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since June 19, 2001


The Victorian Age —

As seen through the comments by Michael Crichton in "The Great Train Robbery" (It took place in 1855)

Thu, 30 Apr 1998 10:20:47 -0700
Walter Schneider < >

After Ruth and I participated in the demonstration last Saturday in front of the Edmonton Law Courts Building, we stopped by a garage sale in Bruderheim on our way home.  I browsed through the boxes of books and found one that is somewhat fascinating to read, because it provides comments on gender-role typing in Victorian times.  The book is Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery (which took place in 1855).

If anyone can provide me with a pointer that is a shortcut to information about Victorian attitudes about gender, I would appreciate hearing about it.  It appears that feminism has its roots firmly in that age and that not much has changed about our attitudes that brought it about.

Michael Crichton's book mentions that women didn't have the vote, but also that only one in seven men was allowed to vote.  I suppose that was on account of a voting system that tied voting power to property.  The system in Germany at the time was like that.  Basically, an individual had one vote for every DM 10,000.  Most people didn't own even close enough to have a single vote; see footnote]  Michael Crichton's book also mentions that women didn't have many legal rights and that men did have a chauvinistic attitude.

 "It is evident," wrote Alexander Walker, "that the man, possessing reasoning faculties, muscular power, and courage to employ it, is qualified for being a protector; the woman, being little capable of reasoning, feeble, and timid, requires protecting.  Under such circumstances, the man naturally governs: the woman naturally obeys." [p. 80]

However, it appears that many women knew how to take advantage of the situation.  One such was the wife of Andrew Taggert.  Then as now, women who wanted to were allowed to commit crimes with impunity, worse, they managed quite easily to make men culpable for their crimes [with the active participation of the courts, as prescribed by the law], and Mary Maxwell, a widow and wife of Andrew Taggert, was good in doing that.  Andrew Taggert was one of the participants in the preparations required for the Great Train Robbery.

   Taggert was born around 1790 outside Liverpool, and came to London near the turn of the century with his un-married mother, a prostitute. [p. 108]

[Note: Andrew Taggert was a despicable criminal but he was also the product of a single mother household. —WHS]

By the age of ten, he was employed in "the resurrection trade," the business of digging up fresh corpses from graveyards to sell to medical schools.  He soon acquired a reputation for uncommon daring; it was said that he once transported a stiff through London streets in daylight, with the man propped up in his cart like a passenger.
   The Anatomy Act of 1838 ended the business in corpses, [p.108]. . .  

   . . . Taggert also took a wife, one Mary Maxwell, a widow, and it is one of those minor ironies that the master magsman should himself be conned.  Mary Maxwell was a coiner specializing in small silver coins.  This bit-faker had served time in prison on several occasions, and knew something of the law, which her new husband apparently did not, for she had not married idly.
   A woman's legal position was already the subject of active attempts at reform; but at this time women did not have the right to vote, to own property, or to make wills, and the earnings of any married woman who was separated from her husband were still legally the property of her husband.  Although the law treated women as near idiots and appeared overwhelmingly to favor men, there were some odd quirks, as Taggert discovered soon enough.[2]
   In 1847, the police raided Mary Maxwell Taggert's coining operation, catching her red-handed in the midst of stamping out sixpenny pieces.  She greeted the raid with equanimity, announced pleasantly that she was married, and told the police the whereabouts of her husband.
   By law, a husband was responsible for any criminal activi-[p. 109]

ties of his wife.  It was assumed that such activity must be the result of the husband's planning and execution, in which the wife was a mere-and perhaps unwilling-participant.
   In July, 1847, Andrew Taggert was arrested and convicted of counterfeiting currency and sentenced to eight years in Bridewell Prison; Mary Maxwell was released without so much as a reprimand.  She is said to have displayed "a roistering, bantering demeanour" in the courtroom at the time of her husband's sentencing.
   Taggert served three years, and was given a ticket-of-leave and allowed to depart.  Afterward it was said the steel had gone out of him, a common consequence of a prison term; he no longer had the energy or the confidence to be a magsman, and turned to hoof-snaffling, or horse stealing.  By 1854, he was a familiar face in the flash sporting pubs frequented by turfites; he was said to have been involved in the scandal of 1853 in which a four-year-old was passed off as a three-year-old in the Derby.  No one was certain but, as a known prad prig, he was thought to have engineered the theft of the most famous prad of recent years: Silver Whistle, a three-year-old from Derbyshire. [p.110]

One of the most poignant statements, one that can be extended to all bureaucracies, is the one following the temperance movement on page 157:

   Victorians also witnessed another rivalry, centering around a new social institution — the organized police force.  Almost immediately, the new force began to form relationships with its avowed enemy, the criminal class.  These relationships were much debated in the nineteenth century, and they continue to be debated to the present day.  The similarity in methods of police and criminals, as well as the fact that many policemen were former criminals — and the reverse — were features not overlooked by thinkers of the day.  And it was also noted by Sir James Wheatstone that there was a logical problem inherent in a law-enforcement institution, "for, should the police actually succeed in eliminating all crime, they will simultaneously succeed in eliminating themselves as a necessary adjunct to society, — and no organized force or power will ever eliminate itself willingly." [p. 157]

The question here is: to what extent does a bureaucracy contribute to bring about the conditions that it was created to resolve?  If it is possible and likely that a bureaucracy perpetuates itself, will it not be an absolute requirement that it creates or finds enough reasons for its existence?  How does that apply to all aspects of jurisprudence and social services?  Most of all, does that not explain the escalating growth of the bureaucracies that dominate the divorce industry?

Most of all, the Victorian age hasn't passed all that long ago.  Just because the name of that period is now a historical term, have the Victorian attitudes really fallen into disuse?  Is it possible for a society to rid itself of gender-role prejudices in a mere century?  I don't think that it is.  The evidence is in all that is happening in the developed nations of the world.  Now more than ever before: when she does the crime, he does the time — and far too often he does time when she falsely alleges that he did a crime.  Has the Victorian age ended or has it become more entrenched under a different name, feminism?


PS.  I used to have a somewhat chauvinistic attitude.  Ruth cured me of that.  When we began our life together in 1983, I was very reluctant to permit her to contribute with her earnings to our common expenses.  I had been thoroughly indoctrinated that my role was that of the provider (My Dad was a product of the Victorian age, and so were most of my teachers).
   Although we share our work according to our physical and acquired capabilities, we are now equal in all respects according to what we can do.  Just like she, I now firmly believe that money has no gender, neither do any other resources in a marriage.  She talked me out of my prejudices, but she has not one iota of respect for feminists of any kind, regardless which of the ostensible "five genders" they belong to.  She feels that the sooner we get rid of feminists and their collaborators the sooner we'll have true gender equality and functioning families once more.  —WHS


  1. According to The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (by Colin McEvedy),

    "One in every eight Englishmen had the vote in the early nineteenth century, a proportion that the Reform Bill of 1832 raised to one in five. [1] ...only one in 300 Frenchmen had the vote in the 1820s ...the Belgians ...with a British-style Parliament elected a one-in-fifteen franchise.

    Note 1.) Things were not so good in the other parts of the United Kingdom: the post-Reform Bill proportion in Scotland was one in eight, in Ireland one in twenty."
    It is worth noting that Canadian men gained the universal voting franchise in 1920, after Canadian women did.  See "When did men and women have the right to vote in Canada???"

  1. "Appeared" is the key word here, for it appears that just like many other people who wrote about the times, Michael Crichton, too, forgot to mention that for all intents and purposes English Common Law had its roots in marriage contracts and dowager rights (those comprise some of the earliest legal documents on record).
      In the Victorian Age, dowager rights were very much under the protection of the law (actually, they still are).  The question is why anyone would consider a dowry not to be property.  Another custom of the time was that a prospective groom had to make a wedding gift to the father of the bride.  Thus it seems that women were property.  However, their husbands and all men, under the penalty of the law, were (and still are), very much held to the responsibility of preserving and protecting that "property" and held to be accountable for any damages "their property" was to cause. The question is: who was worse off, the providers and protectors or the ones preserved and protected?
       Consider the implications to men, who quite literally could not become married unless they were to prove to their future father-in-law that they had sufficient assets to "purchase" his daughter (thereby securing the financial security of their prospective wife).  After all, there are two sides to the comment by Alexander Walker, according to which women were not capable of doing any of the work that often killed men, and that therefore men, due to their ostensible greater strength, were condemned to a life of slavery and legal responsibility for their wives.
       That attitude hasn't changed to this day.  Men still comprise 92% of all job fatalities and are still excessively and legally held to be financially and criminally responsible for their wives and families, married or divorced.
    Notwithstanding the efforts by individualist feminists like Sarah and Angelina Grimke who in the 19th century fought a bitter struggle to gain for women not only rights but also responsibilities, during the last three decades we have seen more and more calls by feminists to eradicate many of the advances made by 19th century feminists.
       Women, now more so than at the beginning of the 60s, are once more considered to be as weak as they were during the Victorian Age, or else why would the Courts consider them to be deserving, and increasingly so, of the financial support of their husbands, married or divorced.  Moreover, the role of women as nurturers still condemns them to a life time of slavery to their children.  It is women who are being assigned that role at a ratio of 7:1 in custody decisions.  How demeaning that must be to women, who fought for more than a century now to be equal to men in every respect.

    Most importantly, what Michael Crichton considered to be "odd quirks [of the laws concerning women's culpability]" were far from being odd (by implication "rare") but rather endemic.  It is not very likely that Michael Crichton read these two essays by Belfort Bax:

Belfort Bax (July 23, 1854 - November 26, 1926), was a British lawyer, socialist journalist and philosopher, associated with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).  His essays prove that the advances and gains of "equal rights" for women with the credit for which radical feminists (a.k.a. Marxist- or socialist-feminists) of second-wave-feminism fame adorn themselves came into existence a century and more before the 1960s.

See also:

  • Another perspective of the Victorian Age, seen from the viewpoint of the history of the women's movement, an excerpt from The Wife at His Side, by Karin Jäckel, The Beginnings of the Women's Movement.
  • Working on the Railroad, a view of the working conditions for men who worked on the steelheads of the railway construction jobs during the Victorian Age, under conditions that would today without any doubt bring intervention by the Geneva Human Rights Commission.

  • Sex and Power in History, by Amaury de Riencourt, Review
  • There’s No Place Like Work : How Business, Government, and Our Obsession with Work Have Driven Parents From Home, by Brian C. Robertson. Review
  • The 1989 Montreal Massacre in the context of men’s sacrifices, 2008 12 07, by Professor Jeffrey Asher.

2000 01 12
2000 06 19 (Added link to individualist feminism)
2001 02 08 (added references to additional reading)
2007 03 07 (added reference to Belfort Bax)