A History of Domestic Violence

By Tim Lambert

Domestic violence or partner-on-partner violence is probably as old as the human race.

In 1655 Massachusetts Bay Colony in North America decreed ‘No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband’. The punishment was a heavy fine or corporal punishment. This was one of the first laws in the Western World to ban domestic violence. It was also one of the first to recognize that both men and women can be violent to their partners.

It is a myth that in Britain a man had the right to hit his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb. William Blackstone (1723-80) wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). He made no mention of a supposed rule that a stick could be used to hit your wife if it was not thicker than a thumb. So it was never a part of English common law.

However domestic violence was tolerated, to a certain extent at that time. A husband also had a legal duty to support his wife. The husband was also responsible for his wife’s debts. And he was responsible for her behaviour. Some people felt that he had a right to ‘moderate correction’.

But men who beat their wives were sometimes prosecuted for assault. Abusive husbands were also shamed by their neighbours. Crowds would sometimes gather outside his house and bang pots and pans. 

However, attitudes changed in the 19th century. In the mid-19th century, certain places passed laws specifically against domestic violence (but only male on female).

In 1853 in Britain a law made the punishment for wife-beating up to 6 months in prison with or without hard labor. In Britain in 1878 a law allowed a woman to obtain a separation order from a magistrate if her husband was violent.

In Britain, another landmark came in 1891. Emily Jackson left her husband Edmund. He abducted her and Edmund then imprisoned his wife in a house but her family obtained a court order forcing him to release her. Edmund Jackson took his case to court and he argued that a man had a legal right to confine his wife if she deserted him. The judges agreed but Emily appealed. The Court of Appeal ruled that no person had a right to imprison another, not even if they were husband and wife.

In Sweden in the 18th century and early 19th century, men were allowed to use corporal punishment on their wives, as long as they did not injure them. But they lost that right in 1864. 

Meanwhile in the USA Tennessee passed a law making wife-beating a crime in 1850. By 1870 it was illegal in most US States. Maryland was the last US state to pass such a law, in 1882. In the USA wife-beating was sometimes punished by whipping. As late as 1952 a man in Delaware was sentenced to be whipped for wife-beating but his sentence was commuted by a judge.

Women could also be prosecuted for assaulting their husbands but it was far less common. Female abusers were punished by imprisonment or other means but not whipped.

According to anecdotal accounts in Britain in the 20th century, the police would sometimes deal with abusive men ‘unofficially’ by beating them.

In 1971 a woman named Erin Pizzey opened the first refuge for ‘battered wives’, in Britain. During the 1970s many more domestic violence shelters for women opened across the Western world.

The first domestic violence shelter for men in Britain opened in 2004. The first one for men in Australia opened in 2012 and the first one for men in the USA opened in 2017.

In England and Wales, the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS) began in 2014. The scheme allows people to ask the police if their current or ex-partner has a history of violence. It is often called Clare’s Law after Clare Wood, a woman who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend.

A fist

NHS webpage about domestic violence and abuse

Myths about domestic violence