HC Deb 21 July 1869 vol 198 cc401-5

(Mr. Russell Gurney, Mr. Headlam, Mr. Jacob Bright.)



Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [9th July], "That the Bill be now read the third time."

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.


said, he rose to move that the Bill be read a third time on that day three months. He had hoped his Amendment might have been rendered unnecessary by the withdrawal of the Bill, in order that a more satisfactory measure upon the subject might have been introduced in the course of the next Session. In dealing with a measure of this kind it was important that the House should look at its general tendency, and at the general policy of which it formed a part. He did not quarrel with the right hon. Gentleman who had introduced the Bill (Mr. Russell Gurney) for wishing to protect the property of mar- ried women against wasteful and rapacious husbands; but, in his opinion, that result might be obtained in a more satisfactory manner than that proposed in the Bill. He was aware that on the general question he should be met by these ob-jections—firstly, that the measure would not operate as a step towards the establishment of that civil equality between men and women which was desired by some; secondly, that if this measure were rejected a large measure would be introduced next Session which would have that effect; and, thirdly, that the present measure would, to a certain extent, and also ought to have, the effect he so much deprecated. Now, in the first place, it would be for the House to consider whether the object of the measure might not be obtained in a much better way than that proposed by the Bill. The object of the right hon. Gentleman was to give to married women in the humbler classes of life a power that, he stated, was already enjoyed by their more fortunate sisters; but it appeared to him that this was precisely what the Bill would fail to effect. The system of marriage settlements had been greatly eulogized by those who supported the Bill; but those settlements were drawn up, not for the purpose of securing the property of the wife against her husband, but to secure the property of the children against the extravagance and recklessness of both the husband and the wife. The present Bill, however, aimed at something very different, and proposed to protect the property of the wife against her husband. The object of a marriage settlement was to prevent the wife from yielding to her feelings and handing over her property to her husband, whereas the Bill did not propose to protect her property from herself, and there was nothing in it to prevent her at any moment handing the whole of it over to her husband. This was a very important difference and one that should not be lightly overlooked. He thought that a scheme might be devised under which, where no actual marriage settlement had been executed, the law should assume that a common form of settlement had been made, under which the municipal authorities of the locality should become the trustees of the property of the wife for the benefit of the children, allowing the wife the benefit of the income derived from it during her life. This was a question that should he looked upon in a most jealous spirit, because it was a most important thing towards preserving the institution of marriage that the identity of interests between the parties and the control of the husband over the joint property should be maintained as far as possible, and only to deprive the husband of the control which properly belonged to him in cases where he had proved himself unworthy to exercise it. In this latter case he thought it would be sufficient to enable the wife, earning her own living, to go before a County Court Judge, who should have power, under certain circumstances, to grant her an order protecting her property as though she were a feme sole. Upon the argument that this Bill was not intended as a step in the direction of what was called the emancipation of women, he might say that the extension of the civil privileges of women was what was aimed at by many of those who supported the Bill. The hand that introduced the measure was the hand of the right hon. Gentleman, but the voice that spoke in every clause of it was that of a very different sort of social reformer. On Saturday last a meeting was held in London, at which a lady observed that this Bill was merely a step in the direction of the general enfranchisement of women. If that were so then the Bill aimed at destroying the mutual relations that had existed between men and women from time immemorial. To urge the acceptance of this measure on the ground that if it were rejected a larger one would be introduced was to appeal, not to their intelligence, but to their fear. The broad principle of the civil emancipation of women was too large a matter to be disposed of in a mere incidental way, and if brought forward at all it should be brought before the House as a substantial question by the Government. However much he might desire to improve the social position of women he did not think that the time had arrived when the country would be willing to see them placed upon a position of entire equality with men. The prospects of women would not be improved by their descending from the high position they now occupied in civilized life, and becoming the antagonists of men, and by their roughing it through life. Depend upon it if they did so they would meet the fate of the China vase which endeavoured to float down the stream with the brazen pot. It was for these reasons that he moved that the Bill be read the third time upon this day three months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Raikes.)


said, that the Bill contemplated no revolution so comprehensive as that sketched out by the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Raikes). Its object was merely to preserve to married women the powers of contract and the rights which they possessed over their property before their marriage, and to prevent those rights being extinguished and absorbed by the superior rights of their husbands. The proposal to make the mayor and common councilmen trustees for the whole of the married women in their town was too preposterous for argument. The Bill was intended to protect the property of poor women in cases where it was too small to form the subject of a marriage settlement, and to enable such property to be used for the benefit of its owners, in place of being locked up in the hands of trustees until the death of the wife. The hon. and learned Member opposite appeared to think that women were such poor weak creatures that they were unable to protect themselves; but if he were to put himself in a position to test their capabilities in that respect he would probably learn a lesson that he would never forget for the rest of his life. Even if they could not under this Bill protect themselves against their husbands, they would be in no worse position than they were now. The hon. and learned Member had talked a good deal about women not descending from their position to rough it in the world, but he forgot that those whose cases this Bill was intended to meet were compelled to rough it through the whole of their lives from absolute necessity.


said, that all the ingenuity of the hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Jessel) had been unable to gloss over the fact that this was two Bills rolled into one, and that it was a measure vitally altering the most important of all social relations. One object—in the object of which both sides agreed—was to protect the earnings of poor women, and the other was to alter the laws of settlement and inheritance in favour of opulent women. The hon. and learned Member had begun by arguing upon the second head, and had pretty conclusively shown how really-revolutionary the measure was, when he seemed to have recollected that this method of argument was not the one most likely to recommend the Bill to the adoption of the House; so, after skilfully indulging in a little of that pleasant general talk in which he was a considerable proficient, he devoted himself to the poor woman's side of the matter. He (Mr. Beresford Hope) appealed to the House not to make so great a change on such insufficient evidence. The Bill had been inadequately debated on the second reading, and it then went up to a Select Committee, which must have been actuated by the demon of ambition, or else it would have divided the two subjects, and sent back a short Bill, which would, no doubt, have been unanimously passed, to protect the poor woman. As it was, the widest changes in important general principles had been assented to by that Committee by the narrowest majorities. Such was the measure that they were now called upon to consider, at past five o'clock on a Wednesday late in July. The House was like an exhausted receiver; they were now holding not a debate, but a mere conversation on the question. The front Bench on the Opposition side was absolutely empty, and not a Cabinet Minister was to be seen on the Treasury Bench. It was, therefore, hardly decent, under such circumstances, to attempt to push on a measure making so vital a change in all the relations of married life through every class of society. He hoped the House would not entertain the third reading, but would allow the matter to stand over till there was time during the next Session to give it a calm and full consideration.

Question put, "That the word ' now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 131; Noes 33: Majority 98.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.

House adjourned at a quarter before Six o'clock.