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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 …