Working-Class Women And The Contest For Consumer Control In Victorian County Courts

Working-Class Women And The Contest For Consumer Control In Victorian County Courts – )

Margot Finn

Recent historical writing on British economic culture has been marked by a trend away from production-orientated and toward consumption-orientated analysis. Motivated in part by the waning of Britain’s industrial base, this evolving trend reflects historians’ broader disillusion with the descriptive and explanatory value of the concept of the industrial revolution.(1) It is also a logical outcome of the development of women’s history. For by focusing attention on persons whose working lives were often located outside the formal economy and whose economic activities were as much implicated in the reproduction of families as they were in the production of marketable goods, historians of women have lent new academic legitimacy to the study of the varied consumer strategies by which households were provisioned in the past. In doing so, they have helped to shift scholarly interest away from supply to demand, generating a growing awareness of the myriad intersections between class and gender identities which has now preoccupied historians for more than a decade.(2) This article builds upon these evolving lines of argument about class and gender by probing middle-class perceptions of plebeian debt. Exploring a nexus of largely unexamined questions about the links that bound men and women in labour and consumer markets, it underlines the extent to which gender, class and consumer identities disrupted Victorian conceptions of economic agency and thereby contributed to the decline of liberal individualism that marked later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British culture.

The characteristic features of the historiographical transition from production to consumption in British scholarship are nicely illustrated in the differences which mark two particularly influential studies of working-class life in the Victorian period, Gareth Stedman Jones’s classic Outcast London (1971) and Ellen Ross’s more recent Love and Toil (1993).(3) Where Stedman Jones, a quarter of a century ago, was concerned to detail the decline of London as an industrial centre, to reveal the seasonality of metropolitan production and to illuminate the structure of the male casual labour market, Ross frames her study with the problems of feeding the family, marriage, parturition and child-rearing. Drawing upon many of the same primary sources — Andrew Mearns, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883); the records of the Victorian Charity Organisation Society; Charles Booth’s magisterial Life and Labour of the People in London (1902) — these two authors have none the less reconstructed two fundamentally different world views. For Stedman Jones, it was the demands of production, wage labour and the state above all else which determined the experience of poverty in the metropolis, and it was the bourgeois ideology of free labour markets which decisively shaped the tenor of class relations. For Ross, in contrast, the economic life of the London poor was moulded by a fluid range of stratagems, makeshifts and expedients. Focused on consumption and bounded only at one remove by formal parameters such as wage rates, levels of unionization and parliamentary legislation, the behaviours and practices detailed in her study are informed by the characteristic expectations of popular culture, by systems of belief and meaning far removed from the market ideology espoused by the dominant elite.(4)

Much has been gained by historians’ increasing interest in the informal economy inhabited, inspired and animated by working-class women. Shaped by the perspectives of cultural anthropology, this approach is particularly successful in capturing the quotidian, in restoring to historical significance the mundane activities and rituals that composed the fabric of daily life among the working population in the later nineteenth century,(5) But social historians’ trend away from the analysis of formal institutional frameworks is also problematic. For, if attention to the minutiae of the female world of domestic management reveals a wealth of information about the historical experience of women and children hitherto hidden from history, it can also obscure the ways in which historical change was mediated by the overarching structures of the state. Thus Ross’s narrative — in striking contrast to Stedman Jones’s earlier analysis of the male realms of the labour market — depicts the polity as impinging significantly on women’s familial and neighbourhood networks only with the rise of the Infant Welfare movement in the early twentieth century. Figuring explicitly in her analysis as an episode in the long history of `medicine-as-social-control’, the intrusive advice, inspections and responsibilities thrust upon mothers by proponents of this movement, Ross suggests, first introduced working-class women to the state’s overwhelmingly adversarial legal system.(6)

To be sure, the economic disadvantages and legal disabilities suffered by working-class women in the Victorian era limited their voluntary engagement with state structures and could render their restricted relations with government officials highly fraught. But a growing body of secondary literature suggests that the extent of women’s exclusion from — and subjugation by — state institutions was conflicted and partial rather than uniform and universal. In separate investigations of the mid-Victorian Divorce Court, for example, James Hammerton and Gail Savage have found that the patriarchal assumptions which pervaded legal theory were often attenuated in practice, transforming a court explicitly designed to protect the rights of propertied men into an effective advocate of the interests of middle- and even working-class women.(7) At a less lofty level on the socio-economic scale the same slippage between legislative intent and legal outcome was conspicuously evident. In the breach-of-promise suits brought by women of the lower middle class, as in the magistrates’ courts which adjudicated plebeian marital disputes, the ability of non-elite women to negotiate and mitigate their position of economic and legal subordination was clearly manifest.(8)

This article, similarly, underlines the Janus-faced operation of legal structures established to contain the unruly behaviours of the Victorian working class. Focusing on the role played by the nation’s newly established county-court system in mediating disputes between plebeian debtors and their creditors, it explores the ways in which modern government institutions — and the working-class defendants captured by their processes — worked to complicate the free market in consumer goods. Confronted by a legal system which — by upholding freedom of contract — purported to represent the best interests of the buyer even as it guaranteed the profits of the seller, working-class debtors fashioned an array of strategies and devices with which to stave off demands for payment for their purchases. In this context, working-class women not only engaged actively in a range of economic activities from which the law had formally excluded them, but also deployed a series of received stereotypes about the inherent frailties of female `nature’ to their own — and their husbands’ — advantage. They were often assisted in these strategic manoeuvres by government-appointed judges who used the county court system as a public forum in which to articulate their own distinctive conception of a moral economy insulated from the full force of market mechanisms. Together with the retail tradesmen who provisioned working-class communities these court officers and defendants engaged in a wide-ranging contest for control over consumer behaviour. The nature and course of this dispute demonstrate the extent to which working-class women of the Victorian era were enmeshed in legal processes, rather than positioned in clear and unequivocal opposition to them, and underline the importance of situating the experience of consumption more securely within the institutional framework of the law. More broadly, this perspective on women, class and consumption suggests the need to rethink the received history of the demoralization of the English market in the nineteenth century and to reassess the extent to which the goods which circulated within the later Victorian market figured as components of a modern commodity culture.(9)


Established by statute in 1846, the Victorian county courts were intended to expedite and systematize small claims procedures in England and Wales. A national reticulation of 449 court-towns served by 56 circuit judges appointed by the Lord Chancellor, this new system effectively supplanted the haphazard welter of local jurisdictions which had hitherto made the collection of small debts a byword for inefficiency, corruption and strife.(10) Suitors in the county courts could seek redress from recalcitrant debtors by following a protocol of simple and inexpensive procedures which began with the entry of a plaint against the defendant with the local court registrar.(11) Typically, the registrar’s summons to appear before the court set an appearance date of four to six weeks from service of the summons, which in a significant minority of cases was itself sufficient to effect settlement of the debt without a court appearance.(12) For those litigants who proceeded to a court hearing, legal representation was neither necessary nor encouraged, and juries — available when specifically requested by litigants in suits for debts valued at over 5 [pounds sterling] — were rarely employed. Judges and their registrars determined county-court cases according to a range of evidence which comprised informal oral testimony, hearsay and written records presented by litigants. They not only possessed but also actively exercised substantial discretion in the formulation of their judgements from this evidence. Court officers dispatched most suits with great speed — cases in the West Hartlepool court in 1910, for example, were determined at a rate of one suit every 85 seconds(13) — but a desire on the part of any of the participants to draw attention to the particular merits or meanings of a given case could result in prolix, at times histrionic, examinations, declamations and judgements.

With judges empowered to order payment for debts of 50 [pounds sterling] or less in small instalments and to commit petty debtors to prison for up to six weeks at a time should they default on these payments, the county courts rapidly came to play a significant role in regulating the economic life of the labouring population. The sheer volume of litigation in these courts attests to their growing purchase on consumer relations. Creditors entered over 18m. plaints to recover debts valued at over 48m. [pounds sterling] in county courts between 1847 and 1872; the annual figure of 863,300 plaints entered in 1873 had, by 1901, risen to a yearly total of 1,193,895.(14) The evolution of these courts in the nineteenth century, although little studied by historians, was freighted with significant implications for legal reform. More swift, far cheaper and less complex than the processes of the Queen’s Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas in London, the inferior county courts soon outpaced these superior courts as the chief legal venues for debt collection.(15) Their summary procedures also exerted a profound impact on the structure of justice in the counties, sharply reducing the business of local assizes and substantially diminishing resort to trial by jury in civil cases.(16)

Designed and much-vaunted by their proponents as tribunals of modern commerce which would liberate trade from the trammels of feudalism, favouritism and localism (the supposed hallmarks of the manorial jurisdictions, borough and hundred courts, and courts of requests which they had largely replaced), county courts stood at the forefront of the modernization of commercial law. Potent symbols of freedom of contract and the free market, they were ardently championed by Lord Brougham — Whig reformer, free trader and disciple of Bentham — and formed a key component of the larger campaign of legal reform by which, in the words of W. R. Cornish and G. de N. Clark, `in the half century after 1830 the overgrown thicket of civil courts was formed, by hard pruning and some replanting, into an ordered plantation’.(17) Thomas Denman neatly captured the essence of contemporaries’ understanding of the character of these new courts in a letter to Brougham in 1851. Describing a cartoon in Punch which contrasted the county courts and the superior courts by comparing them, respectively, to a rail coach and a stage coach, Denman hailed these new summary tribunals as evidence that `the Reform principle is… powerfully at work in the public mind’.(18) Indeed, by reducing legal costs, allowing plaintiffs and defendants to litigate small debts directly rather than (as in common law courts) only indirectly through their witnesses and counsel, and permitting married women (notwithstanding their coverture) to give evidence on behalf of their husbands, the county-court procedures established in 1846 bore the characteristic impress of utilitarian legal reform.(19) As Thomas Falconer, himself a county court judge and avowed disciple of utilitarianism, argued in 1873, the courts were instrumental in `bringing into operation the proposals of Mr. Bentham, in his celebrated work on Evidence, to permit the examination, as witnesses, of parties and interested parties’, and demonstrated `the enormous extent to which suitors are plundered and have been plundered in the Superior Courts through needless and prolix proceedings’.(20)

Yet, as even a cursory examination of their constituents and proceedings makes abundantly clear, the modern carapace of the new county courts did little to conceal their deeper implication with entrenched social hierarchies, beliefs and practices. Systematic information on county-court judges’ socio-economic profile is admittedly scarce, but the burden of existing evidence suggests that they — like the wider judicial bench in this period(21) — derived the bulk of their wealth from non-industrial employments. Obituaries of county-court judges active in the mid-Victorian years consistently pointed to their integration with the established professional elites of the church, the military, the civil service, the law, the academy and parliament, rather than to a substantial association with commerce and manufacture. Many had attended elite public schools and most had matriculated at Oxford or Cambridge, where several had been fellows of a college prior to their appointment to the county court.(22) Fitting naturally into the traditional structures of local administration, county-court judges such as William Gurdon of Colchester, James Francillon of Gloucester and Edward Lewis Richards of Denbighshire, for example, served as chairmen of Quarter Sessions in their localities. Other judges were conspicuous among the ranks of the governing elite at the national level. George Clive resigned from Southwark county court to become MP for Hereford and subsequently served as an under-secretary of State for the Home Department, while Thomas Falconer of Cardiff had previously served as Colonial Secretary of Western Australia.(23) The obituaries of George Lake Russell of Bloomsbury and William Spooner of North Staffordshire illustrate the extent to which the arbiters of the new county courts were enmeshed in venerable elite traditions of power. Educated at Eton and Christ’s College, Cambridge, Russell was the youngest son of a baronet who had served as chief of the Supreme Court of Justice in Bengal. His mother was a sister of Lord Whitworth, and his wife was the youngest daughter of the first earl of Limerick. Spooner, who had taken a second-class degree in classics at Oriel College, Oxford, was the son of the archdeacon of Coventry and was a magistrate for Staffordshire. Related on his mother’s side to the hereditary peerage, he was a brother-in-law of the archbishop of Canterbury and the nephew of a former MP for Birmingham.(24)

In their social provenance, county-court judges thus belonged to the established `upper social stratum of London society’, the elite which Stedman Jones in Outcast London argued played a decisive role, `in formulating the predominant propertied attitudes towards the casual poor in the mid-Victorian period’.(25) Assessing this elite’s contribution to Victorian class — but not gender — relations, Stedman Jones underlined the extent to which the perspective of the upper middle class in general (and of liberal professionals in particular) was informed by a market-orientated critique of charity. This interpretation, grounded in a materialist historiographical tradition which privileges production over consumption, identifies promiscuous charitable giving as the chief perceived obstacle, in the eyes of middle-class professionals, to productive labour, and thence to the development of social behaviours and cultural attributes such as thrift, self-help and self-control among the working-class population. The tenor of liberal professionals’ interactions with the poor was, in this view, coloured above all else by their conviction that only the discipline of the free market could prevent the pauperization and demoralization of the working class.(26) Here the market is — problematically — represented as a labour market, rather than a labour and a consumer market, and economic agents are depicted as men, rather than as men and women.

Stedman Jones’s assessment of the self-interested adherence to free market ideology which shaped Victorian professionals’ approach to charitable giving has, more recently, been echoed by historians of the county court. Gerry Rubin’s pioneering work on the interactions of retailers, working-class consumers and county-court judges is exemplary in this regard. Rubin acknowledges that, `at least some’ county-court judges were `subject to influences not wholly dependant on the economic “substructure”‘, and thus that paternalist antagonism to petty tradesmen at times tempered the judgements meted out to working-class debtors. But he ultimately upholds the county courts as institutions which imposed market mechanisms on the poor while insulating the propertied from the full play of free trade. Focusing on capitalism and class as the central axes around which English legal processes revolved, Rubin presents the county courts as institutions `predominantly grounded in a market ideology’, and depicts judicial departures from this reigning system of belief as `maverick’ reactions which betrayed judges’ `personal prejudices’ against `”fringe” capitalists’ such as tallymen, money lenders and debt collectors, `who operated on the margins of the retailing and financial worlds’.(27) Paul Johnson has elaborated this representation of middle-class market morality in the county courts, finding that, `while the rhetoric of nineteenth-century law reform emphasized the simplification and standardization of the law to fit the new requirements of a competitive market economy, the practice was quite different’. In this view, `the way in which class-based legal prejudice was combined with the supposedly value-free operation of untrammelled market competition makes the working of class law in Victorian times distinct from that of earlier periods’.(28)

Indeed, evidence of broad-ranging legal and legislative bias against workers abounds in the legal literature of this period, for in policing the commercial activities of the labouring population, lawyers and legislators alike distinguished sharply between the economic failings of the lesser and the economic interests of the great. By representing the Victorian county courts’ partisan function in maintaining supposedly free consumer markets as a mechanism analogous to the function of the poor laws in maintaining free labour markets, Johnson and Rubin have identified an essential feature of the courts’ operation. The records of county-court proceedings are alive with exhortations to plebeian thrift, replete with condemnations of dissolute working-class expenditure and larded with judges’ encomia to the virtues of labour for the poor. In this they amply confirm existing reconstructions of mid-Victorian attitudes toward the working masses. Arthur James Johnes, judge of the Oswestry circuit, was typical of many judges in 1868. Convinced that imprisonment for debt by the county courts was `the only remaining practical check on knavish and unprincipled debtors’, Johnes insisted, `the great majority of County Court cases are the results of drunkenness’.(29) Little had changed in this strand of judicial opinion two decades later. `If imprisonment for debt were to be altogether abolished a further premium upon drunkenness and dishonesty would be offered’, the judge of Barrow county court opined in 1883: `He knew of cases where young men had been made sober by the judge being determined to send them to gaol if they did not strive to pay their debts’.(30)

Yet, if few county-court judges questioned the manifest benefits of work and temperance for the labouring population, many were none the less sceptical about the ability of thrift and perseverance alone to insulate workers from the incidental vagaries of the labour market. Citing Malthus as his authority, Johnes was himself emphatic on this point in 1869. `The evil involved is Poverty, which is the inheritance of mankind’, he argued in analyzing working-class indebtedness: `Credit is the corrective of that evil as, in a civilized country, it enables a man who is without present means, to tide over, by aid of the capitalist, temporary vicissitudes, which in a savage state, would involve him in ruin and starvation’. In his interpretation, prospective thrift was palpably incapable of securing the subsistence of the labouring population: `The great mass of the working classes are respectable, sober, and frugal. And yet almost all of them require credit. Why? Simply because very few of them can afford — out of their earnings- to save a fund of ready money’.(31)

Henry Stonor, county-court judge for the working-class districts of Southwark and Wandsworth, rehearsed these opinions in defending the perpetuation of imprisonment for debt in 1880. `Now I cannot help remarking at the outset that in this country, where the climate and the labour market are equally uncertain, and the rate of wages in so many districts and localities exceptionally low, it is quite idle to expect the labouring man to provide by his own savings for the extraordinary contingencies to which he is liable’, Stonor reasoned in his court, `and therefore, in my humble opinion, the limited credit which he requires and now obtains is not only a benefit but a necessity, both as regards himself and the rest of the community’.(32)

In its broad outlines, the economic perspective of these judges was not incompatible with the harsh market moralism which Stedman Jones, Johnson and Rubin argue was characteristic of the Victorian upper middle class. Just as members of groups such as the Charity Organisation Society acknowledged that short-term disruptions in the labour market could render even the industrious worker a fitting object of selective and temporary charity, so too county-court judges such as Johnes and Stonor argued that the studied extension of credit by shopkeepers represented an appropriate response to the short-term cessation of a working-class consumer’s wages. In this view, where well-regulated charity functioned to prevent the accumulation of undue debts in times of distress, the well-regulated county court worked to secure the repayment of debts inevitably contracted when these distressing circumstances went unrelieved by philanthropy. Here, rather than challenging the notion of the benign self-regulating market, charity and the county courts served as complementary mechanisms by which the theoretical beneficence of the invisible hand could be reconciled with the mundane requirements of day-to-day existence.

But in emphasizing the impact of the courts upon the male labourers who, if unable or unwilling to pay their debts, faced imprisonment by county-court judges, historians have discounted the extent to which the activities of these workers’ wives complicated the county courts’ role in upholding freedom of contract and the free market. Indeed, attending to the gendered dimensions of working-class consumption and county-court practice reveals that the Victorian debate on pauperization was both more nuanced and qualitatively different than previous historians have suggested. Far from endorsing an undifferentiated free market as the choice mechanism for disciplining working-class behaviour, many of the liberal professionals who served as judges in the county courts used these platforms to direct public attention to the distinctive moral economies of the market for labour or persons, on the one hand, and the market for goods or things, on the other. Certainly, judges who rigidly upheld laissez-faire economics were prominent in the annals of the county court, but judges who openly contested the moral wisdom of unregulated consumption were also conspicuously evident. Here the antinomies of Victorian gender identity, rather than merely judges’ `personal prejudices’ or `maverick’ antipathies to `fringe’ capitalists such as tallymen and moneylenders, were of central importance. For, if the Victorian labour market was increasingly conceived as an exclusively male domain, even in the face of substantial evidence of women’s participation in the wage economy,(33) the Victorian consumer market was conventionally conceptualized as a female sphere of economic activity, despite married men’s exclusive liability for household debts contracted by their wives.(34) In the early nineteenth century, disquiet as to women workers’ ability to enter freely into labour contracts had promoted legislation that restricted their employment in mines and factories.(35) In the later nineteenth century, mounting concern about females’ ability to negotiate the moral maze of the consumer market fostered efforts by Victorian county-court judges to reduce women’s vulnerability to unscrupulous merchants. In thus uncoupling the male and female labour and consumer markets, a host of county-court judges came to question the virtues of free consumer markets and impersonal consumer contracts.(36)


Central to the conflict over working-class consumption in the Victorian county courts was the conspicuous disjuncture between the common-law principle of coverture, on the one hand, and the commonplace practices of female domestic management, on the other. Denied the ability to enter into binding economic contracts, married women of the Victorian era were none the less fully responsible for securing the goods which supplied the daily needs of their households. Thus, while prevailing legal norms circumscribed their economic agency, prevailing social expectations required them to exercise considerable economic initiative. Among working-class wives, the tensions between these two systems of belief and practice were especially acute. Confined by their husbands’ wages to an exiguous weekly budget which fluctuated with the labour market, these women were habitually caught between the Scylla of the pawnshop and the Charybdis of credit purchasing.(37) But here the law of coverture provided more room for female economic ingenuity than is typically acknowledged. For, although the common law prevented married women from entering into credit contracts for luxury goods, judges in superior and inferior courts alike recognized the so-called `law of necessaries’, a doctrine encompassed within the law of coverture which empowered a wife to deploy her husband’s credit to purchase goods deemed `necessary’ or `suitable to his own station in life’. Married women were consequently at once hobbled and emancipated by coverture, which endowed them with the right to make credit purchases for which only their husbands were legally liable.(38)

The law of necessaries provided one of two essential components of the legal backdrop against which the extended discourse by county-court judges on the morality of the free consumer market was enacted. The second of these two components derived from the county courts’ convention of allowing wives to testify in their husbands’ disputes. Where the superior common law courts, in deference to the principle of coverture, prohibited wives from appearing on behalf of their husbands, the inferior county courts deferred instead to the logic of the law of necessaries, which allowed married women to act as their husbands’ agents in consumer transactions. Thus, they permitted wives to appear either alongside or in place of their husbands in the cases for small debts which fell within their jurisdiction. Within the arena of the county courts, working-class women were in consequence able to behave as if they were active economic agents, notwithstanding their common law definition as economic nonentities.(39)

A case heard in the Cheltenham county court in 1853 before James Francillon illustrates the ways that these practices disrupted received beliefs about the moral virtues of both female economic passivity and free market mechanisms. Here, as in other cases which came within his purview, Francillon — whose diary reveals a genteel, professional lifestyle delimited by his county-court circuit, service as the chairman of the second court of the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions and the less onerous activities entailed by membership of the local social elite(40) — adopted an openly paternalistic stance which, in the context of county-court litigation, led him to distinctively modern, even feminist conclusions. The case involved two male litigants: the publican plaintiff had sued a local market gardener named Selwood to recover a debt of 2 [pounds sterling] 17s. 5d., owed for an unpaid beer-score. Because of her coverture, the defendant’s wife was excluded from the court’s documentation of the case. But owing to the emancipated conventions of county-court practice, Mrs Selwood’s formidable person loomed large in the court’s proceedings. Under Francillon’s benignant care, she testified at length about her husband’s moral and economic failings, underlining both his inability to govern his economic passions and her own heroic efforts to protect him from the temptations of the alcoholic market. Describing her spouse as being `of very dissipated habits, and very idle, leaving her to maintain her very large family entirely out of her own exertions’, she detailed repeated efforts to prevent local publicans from providing him with drink, and recounted with relish her attempt to intimidate the plaintiff by calling on him and threatening, `that she would not pay without bringing the case before the Judge, that she might explain to his Honour how they had harboured her husband on Sundays, and while he was intoxicated’.(41)

Francillon’s response to her plea nicely illustrates the contradictions which shot through Victorian understandings of gender and the market. Required by the common law to recognize Mrs Selwood’s legal and economic nonentity, he was bound in conscience (and enabled by county-court practice) to hail her repeated initiatives in these conventionally male spheres of activity, and so came to challenge both the received ideal of female passivity and the wisdom of the overarching legal structures by which this stereotypical female quiescence was maintained. His judgement denigrated the common law’s submersion of a wife’s legal identity under that of her husband and explicitly reversed conventional gender roles by endorsing Mrs Selwood’s independent efforts to control her husband’s purse:

His Honour said that in giving judgement in this case, he had every

disposition to decide in favour of the defendant; and he was exceedingly

pleased with the manner in which his wife — evidently a hardworking

respectable woman — had endeavoured to prevent the plaintiff from allowing

her husband to run into debt; but, unfortunately, the law — although it

allowed a husband to get rid of his liability for his wife’s debts, after

giving a notice of this sort — did not allow to the wife the same

privilege. And, therefore, however much he might sympathize with Mrs.

Selwood, and however much he might wish for this particular case that the

law was different, his duty, unfortunately, was to administer the law as he

found it, and he should be bound therefore to give judgement for the


Having called upon `some independent member of the Legislature’ to effect a statutory reform of the law, Francillon proceeded to use his discretionary powers to discipline not the erring defendant, but rather the erring plaintiff. His judgement distinguished sharply between moral and immoral transactions rather than endorsing the free play of the consumer market. Finding that `inasmuch as some portion of the liquor was evidently supplied to the man while in a state of intoxication, and other portions supplied on a Sunday, and for gambling purposes’, Francillon ruled that `he should strike off the 17s. 5d. from the amount claimed, and give judgement for plaintiff for 21. only; and he should also further mark his opinion of the plaintiff’s conduct, by ordering payment only at the rate of Is. per week’.(42)

Francillon’s disquisition fit easily with wider middle-class concerns that workers be made to exercise self-restraint, even as it illustrates Rubin’s observations about county-court judges’ hostility to the pedlars, publicans and shopkeepers who constituted the market in which workers purchased everyday goods. But if Francillon’s antagonism to such tradesmen fell along predictable lines — becoming manifest in opposition to drink, gaming and profanation of the Sabbath — the wider public critique of unscrupulous vendors in this period was not confined to these particularly troubling sectors of the market. Nor were virtuous wives the only female consumers to benefit from the rhetorical and legal solicitude of Victorian officials in the discourse on gender, class and consumption which surrounded the county courts. As the dispute over the imprisonment of defaulting debtors in Bedfordshire revealed in the later 1850s, paternalist hostility to free trade on the part of county elites found a new home in the debate on the county courts, rather than being vanquished by the operation of these putatively utilitarian tribunals of commerce. It is only by weaving contemporaries’ understanding of gender together with their understanding of capital and class that the pattern of this development can be understood.

Bedfordshire’s engagement with the consumption dispute dated from 1857, when Robert Roberts, the governor of the county prison, first noted a dramatic rise in the number of debtors committed to his jail. A total of 40 debtors were committed at Bedford in 1855, but 60 were received in 1856 and 93 in 1857.(43) Roberts initially responded to this problem by disparaging the debtors themselves, rehearsing conventional platitudes about the inevitable lack of restraint exhibited in the behaviour of the poor of either sex. Commenting in March 1857 upon the `unusual number of Debtors (11) in custody’, he noted, `they are — as they generally are — an unruly and troublesome lot’. `I think it a matter of regret that the whole of these persons … should have to be maintained at the expense of the ratepayers’, Roberts commented dourly in the prison journal, `and allowed to congregate together all day long in total idleness’.(44) Yet despite this inauspicious beginning, the following months saw Roberts and a significant portion of the county elite come to champion the very debtors whom he had initially condemned. Perplexed by their increasing prominence among his prisoners, the governor conducted an extended series of personal interviews with the county-court debtors in his charge and, in doing so, came to re-think the nature — and the gendered implications — of their economic plight. By bringing his findings to the attention of the visiting magistrates, Roberts ensured that the debate on county-court committals radiated out from the prison to the institutions of county government, and from there to the wider audience of public opinion.

Already in January 1858 the shifting parameters of the county-court debtor question in Bedfordshire were evident. At the Epiphany meeting of Quarter Sessions, Roberts presented a formal report in which his critique, originally directed at working-class debtors, was reformulated to attack tradesmen’s abusive use of the county courts. Rather than serving to guard the local economy by imposing stringent disciplinary restraints upon feckless consumers, county-court committals exacerbated the very character traits that inclined the poor to indebtedness in the first place. `The accession to our numbers is attended with considerable expense and abuse, inasmuch as the whole of these men are supported in idleness at an average cost … of 11s. 9d. per week’, Roberts began predictably, `and during their imprisonment being congregated together, disorder and looseness pervade the whole’. But in analyzing the origin and character of the debtor problem, Roberts now underlined the perils of unregulated commercial practice rather than the dangers of unrestrained working-class consumer passions. Noting that over half of Bedford’s county-court debtors had been `committed for debts contracted with travelling packmen or hawkers’, he identified two local credit drapers — McKay and Burgess — as the plaintiffs who had brought no fewer than twenty-nine of his debtors into the prison. Shifting attention away from consumer demand to commercial supply, Roberts characterized the methods of these tradesmen as `open to much abuse’ and `duplicity’, and lamented the circumstance of `country cottagers appearing particularly to be the victims’ of such unscrupulous merchants.(45)

The interviews with county-court debtors that Roberts recorded in his prison journals illustrate the boundaries within which he worked to construct a highly partisan defence of working-class debtors, men and women who displayed few of the moral virtues so beloved of middle-class Victorian commentators on the evils of indiscriminate charitable giving. Most disturbing to his sensibilities was the increasing prominence of women among county-court prisoners, particularly those committed by Burgess and McKay, who as credit drapers or `Scotchmen’ peddled items of dress conventionally associated with the female consumer market. Brought to the court by disputes involving feminine commodities, the purchasers imprisoned in the Bedford county jail were themselves disproportionately female. Constituting 5 per cent of all county-court debtors committed at Bedford in 1855, women represented 10 per cent of all county-court debtors imprisoned there in 1856, 16 per cent in 1857, and 25 per cent in 1858.(46) The practice of coverture, which prohibited the courts from committing married women for debt, ensured that this female prison population was composed entirely of spinsters and widows, and Roberts indeed drew attention to the inherent vulnerability of many of these single women, commenting, `it is really lamentable to see so many young girls hurled into prison at the instance of these men’.(47) But his concern extended well beyond an idealized population of innocent female consumers whose unwise credit purchases might readily be excused as the passing commercial indiscretions of youth: mature women who had borne illegitimate children figured conspicuously among the imprisoned debtors interviewed — and defended — by Roberts in 1858. Anne Gurney, aged thirty-four, had three illegitimate children and was imprisoned by Burgess for a debt of 4s. contracted in 1852; a debtor named Whittamore, at twenty-three, had already borne two illegitimate children and served a previous prison term for her 28s. debt to Burgess for a shawl; and Elizabeth Huckle, aged nineteen, with one illegitimate child, owed Burgess 18s. for a dress, shawl, stays and some flannel.(48)

The signal and recurrent nature of these women’s past failings offered Roberts an easy opportunity to denigrate their testimony against tradesmen by conflating their inability to exhibit sexual inhibition with their unwillingness to exercise commercial restraint. This was an available reading of their predicament, which the harsh penalties against women encoded in the bastardy clauses of the New Poor Law was fully intended to promote, and which the relatively high levels of illegitimacy that prevailed in rural areas was likely to have made especially appealing in Bedfordshire.(49) It was also an interpretation which fit neatly with entrenched and widely pervasive beliefs about the close linkage that obtained between female consumer activity and female sexual transgression. For both the production and the consumption of items of clothing bore an extended, and increasing, association with women’s sexual characters in the industrial age. Concerns that women and girls, beguiled by the textile goods spawned by the industrial revolution, would sacrifice their sexual virtue to satisfy their consumer desires were well established by the early Victorian years; by mid-century, the supposedly inevitable trajectory from the profession of dressmaking to the allure of finery and the act of seduction provided a commonplace narrative line in such popular novels as Mary Barton (1848) and Ruth (1853).(50) These concerns about the social consequences of economic activity, widely pervasive in the full range of nineteenth-century discussions of female sexuality, were compounded by the Victorian obsession with prostitution. As mothers of illegitimate children, the errant female debtors of Bedford’s county jail were thus situated precariously on the cusp of a series of received discourses, `which constructed the love of finery as a chief cause of women’s descent into prostitution’.(51)

In Bedford, neither Roberts nor the women imprisoned in his jail were loathe to play upon the sexual significance of consumer activity, but all repeatedly refused to admit women’s culpability in these transactions. Openly identified as women who had engaged in illicit sexual activity, these debtors — who, as single women, were legally liable for their debts — actively participated in the fabrication of consumer identities which depicted women as passive victims of male lust. By manipulating conventional legal and gender stereotypes of women as economic nonentities, they sought to ward off the imposition of morally neutral mechanisms in the consumer market. Again and again in the interviews recorded by Roberts, female debtors told tales that underlined their unwillingness to engage in consumer contracts. Raising their voices in an indignant chorus of economic self-abnegation, they provided a litany of abusive testimony against the packmen by whom they had been supplied with articles of supposed finery. Anne Gurney `did not want the dress’ supplied by Burgess; Jane Kilby recalled being coerced to purchase goods from Burgess, although `I told him I did not want them’; and Elizabeth Huckle alleged that she ultimately succumbed to temptation only because Burgess’s agent `called at my house he pressed me to take the things or I should not have had them’. `The man entered my lodgings, he wished to leave his things with me’, debtor Whittamore claimed, `I told him not to do so as I could not pay him’. Her tale was echoed by Martha Clarke, imprisoned at twenty-one for a debt of 13s. owed to the draper McKay: `when he called I told him I would take nothing, he bothered me two or three different times when he at last left a shawl. I was not in want of a shawl and had he not left it I should not have been here’. In the narrative of Ellen Evans, a single mother serving her seventh successive prison term for a debt owed to Burgess, the theme of female commercial inertia reached new heights in a description of her allegedly unwitting purchase of a dress. `I told him I did not desire his goods, but these men do bother you so you are obliged to have their things before they will leave your House … they throw them down on the chairs’, she asserted indignantly, `nothing was said about money only that I could pay at any time’.(52)

Redolent with sexual overtones, these tales conspired to depict packmen as commercial Lotharios whose contacts with the local community inevitably led innocent working-class women to violate their entrenched, self-imposed economic abstinence, and thus catapulted them from the sanctity of the private home into the public precincts of the county jail. In form and content they shared essential similarities with the seduction narratives conventionally constructed by single mothers attempting to place their infants in foundling homes, institutions `which granted help only to those … believed to be victims of male cynicism and sexual immorality’.(53) The characteristic trope of these tales was melodrama, employed here as elsewhere in Victorian culture to signal the precarious sexual position of the working-class woman. An immensely popular narrative form, melodrama, in Judith Walkowitz’s description, `allowed the weak to speak out and gain agency in their own defense’. Its defining features marked this genre as a particularly appropriate rhetorical tool for the debate over female consumption in the county courts. Plebeian melodrama evoked `the instability and vulnerability of their life in the unstable market culture … where traditional patterns of deference and paternalism had been eroded’, and typically represented class exploitation `as sexual exploitation of the daughter, which was a threat to family hierarchy and an infringement of male working-class prerogatives’.(54) Couched in these terms, the narrative of consumer danger proved eminently appealing to the local notables who composed public opinion in Bedfordshire. T. C. Higgins, chairman of the Quarter Sessions, was thus moved by the report from Roberts to charge the county’s magistrates with the particular care of the working-class consumer:

Now the fact is that these poor persons are applied to by these hawkers to

buy goods for which they have no necessity. They say this to the men, but

the answer is — “Oh! you do not need to pay for it now; take the goods,

and you may pay me for it when you can…”. Thus the cottagers are tempted

by this apparently easy mode of obtaining clothing, and say, “Very well,

you may leave them, then:” and the consequence is that afterwards the

hawker pounces upon them and sends them to gaol. Now gentlemen, if you will

use your influence to caution the poorer classes of those who come under

your private notice against these men, you will confer a very great benefit

upon the several neighbourhoods in which you reside.(55)

Underlining the need for private influence in the public sphere, Higgins urged his brother magistrates to use their moral sway to police the free consumer market rather than to allow the unregulated market itself to discipline the working-class consumer.

This paternalist interpretation of Bedfordshire’s consumer crisis proved so compelling, indeed, that subsequent publication by Roberts of the case histories of single mothers who had been ensnared by credit drapers, originally confided only in his prison journals, served to bolster rather than undermine the representation of working-class consumers as economic innocents bereft of consumer volition. Reporting to the Easter sitting of Quarter Sessions, Roberts sought to establish the probity of his county-court debtors and the corresponding `duplicity … practiced by the hawkers upon these prisoners’, by dwelling upon `the class of persons these hawkers have dealings with’. Here, far from relying upon the notions of temperance, self-respect and moral restraint that buttressed contemporary belief in the virtues and the discipline of free market mechanisms, he justified his solicitude by pointing to the debtors’ very failure to manifest such traits in their past behaviour. His examples of blameless debtors in Bedford’s prison therefore included one mother of four and one mother of two illegitimate children; the latter, the widow of a criminal who had been transported for life, had already served a prison term for the debt she owed to Burgess.(56) Acquainted with these biographical details, both the visiting magistrates and the chairman of Quarter Sessions persisted in, and indeed intensified, their calls for regulation of the tradesmen who served (and corrupted) the working-class consumer market. The visiting justices noted with `regret’ `the continued increase of County Court debtors, particularly of females … also … the number of prisoners recently sent in by one plaintiff’. The charge to the county’s officers by Higgins built upon this line of argument. `The evil arising from the dealings of the class of hawkers who overrun the county still continues’, he noted with chagrin, `and poor people are the victims to a painful extent’. His immediate solution to these perceived iniquities was to muster the powers of local government against the unduly free market which had unjustly disciplined Bedford’s county-court debtors. Calling upon the local police to check the licenses of all salesmen found travelling in the area, he urged county magistrates to proceed severely against all hawkers found delinquent in this regard.(57)

But if a wide sector of governing opinion came to adopt a series of idealized representations of the labouring population as passive, innocent and economically self-sufficient, the itinerant traders who served the locality emphatically did not. Subjected to sustained attacks at Quarter Sessions and in the Bedfordshire Mercury, local credit drapers were stung to defend their commercial practices. Henry Symington, a hawker who boasted seventeen years in the credit trade, wrote to the editor of the Mercury to expose the fallacious logic upon which Roberts had based his critique of credit drapers. `I should say, considering the character of those prisoners as set forth by the Governor himself, that they would be the very last persons whose testimony could be depended on’, Symington argued, `and particularly towards those who had placed them in their present position in default of paying their just debts’. Where Roberts had laboured to represent working-class consumers as passive victims of pedlars’ avarice, Symington worked to highlight their wilful, acquisitive volition, explaining the circumstance `acknowledged by all persons who trade largely with the working classes that, notwithstanding every precaution, unworthy and dishonest persons will occasionally insinuate themselves into the good wishes and finally into the books of the tradesmen’. Extolling the practices of the credit-drapery trade as examples of `the principles of free competition … freely acted upon’, Symington portrayed the hawkers — in striking contrast to established merchants trading from fixed shops in county towns — as commercial saviours of the working-class consumer: `It is a common remark of these working people, “Master, I don’t know how we should ever get clothes if it was not for your men. Drapers won’t trust poor people like us, and [won’t] take the money a little at a time; they will only trust rich people like themselves'”.(58)

The credit draper, Burgess, maligned by name throughout these proceedings, built upon this line of defence in a letter published in May. Like Symington, Burgess derided the depiction of thrusting hawkers who seduced innocent workers to become avid purchasers of unnecessary consumer goods. `As far as my experience goes, and as every tradesman knows’, he insisted hotly, `the only difficulty with that class of persons is the difficulty of keeping them out of debt, and the only thrusting required is to thrust the goods out of their way’. Imbuing his female customers with fully developed economic desires, which required little external stimulation from errant tradesmen, Burgess invoked the action of the county courts as a necessary restraint upon the inflamed passions of these consciously disreputable consuming women. `Now if the goods had been thrust upon these persons in reality and they had wished to return them they might have found ways and means of doing so, or as a judge of the County Court observed to a person who made the same complaint, they might have thrown them out of the door’, he concluded. `But instead of this they keep the goods and wear them, and pay part of the price of them, a plain proof that they were active agents in the transactions’.(59)

Sanctions against itinerant credit drapers, such as the conviction of the hawker Philip McKeen by the Woburn Bench in July for selling goods without a license, persisted in Bedfordshire throughout the summer of 1858, and were publicly lauded by the local elite. At the Midsummer Quarter Sessions, W. L. Smart, Esq. announced with satisfaction that the magistrates’ new commercial vigilance had prompted seventeen hawkers to purchase licenses in the county since the Easter sessions, while only four pedlars had taken out licenses in the corresponding quarter in neighbouring Northamptonshire. Roberts confirmed this sanguine analysis of the effects of commercial surveillance by the magistrates, noting that while twenty-nine county-court debtors had been committed to Bedford’s prison in the quarter ending Christmas 1857, only six had been imprisoned in the quarter ending midsummer 1858.(60) But this satisfaction, like the temporary decline of county-court commitments it celebrated, proved illusory. The prison journal by Roberts not only chronicled a continued increase of county-court commitments through and beyond 1858, but also attested to the persistence of troublingly draconian imprisonments by local tally tradesmen. Thus, Elizabeth Wright, a county-court debtor, was imprisoned with her seven-month-old infant in February 1859 and, in March, the draper McKay committed Thomas Dawson for the ninth time for one debt, while Burgess chose to imprison a debtor ’70 years of age and upwards’ for another.(61)

In all of this, the tangled encounters among consumers, tradesmen and the county court in Bedfordshire presaged national patterns of development which, far from fading, were to grow more prominent in the later nineteenth century. As this oppositional narrative unfolded and intensified, however, its locus increasingly shifted away from the established structures of county government and into the county courts themselves. Here, an expanding array of government-appointed judges assumed the paternalist mantle earlier sported by the local magistracy in their engagement with working-class consumers. Their strategies for containing commerce through the courts serve to illuminate not only the gendered and inherently conflicted character of Victorian conceptions of the consumer market, but also the partial nature of the triumph of commodity culture in Victorian England.


In shifting from the conventional seats of county administration to more recently created judicial venues, the debate over plebeian consumption built upon the attacks on itinerant credit drapers earlier prominent in Bedford. It also acquired new emphases, which reflected broader changes in contemporaries’ understanding of the proper gendering of the social and economic universe. The interweaving of continuity and change in this regard was especially evident in the mounting obsession with the moral implications of the credit-drapery trade which marked the 1870s and 1880s. Antagonism to the itinerant pedlars who dispersed textile goods throughout the nation neither originated in nor was confined to Victorian Bedfordshire. Hostility to the petty chapmen who sold cloth, haberdashery items and ready-made clothing to the poor was well established by the 1670s and persisted throughout the nineteenth century.(62) The association of these tradesmen with illicit female sexuality had, moreover, long predated the advent of the county courts: already in 1806, Patrick Colquhoun’s anatomy of the vicious and criminal classes in England moved with unexamined ease from `lewd and immoral women’ to `petty chapmen … alluring ignorant purchasers by apparent good bargains’.(63) But the later nineteenth century saw this hostility escalate to new heights and develop in new directions, as tensions generated by the structural transformation of the legal system and the labour market were exacerbated by shifting formulations of masculine and feminine identity. As labour historians have noted, the 1860s witnessed both a gradual increase in working-class standards of living and the emergence of increasingly successful male trade unions. Together, these two developments encouraged middle- and working-class spokesmen alike to endorse an idealized vision of the working-class woman as a domestic manager and wife, safely ensconced within the family home and securely subsidized by a male breadwinner.(64) In theory, credit drapers who hawked goods from door to door posed no threat to the image of the domesticated working-class wife. Arguably, indeed, by allowing married women to bypass the public market while provisioning the private home, they advanced the domestic ideal rather than undercutting it. But from mid-century, the widening separation of home and workshop effected by industrialization appears to have rendered this mode of trade acutely troubling to middle-class observers. By removing the male head of household from the domestic sphere into an external labour market during the course of the working day, these critics came to believe, industrialization and commercial growth had removed an effective human barrier to the female acquisitive impulse, even as they promoted the production and sale of a seemingly limitless supply of textile goods for the working-class consumer market.

The establishment of the county courts, the perpetuation of magisterial forms of paternalism among the new judicial ranks, the courts’ practice of allowing women to testify on behalf of their husbands, and tradesmen’s growing impatience with the ways in which coverture encouraged consumers to evade their just debts, all combined to bring these concerns about the shifting moral valence of the consumer and labour markets to the forefront of public opinion in the later nineteenth century. In this context, concern for the female consumer came increasingly to be expressed in seduction narratives which focused on adultery rather than on prostitution. Gaining new adherents as the domestic ideal was extended more fully to working-class women, this line of analysis became a touchstone of `respectable’ attacks on disreputable commercial practices in the 1880s. The Liberal MP, W. H. Willis, expatiating on his efforts to mitigate the severity of the debt law in 1884, thus drew readily upon the sexually charged depiction of the credit-drapery trade, and elicited laughter from his knowing audience in referring to the plight of absent husbands. `He was bound to say, from his experience as a magistrate, that those Scotch packmen were very keen fellows indeed’, he told a public meeting in Coventry: `They always attacked a woman, and they very often got a wife to pledge herself for her purchases in the absence of her husband’.(65)

The intervention of county-court judges themselves ensured that this debate over the perils of the working-class retail market was central not only to the rhetoric which surrounded consumption but also to the active regulation of consumption in the courts. Accounts of county-court judges who spoke out against the retailers who served working-class wives in the absence of their husbands abound in the literature of this period, as do examples of judges who matched their rhetorical opposition to this aspect of the free market with pragmatic efforts to control consumption through the exercise of judicial discretion. Thomas Hughes, erstwhile Christian Socialist and Liberal MP, was typical of this approach toward working-class wives, using his position as the judge of Ashton county court to discipline itinerant hawkers of clothing. Ruling against the draper plaintiff in a case which involved a wife who had purchased `necessary’ goods on her husband’s credit only to pawn them for cash, Hughes fumed that he `did not know a more objectionable way of getting a livelihood’ than credit drapery. The Credit Drapers’ Gazette reported indignantly of this attack upon one of its constituents: `His Honour, in giving judgement, said the plaintiff did business not in a regular way by dealing directly with the persons whom he desired to make liable for payment for the goods, but he did business with the female relatives of these poor people, and did it deliberately behind the backs of those whom he intended to make responsible’. `The plaintiff must take the consequence of the character of his trade and the persons through whom he conducted it’, Hughes had concluded in his summation.(66)

Widely reported in local newspapers, as well as in the commercial and legal press, accounts such as these ensured that judges’ pronouncements on the moral meanings of retail practice reached a broad public audience. At a county court held at Ashby-de-la-Zouch in 1880, the judge was loud in his abuse of a travelling draper who had sold velvet cloth to a miner’s wife. `Just permit me to tell you men never to allow your wives to deal with men who go round with packs, and if in any of these cases I am satisfied by defendants that no authority was given to the wife to buy, I will nonsuit any man that sues them’, he announced to the assembled crowd. `My experience of you gentlemen’, he admonished the credit drapers in attendance, to the evident amusement of his audience, `is that you always call when the husband is out’. The Nuneaton Chronicle, which reported this and similar county court cases in its pages, was unstinting in its praise for such acts of judicial discretion: `These hawkers or “packmen” ii … usually call at the house when the breadwinner of the family is away from home, and display their tempting wares to the longing gaze of the wife, who, as a rule, is only too glad to purchase a new dress, showy jacket, or gaudy ribbons, without suffering the inconvenience of paying cash for the same. There is little doubt that owing to this system many women are induced to purchase articles of which they stand in no real need; and it is therefore by no means surprising that F. Barrow, Esq., the Nuneaton County Court Judge, invariably strikes out from packmen’s claims charges for articles which are not strictly necessaries’.(67)

This contest for control of working-class wives’ consumption was as evident in the metropolitan courts that served the denizens of outcast London as it was in provincial centres. Like his provincial colleagues, the judge of Lambeth county court, the Liberal, J. Pitt Taylor, habitually disallowed the suits of tradesmen whom he believed had encouraged irresponsible levels of consumption among wives in the working-class community over which he presided. As he asserted severely, such plaintiffs `had no right to allow a lady to run up an account to nearly 51. without her husband’s knowledge’.(68) In an effort to discourage indiscriminate credit relations, which he associated with tally tradesmen’s frequent practice of farming their debts out to agents and solicitors for collection rather than handling such transactions in person, Pitt Taylor moreover refused to award legal costs to retailers who dispatched debt collectors to represent their suits in his courtroom.(69) At the Lord Mayor’s Court, which functioned as the equivalent of a county court for the City of London, Judge Woodthorpe Brandon similarly used his discretionary powers to discipline and punish retailers’ coercion of their labouring consumers. Sensitivity to the problems created by the separation of the male workplace from the female domestic sphere where working-class consumption often occurred pervaded his reasoning. When defendants complained in 1883 that implacable creditors had sought to enforce their claims through intimidation by going to the defendants’ employers, Brandon announced that he `would not for a moment tolerate such a proceeding’ in his circuit: `Were a debtor’s means of livelihood to be taken away from him because of circumstances over which probably he had no control, and was he to be at the mercy of every rapacious creditor? So long as he … held a seat on the Bench he would set his face determinedly against such a system, and in every case where it was proved that the creditor had gone to the debtor’s employer he would make an order for [instalments of] one penny a year’.(70)

Just as Bedfordshire’s credit drapers had been stung to defend their trade from the attacks of the county elite in 1858, so too later Victorian retailers were moved by the open antagonism of county-court judges to mount efforts to protect their free access to the working-class consumer market. Increasingly strident in their attempts to burnish their sullied commercial reputation, credit drapers were at the forefront of this defensive campaign in the 1880s, turning to direct action to challenge the perceived bias of the legal profession against their trade. Samuel Prentice, the judge of the Shoreditch and Bow county court and a vocal critic of the tally trade, attracted particular attention in this context. A barrister who had frequently served as chairman of the Middlesex Quarter Sessions, Prentice was appointed to the court early in 1884 and rapidly acquired a reputation for hostile rulings against the credit drapers who plied his working-class defendants with goods.(71) An editorial published in the Credit Drapers’ Gazette in August 1884 accused Prentice and his assisting registrar of `playing havoc with the London Credit Drapers’ through a liberal application of their discretionary powers. Reducing drapers’ claims when they deemed the goods purchased by defendants’ wives to be luxuries rather than necessities, refusing to accept the legitimacy of summonses which had been served upon wives rather than upon their husbands, and routinely dismissing cases when the plaintiffs had failed to visit their defendants personally to negotiate payment after service of the summons, both the judge and the registrar at Bow had from the outset signalled their intention to moralize the retail credit economy of the metropolis.(72) Their hostility to credit drapers was matched by an indulgent condescension for the foibles of the working-class consumers in their district. Thus, in a suit which concerned the sale of serge dress material to a wheelwright’s wife, Prentice dismissed the prosecution’s attempt to discredit the defendant’s testimony that he was ignorant of his wife’s purchases. When the draper’s lawyer argued that in all probability the defendant had never seen his wife wear the disputed clothing only because she had pawned the material immediately upon obtaining it, Prentice observed mildly to a laughing audience, `[v]ery likely, they often do so’. He then reduced the plaintiff’s claim by half, and concluded: `These people ought not to trust women with these kinds of goods, because in many cases they ruin their husbands’.(73)

Provoked by this chorus of abuse, local trade-protection societies mobilized new forms of resistance within and without the courtroom. The London Credit Drapers Association was active throughout 1884 and 1885, first hiring legal counsel to guard their members’ interests in Prentice’s court and then seeking to contain his discretionary zeal by appealing disputed cases to the superior High Court of Justice.(74) But this strategy, greeted with much optimistic fanfare by the Credit Drapers’ Gazette, was hobbled by superior-court judges’ widespread acceptance of the very premises upon which the more paternalist county-court judges had predicated their attack on the tally trade. Mr Justice Hawkins, ruling in Prentice’s favour in an appealed case that involved a pair of blankets purchased from a credit draper by a labourer’s wife, simply rehearsed the received verities of the wider public critique of the commercial seduction of working-class women in justifying his decision: `I think it is to be regretted that there is leave to appeal given in matters of this sort. These men call at the houses of these poor people when the husbands are absent, see the wives, and offer them expensive articles without making any inquiry at all into the matter’.(75)


Charged with class conflict, saturated with sexual significance and animated by moral outrage, the proceedings of later nineteenth-century county courts provide abundant testimony of the fundamental ambivalence with which Victorian attitudes toward the market were fraught. The tenor of judges’ common defence of the county courts as institutions which promoted industry, sobriety and thrift speaks eloquently to Victorian preoccupations with labourers’ supposed reluctance to enter the labour market. In this arena, as in the world of charitable organizations reconstructed by Gareth Stedman Jones, `most unemployment was attributed to the lack of habits of industry and forethought rather than to an excess of supply’, and middle-class observers `increasingly agreed that poverty was not so much the condition of a class as the result of the immorality or improvidence of demoralized individuals’.(76) But here too was an array of conflicting interpretations of workers’ proper relation to a retail market, which, fuelled by their ceaseless employment in workshops, sweatshops and factories, had risen to new heights in this period. United in recognizing the saving grace of labour for the labourer, the liberal professionals who staffed the new county courts were deeply divided in their understanding of the cause and the consequences of working-class wives’ expenditure on the consumer goods which their husbands’ employment had produced.

The devices employed by these local judges to police petty commercial transactions betrayed their considerable unease with the increasing commodification of British commerce. Recent historical scholarship has sought to identify the mid-Victorian years as the period which witnessed the decisive triumph of commodity culture in Britain. `In the first half of the nineteenth century, the commodity was a trivial thing, like one of Adam Smith’s pins’, Thomas Richards has argued: `In the second half it had a world-historical role to play in the global industrial economy’.(77) Yet, if Victorian manufacturers enjoyed a precocious advantage in the international competition to produce industrial goods, British tradesmen who sought to circulate these products domestically as abstract commodities persistently suffered setbacks in the very institutions established to promote freedom of contract and the free exchange of goods in open markets. Here the insights of economic anthropology are apposite. Led by Marcel Mauss in the early twentieth century, anthropologists came to associate the exchange of so-called `gifts’ — objects which bear distinct and persistent social identities and are fully implicated in the reproduction of social life — with pre-industrial commercial systems. In sharp contrast to such gifts, they characterized modern commodities as objects which are alienated from their social origins and stripped of enduring social references and relations.(78) James Carrier has applied this anthropological perspective to the history of retailing in Britain, asserting that the transition from gift to commodity exchange accelerated rapidly from the turn of the eighteenth century, when `shopkeepers increasingly sought individual transactions with unknown buyers rather than extended patronage by established customers’, and when consumers in turn `were increasingly acquiring objects in impersonal interactions in impersonal institutions’.(79) But the history of debt litigation in the county courts, provides substantial evidence of the piecemeal and halting character of the commodification of Victorian retail culture. Just as a new generation of charity workers sought to remoralize philanthropy in these years by bringing donors into direct contact with the recipients of their largesse,(80) so too county-court judges laboured to maintain elements of archaic gift relations in the exchange of new commodities, refusing for example to enforce credit contracts which had not been mediated by personal contact between tradesmen and their working-class consumers. Nor were the goods disputed in these courts conceived as abstract commodities. Rather, the items of dress upon which most interest focused were shot through with social meanings and fundamentally entangled with contemporaries’ understanding of the norms which should govern the reproduction of persons as opposed to the mere production of things. The history of the Victorian county courts thus suggests the extent to which gift and commodity exchange form a continuum in social systems rather than marking the boundary between pre-modern and modern forms of exchange.(81)

The gendered character of working-class participation in the consumer market was essential to the form that commodity exchange and class conflict assumed in the county courts. Ellen Ross has forcefully demonstrated this relation in her analysis of the female world of labour in Victorian London: `Money management was, as acknowledged by both men and women, the special talent of women’.(82) The degree of control exercised over the family purse by working-class wives was at once extensive and severely circumscribed in these years. Constrained both by the legal conventions of coverture, the seasonal contractions of the labour market and the vagaries of their husbands’ weekly disposition of their wages, married women could none the less boast a considerable array of acquisitive devices. Empowered to deploy their husbands’ credit to purchase `necessary’ goods, they increasingly acquired a reputation among middle-class observers for licentious consumer behaviour. The image of working-class women as voracious consumers to whose perverse tastes and inflamed passions tally tradesmen habitually pandered was magnified by male fears of female sexual agency, and ironically often worked in the county courts to reduce their husbands’ liability for the goods which wives had so wantonly purchased.

Class and gender tensions within the Victorian bourgeoisie clearly served to exacerbate county-court judges’ ambivalent response to the dilemmas of working-class consumption. The structural transformation of the retail sector in the later nineteenth century — notably the rise of co-operatives and department stores — posed an economic threat to the independent shopkeeper and widened the perceived distance between the fashionable upper end and the disreputable lower end of the trade in ready-made clothing.(83) Among credit drapers, these changes prompted conspicuous efforts to project a new image of commercial integrity, an attempted refashioning of their trade which the actions of the more paternalist county-court judges consistently thwarted.(84) In this, the campaign to achieve respectability waged by middle-class tradesmen who helped to compose the Victorian market was repeatedly undercut by the rulings of middle-class men who helped to represent the Victorian state.

Like itinerant credit drapers, the county-court judges who exerted their discretionary powers on commercial practice were themselves ambiguously positioned to impose their discipline on the market. Associated by birth, education and experience with the established elites that had regulated both the labour and the consumer markets for centuries, they were eminently suited to exercise magisterial oversight over working-class consumption. Yet by presiding over a newly created system of inferior courts which had been established under utilitarian auspices and which had largely dispensed with the venerable institution of trial by jury, county-court judges also suffered from the stigma of professional inferiority. Attacks on their qualifications and competence relative to superior court judges were commonplace in the legal literature of the period, and the tone of their responses often betrayed the very sense of inadequacy which was denied in their defensive protestations. A letter published in the County Courts Chronicle in 1879 typified the disdain to which the new cadre of judges were habitually subjected by their legal peers. `It is well known that the judges have been to a great degree selected from the ranks of the briefless’, the anonymous writer observed: `There are some able men on the County Court bench, but there are others who are quite unequal to their duties’. A retort countering this pervasive evaluation in 1885 signalled the judges’ discomfort with their professional position. `Something of the merit of their success must be attributed to the personal qualities of the judges, many of them lawyers fitted to adorn the most eminent judicial positions’, the author exclaimed grandiosely. `County-court judges heroically devote highly educated legal intellects to the settlement of questions suited to the capacity of a sheriff’s office’, he then bathetically concluded.(85)

If the vehemence of county-court judges’ attacks on the lesser ranks of the drapery trade arguably derived in part from the correspondingly low position which they occupied in the ranks of their own profession, it no doubt also drew sustenance from their role as husbands of consuming wives. For the histrionic debates on the evils of working-class consumption conducted in their courtrooms were matched by contemporary discourses on the perils of bourgeois expenditure. But where concern for plebeian consumers focused on the invasion of the domestic sphere by the market in the form of the tallyman, concern for the well-being of middle-class consumers focused on the invasion of the market by the domestic sphere in the shape of its chief representative and exemplar, the bourgeois wife and mother. Indeed, although the organization of the credit-drapery trade which served working-class communities in these decades departed significantly from the structures of the middle-class market, the moral implications of the growth of these two sectors of the textile economy were not unrelated. Like the opponents of the department store, who charged that `by ignoring the cherished boundaries between public and private spheres’ these new institutions `denied the essential distinction between respectable and immoral women’,(86) antagonists of itinerant credit drapers denounced such petty merchants’ tendency to lower the sartorial barrier that divided middle-class ladies from working-class women. A comment reputedly made to a credit draper in court by Samuel Prentice, the paternalist judge at Bow, captured the essence of these deep-seated fears in 1884. `You sell a shawl at 12s. 6d., fit for my wife to wear’, he observed indignantly to the plaintiff, `to a woman whom I would not pick up off the dunghill’.(87)

In mediating disputes between retailers and their working-class consumers, county-court judges thus also negotiated a series of contested relationships within the middle class itself. Focused in particular on the sexual meaning of the consumption of textiles, their pronouncements served to expose the conflicting array of moral economies which animated Victorian conceptions of the market. Their public nature and the accessibility of their proceedings to men and women of the middle and working classes ensured that the county courts functioned to broadcast these economic disputes widely. This was an aspect of their operation of which judges were fully cognizant. Upon his retirement from the bench in 1859, the Benthamite judge Thomas Falconer noted, `[i]n these courts, as well as in those in which the ordinary duties of magistrates are performed, an opportunity for the presence of many persons is always desirable. It was well said by a great jurist, — “that by publicity, the temple of justice adds to its other functions that of a school — a school of the highest order, where the most important branches of morality are enforced by the most impressive means”‘.(88) The following decades, however, repeatedly saw the evolving demands of Victorian gender ideology drive Falconer’s successors to depart from his laissez-faire prescriptions as they shaped the new county courts into schools for consumer morality. The anger and frustration provoked by the course adopted by these judges surfaced repeatedly in Falconer’s published writings on county-court practice, in which he openly derided the argument that working-class husbands were unwittingly led into debt by wives seduced by itinerant hawkers. Taking as his text the biblical description of Eve’s temptation of Adam, Falconer, in 1873, sought to expose this pervasive strand of polemic as an effort to emasculate the sturdy male wage-earners who ruled the idealized working-class household of the later nineteenth century. `The man said, “the woman whom thou gavest to be with me SHE gave me of the tree and I did eat”‘, he quoted sarcastically. `So says the cowardly man of to-day: “My wife got the clothes wherewith she clothes herself and even has provided for me, and which covers the nakedness of my children and I could not see what she did nor know of it: she took all even if I have partaken of it”‘.(89) Meshing neatly with the harsh economic moralism of groups such as the Charity Organisation Society, Falconer’s diatribes against misguided efforts to protect workers from rapacious middle-class retailers in the consumer market echoed a dominant critique of attempts to protect workers from voracious capitalists in the labour market. But while arguments to promote the free market in labour drew sustenance from a widespread conviction in the inherent slothfulness of mankind in general and working men in particular, arguments to promote the free market in goods were frequently undercut by the essential ambiguity of middle-class understandings of the nature of female consumer instincts. Falconer’s fulminations were thus directed at least as much against the liberal professionals of his own class who championed indebted labourers in the county courts as they were against the workers themselves.

Historians who have analyzed the decline of free-market ideology in later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England have typically emphasized the importance of contemporaries’ changing understanding of the male labour market. They have, in consequence, pointed to the evolution of economic theories, such as marginal utility, to the success enjoyed by increasingly powerful male trade unions and socialist parties, or to growing support for state intervention in working-class life precipitated by soldiers’ poor performance in the Boer War.(90) What I am suggesting here is that the sway of free-market ideology was also, and crucially, undercut by contemporaries’ understanding of the growth of the consumer market. The prominence of women — who acted as economic agents even as they figured rhetorically as economic nonentities — was fundamental to this reconceptualization of the morality of economic exchange. In the 1840s, a series of conspicuously utilitarian imperatives had inspired the creation of the county courts as tribunals to promote free enterprise and freedom of contract. But, by the 1880s, these new demands had come to be overlaid by a tissue of expectations, at once conventional in their form and novel in their application, about the compelling need to regulate the Victorian consumer market.

(*) Earlier versions of this paper were read at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds, the British Studies Colloquium at the University of Maryland, the Huntington Library British Studies Seminar and the Emory University Women’s Studies Colloquium. My thanks as well to Michael Bellesiles, Kevin Bradley, Jim Epstein, Kristin Mann, Caitlin Murdoch, Mary Odem, Randall Packard, Cynthia Patterson, Polly Price, Margaret Storey, Pat Thane and Luise White for assistance with the text and comments on its arguments. Funding for this project was provided in part by the Emory University Research Committee.

(1) This historiographical shift is by no means confined to Britain, but extends to America and continental Europe as well. For overviews of the trend towards consumption, see especially Jean-Christophe Agnew, `Coming up for Air: Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective’, in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds.), Consumption and the World of Goods (London, 1993); Lisa Tiersten, `Redefining Consumer Culture: Recent Literature on Consumption and the Bourgeoisie in Western Europe’, Radical Hist. Rev., no. 57 (1993).

(2) Jan De Vries offers a particularly perceptive survey of this evolution in `The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution’, Jl Econ. Hist., liv (1994), esp. 250-55. See also Amanda Vickery, `Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’, Hist. Jl, xxxvi (1993).

(3) Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between (;lasses in Victorian Society (Oxford, 1971); Ellen Ross, Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918 (Oxford, 1993).

(4) The titles of their respective chapters are illuminating in this context. The first four chapters of Outcast London are `London as an Industrial Centre’, `Seasonality of Production’, `Casual Labour: Numbers and Occupations’ and `The Structure of the Casual Labour Market’. Ross, in contrast, identifies `Feeding a Family’, `Marriage’, `Having Babies’, `Child Rearing’ and `Sickness and Health’ as the foci of her study.

(5) In addition to the work by Ross, see, for example, Elizabeth Roberts, A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women, 1890-1940 (Oxford, 1984); Melanie Tebbutt, Women’s Talk? A Social History of `Gossip’ in Working-Class Neighbourhoods, 1880-1960 (Aldershot, 1995).

(6) Ross, Love and Toil, 196. `The Infant Welfare movement belonged to the decade of imperialist agitation preceding World War I in which women’s reproductive capacity and men’s fighting capability became matters of government interest and activity as never before’, Ross argues: `What was new in the twentieth century was the exclusive focus on mothers and child care, the sheer size, number, and organization of the programs, the extent to which medical personnel and nomenclature were involved, and the series of coercive laws that now accompanied the programs’ (195-6).

(7) A. James Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Married Life (London, 1992); Gail L. Savage, `”Intended Only for the Husband”: Gender, Class, and the Provision of Divorce in England, 1858-1868′, in Kristine Garrigan (ed.), Victorian Scandals: Representations of Gender and (;lass (Athens, Ohio, 1992).

(8) Ginger S. Frost, Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England (Charlottesville, 1995); George Behlmer, `Summary Justice and Working-Class Marriage in England, 1870-1940′, Law and History Rev., xii (1904).

(9) For the developments which underpinned the transformation of this market, see E. P. Thompson, `The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’; and `The Moral Economy Reviewed’, in his Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York, 1993).

(10) For the courts of requests, which adjudicated small claims suits prior to the creation of the county courts, see W. H. D. Winder, `The Courts of Requests’, Law Quart. Rev., ccvii (1936); and H. W. Arthurs, `Without the Law’: Administrative Justice and Legal Pluralism in Nineteenth-Century England (Toronto, 1985).

(11) For useful contemporary guides to county-court procedure, see `A Barrister’, A Plain Guide for Suitors in the County Court (London, 1870); `A Solicitor’, County Court Practice Made Easy: or, Debt Collection Simplified (London, 1902).

(12) Thus, in 1865 over 44 per cent of all plaints were settled prior to the court date and in 1912 over 34 per cent were resolved in this manner: Paul Johnson, `Small Debts and Economic Distress in England and Wales, 1857-1913′, Econ. Hist. Rev., xlvi (1993), 67.

(13) Ibid., 70.

(14) Thomas Falconer, On County Courts, Local Courts of Record, and on the Changes Proposed to be Made in Such Courts in the Second Report of the Fudicature Commissioners (London, 1873), 44; Sir Thomas Snagge, The Evolution of the County Court (London, 1904), 20.

(15) Falconer, On County Courts, 44-5.

(16) J. Alderson Foote, `Pie-Powder’: Being Dust from the Law Courts Collected and Recollected on the Western Circuit by a Circuit Tramp (London, 1911), 6-7, 108.

(17) W. R. Cornish and G. de N. Clark, Law and Society in England, 1750-1950 (London, 1989), 38.

(18) Thomas Denman, Baron Denman, to Brougham, London, 17 June 1851: University College, London, Brougham Collection, item 10,930.

(19) The Evidence Amendment Act allowed plaintiffs and defendants to appear on their own behalves in the witness-box in many superior courts from 1851, but some actions — notably breach of promise — were excluded from its operation until the later nineteenth century: see Frost, Promises Broken, 20.

(20) Falconer, On County Courts, 157-8.

(21) Daniel Duman’s analysis of the social origins of the judicial bench in the nineteenth century notes a continuous decline in the contribution of the landed classes and a steady rise of judges from families in business, but finds that judges drawn from professional backgrounds — the `sons of lawyers, clergymen, doctors, and military and naval officers’ — `filled the vacuum created by the decline of the landowning contingent among the judges’. In 1790-1820, 17 per cent of judges were drawn from landowning backgrounds, 41 per cent from professional backgrounds and 17 per cent from business; in 1850-75, 8 per cent were drawn from landowning families, 54 per cent from the professions and 29 per cent from business. Daniel Duman, The Judicial Bench in England, 1727-1875: The Reshaping of a Professional Elite (London, 1982), 51-2.

(22) Thus, for example, William Mackworth Praed (Plymouth) and John Maurice Herbert (Monmouth) were fellows of St John’s, Cambridge, and John Collyer (Cambridge) was a fellow of Clare Hall: [Thomas Falconer], List of the County Court Judges: Note on the Abolition of Certain Franchise Gaols (London, 1865), 4, 6.

(23) Ibid., 5-6, 8.

(24) County Courts Chron., 1 Jan. 1879, 22; 1 June 1880, 358.

(25) Stedman Jones, Outcast London, 240. Landlords, rentiers and stockholders connected to the West End aristocracy, these men boasted few connections with industrial capitalism and had little contact in the capacity of employers with workers other than domestic servants.

(26) Ibid., esp. 241-70. He cites Sir Charles Trevelyan to particular effect in this regard: according to Trevelyan, `labour is the great antidote to crime: “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground. The effect of modern charity has been to suspend this primeval law”‘ (245).

(27) G. R. Rubin, `The County Courts and the Tally Trade, 1846-1914′, in G. R. Rubin and David Sugarman (eds.), Law, Economy and Society, 1750-1914: Essays in the History of English Law (Abingdon, 1984), 346, 322. Rubin’s more recent assessment of the utility of county-court data for historians recapitulates this emphasis on class: `for socio-legal historians, social historians and economic historians, the study of debt recovery in the inferior courts offers a window into class, power, ideology and poverty in Victorian and Edwardian England’: G. R. Rubin, `Debtors, Creditors and the County Courts, 1846-1914: Some Source Material’, Fl Legal Hist., xvii (1996), 75.

(28) Paul Johnson, `Class Law in Victorian England’, Past and Present, no. 141 (Nov. 1993), 163, 147.

(29) Arthur James Johnes, Should the Law of Imprisonment for Debt in the Superior Courts be Abolished or Amended? In a Letter to the Rt Hon. Lord Brougham and Vaux (London, [1868]), 3, 4.

(30) Credit Drapers’ Gaz., 15 June 1883, 99.

(31) Arthur James Johnes, Is Credit an Evil? In a Letter to C. M. Norwood, Esq. M.P. (London, 1869), 4.

(32) Henry Anselm De Colyer, Reports of Cases in the County Courts Included in Circuits Nos. 45 & 46: Heard and Determined by Henry James Stonor, Esq., Fudge of the Said Courts (London, 1883), 275.

(33) Wally Seccombe, `Patriarchy Stabilized: The Construction of the Male Breadwinner Wage Norm in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Social Hist., xi (1986).

(34) For the dynamics which underlay the feminization of the consumer market in this period, see Victoria de Grazia, `Changing Consumption Regimes: Introduction’, in Victoria de Grazia and Ellen Furlough (eds.), The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective (Berkeley, 1996), 15.

(35) Sonya Rose, Limited Livelihoods: Gender and Class in Nineteenth-Century England (Berkeley, 1992), 55-61, provides a useful synopsis of this development; see also Robert Gray, The Factory Question and Industrial England, 1830-1860 (Cambridge, 1996).

(36) For the prevalence of notions of freedom of contract in this period, see P. S. Atiyah, The Rise and Fall of Freedom of Contract (Oxford, 1979).

(37) On pawnbroking and working-class credit, see Paul Johnson, Saving and Spending: The Working-Class Economy in Britain, 1870-1939 (Oxford, 1985); Ross, Love and Toil, esp. 81-4; Melanie Tebbutt, Making Ends Meet: Pawnbroking and Working-Class Credit (New York, 1983).

(38) J. J. S. Wharton, An Exposition of the Laws Relating to the Women of England: Showing their Rights, Remedies, and Responsibilities, in Every Position of Life (London, 1853), 369. For a broader discussion of the law of necessaries, see Margot Finn, `Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c. 1760-1860′, Hist. Fl, xxxix (1996), 708-10.

(39) Finn, `Women, Consumption and Coverture’, 714-17.

(40) Gloucestershire Record Office, Gloucester, D 5079/1, diary of James Francillon, 1864-6.

(41) County Courts Chron., 1 Mar. 1853, 41.

(42) Ibid.

(43) Bedfordshire Mercury, 11 Jan. 1858, 2.

(44) Public Record Office, London (hereafter PRO), PCOM/2293, Bedford Prison Governor’s Journal, 1852-9, 4 Mar. 1857, 227.

(45) Bedfordshire Mercury, 11 Jan. 1858, 2.

(46) PRO, PCOM2/293, Bedford Prison Governor’s Journal, 1852-9, 5 Oct. 1858, 282. Nationally, fewer than 5 per cent of all imprisoned debtors were typically women: see Finn, `Women, Consumption and Coverture’, 708.

(47) PRO, PCOM 2/293, Bedford Prison Governor’s Journal, 1852-9, 30 Aug. 1858, 278.

(48) Ibid.

(49) U. R. Q. Henriques, `Bastardy and the New Poor Law’, Past and Present, no. 37 (July 1967). For rural illegitimacy rates and their shifting significance to contemporaries in this period, see Michael Mason, The Making of Victorian Sexuality (Oxford, 1995), 151,241-2.

(50) Thomas W. Laqueur, `Sexual Desire and the Market Economy during the Industrial Revolution’, in Domna C. Stanton (ed.), Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS (Ann Arbor, 1992), 208; Deborah Epstein Nord, Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City (Ithaca, 1995), 150-1, 160-1.

(51) Mariana Valverde, `The Love of Finery: Fashion and the Fallen Woman in Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse’, Victorian Studies, xxxii (1988-9), 170. This is not to suggest that the social experience — as opposed to the cultural representation — of prostitution and bastardy were closely linked. As Judith Walkowitz has argued, the Victorian incidence of `illegitimacy seems to have been a social problem distinct from prostitution’: Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge, 1980), 18.

(52) PRO, PCOM2/293, Bedford Prison Governor’s Journal, 1852-9, 30 Aug. 1858, 278-80.

(53) Francoise Barret-Ducrocq, Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality, (Class and Gender in Nineteenth-Century London, trans. John Howe (London, 1991), 45.

(54) Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago, 1992), 86. On the political and legal uses of melodrama in this period, see Patrick Joyce, Democratic Subjects: The Self and the Social in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1994), 176-92; Frost, Promises Broken, 24-33.

(55) PRO, PCOM2/293, Bedford Prison Governor’s Journal, 1852-9, 30 Aug. 1858, 278-80.

(56) Bedfordshire Mercury, 12 Apr. 1858.

(57) Ibid.

(58) Ibid., 26 Apr. 1858.

(59) Ibid., 10 May 1858.

(60) Ibid., 5 July 1858. This analysis ignored the probable influence of seasonal effects. Winter unemployment and underemployment are likely to have contributed to this differential.

(61) PRO, PCOM2/293, Bedford Prison Governor’s Journal, 1852-9, 5 Oct. 1858, 282; 28 Feb. 1859, 293; 28 May 1859, 295.

(62) Margaret Spufford, The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1984); Laurence Fontaine, History of Pedlars in Europe (Durham, NC, 1996).

(63) Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on Indigence: Exhibiting a General View of the National Resources for Productive Labour: With Propositions for Ameliorating the Condition of the Poor (London, 1806), 40-1.

(64) For the endorsement of the male breadwinner norm by labour and capital in this period, see Seccombe, `Patriarchy Stabilized’; Rose, Limited Livelihoods, esp. 126-53.

(65) Credit Drapers’ Gaz., 1 Jan. 1884, 153.

(66) Ibid., 1 Nov. 1883, 107.

(67) Nuneaton Chron., 11 June, 14 May 1880.

(68) Credit Drapers’ Gaz., 15 July 1883, 22.

(69) County Courts Chron., 1 Mar. 1883, 304. His emphasis on the importance of face-to-face relations between retailers and consumers parallels contemporary charities’ insistence on the need for direct contact between the middle-class charitable giver and the working-class recipient: see Stedman Jones, Outcast London, 241-61.

(70) Credit Drapers’ Gaz., 15 July 1883, 22.

(71) For his background, see County Courts Chron., 1 Feb. 1884, 280.

(72) Credit Drapers’ Gaz., 1 Aug. 1884, 27. Husbands were, under the law of necessaries, liable only for necessary goods purchased by their wives; tradesmen were thus technically unable to enforce debts for luxury goods sold to wives without the husband’s consent. Service of a summons on the wife in the absence of her husband was fully legal under coverture and plaintiffs were under no legal obligation to negotiate personally with their debtors. These three forms of judicial discretion were, however, widely practised by paternalist county court judges throughout England and Wales.

(73) Ibid., 30; East London Press, 2 Aug. 1884.

(74) Credit Drapers’ Gaz., 15 July 1884, 23; 1 Aug. 1884, 29-30; 15 Oct. 1884, 87.

(75) Ibid., 15 Jan. 1885, 15, 20-1.

(76) Stedman Jones, Outcast London, 277.

(77) Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914 (Stanford, 1990), 1: `In the short space of time between the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the First World War, the commodity became and has remained the one subject of mass culture, the centerpiece of everyday life, the focal point of all representation, and the dead center of the modern world’.

(78) The classic formulation of this relationship is Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (New York, 1967).

(79) James G. Carrier, Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700 (London, 1995), 75. Carrier acknowledges that commodification penetrated the working-class market much more slowly than the middle-class market.

(80) Stedman Jones, Outcast London, 241-61, 271-80.

(81) For a similar line of analysis from an anthropological perspective, see Arjun Appadurai’s critique of `the exaggerated contrast between Marx and Mauss’: `Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, in Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, 1986), 11.

(82) Ross, Love and Toil, 51.

(83) For the broad context of these developments in England, see James B. Jefferys, Retail Trading in Great Britain, 1850-1950 (London, 1954); John William Ferry, A History of the Department Store (New York, 1960).

(84) For the tally trade’s wide-ranging effort to improve its image, see G. R. Rubin, `From Packmen, Tallymen and “Perambulating Scotchmen” to Credit Drapers’ Associations, c. 1840-1914′, Business Hist., xxviii (1986).

(85) County Courts Chron., 1 Apr. 1879, 85; 1 Oct. 1885, 235.

(86) Erika D. Rappaport, `”The Halls of Temptation”: Gender, Politics, and the Construction of the Department Store in Late Victorian London’, Jl Brit. Studies, xxxv (1996), 61.

(87) County Courts Chron., 1 Aug. 1884, 30.

(88) [Thomas Falconer], On Friday, December 31, 1858, the Mayor, C. C. Williams, Esq., and the Corporation of Cardiff, Waited upon his Honor Judge Falconer, in the Court, in the Town Hall, for the Purpose of Presenting to Him an Address, on His Ceasing to Preside in the County Court (Cardiff, [1859]).

(89) Falconer, On County Courts, 107.

(90) See, for example, Stedman Jones, Outcast London, 1,284-5, 330-1.

Margot Finn

Emory University

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