Garrow’s Law and the Real Story of Women’s Rights

Episode one of the new series of ‘Garrow’s Law’ – shown last Sunday the 13th November 2011 on BBC1 – set the basis of the next episode. Lady Sarah, Garrow’s lover, sets out to obtain custody of her infant son. Despite being warned by Garrow and Southouse that as a married woman she has no rights at law, she issues an application for his custody.

In making the episodes the BBC, among a number of other sources, used my book Until They Are Seven, as a guide to the law in 18th and 19th centuries. The book is an account of the origins of women’s rights to children and property.

The eminent 18th century lawyer Blackstone said:

“In law a husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband”.

That remained the law well into the 19th century.

A true account, the book recounts the stories of Henrietta Greenhill and Caroline Norton and of their respective disputes with their husbands.

Henrietta Greenhill had three little daughters. When she separated from her husband Benjamin and refused to hand the children over to him he issued a writ of habeas corpus. That writ required her to produce the children to the court, and she complied with it. When she realised that she could not win, Henrietta fled to France with the children. In her absence in 1836 the Court of King’s Bench handed down its ruling. The case, The King against Henrietta Lavinia Greenhill was a strong judgement which reaffirmed that a wife had no rights to either her children or her property.

Caroline Norton became estranged from her husband George and he refused her any access to their three sons. Faced with the judgement in the Greenhill case she set out to change the law. As a result of her efforts, Parliament passed the Custody of Infants Act in 1839, which gave a mother limited rights as to her children. She continued to campaign and had a strong influence on the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which further enhanced women’s rights.

In ‘Garrow’s Law’, Lady Sarah goes to her former home and takes some of her jewellery. She is charged with theft. Henrietta Greenhill when she returned to her family, sent a maid to her home and recovered her jewellery, but happily Benjamin did not pursue her in the same way.

Until his retirement, His Honour John Wroath was a Family Court judge in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Until They Are Seven is based on original research into the lives and  actions of Caroline Norton and Henrietta Greenhill.

Until They Are Seven by John Wroath

2 Replies to “Garrow’s Law and the Real Story of Women’s Rights”

  1. It never fails to amaze me how heavily justice issues favoured the well off – and men in particular – in the past.
    Still today, there is a remnant left of that attitude, in that the will and intentions of a successful man is more likely to be heard and accepted – than that of other mortals. Also, people are more likely to laugh at the jokes of a famous person than one who is not – however lame.
    I don’t know if justice issues are taught in schools today – if not – perhaps it should be.

  2. Enjoying it greatly

    But three medical anachronisms (assuming a circa 1780s date for the action) jar in episode two:

    1: John Southouse’s typhus (gaol fever) was shown diagnosed with a stethoscope. This instrument was not invented until 1819.

    2: Doctors (here an apothecary?) very rarely undressed their patients to examine them until well into the 19th century.

    3: Southouse is told to go to bed, medical advice rarely given before the latter half of the next century. Fortunately Southover himself recognises the period he lives in by completely ignoring this recommendation.

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