the extent to which (and how and why) men may have used these objects in ‘correcting’ women. But as I continue, I hope to be able to refine the ways I approach the notion of material histories.

Surprise, surprise…

In this brief analysis, comparison of the local and regional sources that I have preliminarily examined, with the findings of wider research (which I continue to work through), there seems to be some correlation, although more work is needed to verify the accuracy of these impressions, and to determine any locally specific patterns. I look forward to continuing this research, through which I’m already encountering voices and actions from and in the past that (to me, somewhat surprisingly) have (so far) demonstrated kindness and support, as much as cruelty and aggression.

Notes

[i] This is not to deride the researches of ‘amateur’ family and local historians; merely to reflect common (though certainly not universal) emphasis upon the personal (as part of the familial ‘picture’), rather than the social or political. Conversely, many ‘professionals’ are also very interested in the details relating individual lives in the past, as well as the ‘bigger picture’.

Collaborative work holds the potential to produce histories of broader interest and value than ‘amateurs’ and ‘professionals’ (neither of which are homogeneous categories) working alone, incorporating more various interpretations that may inform future research. ‘Amateurs’ have often dedicated much time to very detailed research, which in some cases might be developed within micro histories. ‘Professionals’, with access to wider specialist skills and research on particular historical themes, periods, or material, may be able to develop and contextualise micro histories. Collaborative projects within the field of contemporary historical archaeology have yielded excellent results, from which we all might learn, e.g. Rachel Kiddey’s work with homeless collaborators in Bristol and York (2014 Homeless Heritage: collaborative social archaeology as therapeutic practice, University of York).

[ii] E.g. see Richard Jenkins’ Social Identities (2008)

[iii] See e.g. Ellen Ross’ ‘Survival Networks: Women’s Neighbourhood Sharing in London Before World War I’, History Workshop Journal 1983, pp. 4-28

[iv] Ibid.

[v] This is suggested reports made by charity workers, as well as some oral histories, as those “who keep themselves to themselves”, e.g. Maud Pember Reeves Round About a Pound a Week (1994 [1913]), and in situations of rivalry, e.g. as recorded in Robert Roberts The Classic Slum (1990 [1971]). However, we are again confronted by the possibility that commentators may have been unaware of all facets of social relationships.

[vi] For example, see Bryan Magee’s A Hoxton Childhood Clouds of Glory (2008)

[vii] Bryan Magee’s memoir (op. cit.) also touched upon this theme, in which he mention the “taboo” of boys hitting girls, and reflects upon the mysterious process by which children came to ‘know’ this taboo.

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