Non-conformity: cohabiting (living with a man out of wedlock)

{See also Press cuttings}

It seems like stating the obvious but, before men created religious and legally-binding forms of marriage, every man and woman who lived together in a sexual relationship were cohabiting.

By the time of Queen Victoria's ascendency to the throne in 1837, it was forbidden among polite society to cohabit, although it continued quietly among the labouring families of rural communities and also in the poverty-stricken underworld of the big cities.

Among the middle and upper classes, and the 'respectable' working classes who imitated the genteel social habits of the class above them, to openly cohabit was considered to be extremely sinful. The scandal damaged the reputations of both parties, though it was much worse for the women, whose 'reputation' would be completely ruined. Even feminists did not approve of it, as all the risk and danger (especially the danger of having an 'illegitimate' child) fell on the woman's shoulders. Marriage was thought to protect a woman, give her increased respectability, social standing and security. As the woman stayed and managed the home or worked for a cleaning service the men would venture out to work.

A suffragist, Elizabeth Wolstenholme , refused to marry her boyfriend Ben Elmy because they both objected to the anti-woman marriage laws. They cohabited in secret, but when she became pregnant her suffrage colleagues persuaded them to marry because it would severely damage the suffrage movement to be associated with such 'immorality'.

And yet there were Victorians in the upper echelons of life who cohabited, and some who made no secret of it. The parents of prominent feminist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon Bodichon never married, despite having several children (who took their father's surname). Historians believe this is the reason their children were shunned by their cousins, who included Florence Nightingale.

In 1895 Edith Lanchester (1871-1966) of 72 Este Road, Battersea, the well-educated daughter of a prosperous architect, told her family that, owing to the anti-woman marriage laws, she intended to cohabit with James Sullivan. She felt the wife's vow to obey the husband was immoral and did not wish to lose her independence. Her family tried everything to dissuade her; she offered to change her surname and live abroad, but would not marry. Her outraged father had her examined by Dr George Fielding Blandford MA, MD, FRCP, a leading mental specialist and eminent author of Insanity and its Treatment. He immediately signed emergency commitment papers under the Lunacy Act of 1890, because she could not see that her plans meant 'utter ruin' and 'social suicide' for a woman. Her father and brothers forced her into a carriage, where they bound her arms and legs with rope, and locked her up in the Priory Institution, a private lunatic asylum in Roehampton, Surrey. Mr Sullivan's MP appealed to the Commissioners of Lunacy, who pronounced her foolish but perfectly sane and released her after four days see press cuttings . In the aftermath the case was universally discussed, verbally and in print, with strong views for and against. Keir Hardie, leader of the Independent Labour Party, thought she had discredited socialism, but feminists and radicals hailed her a heroine. The Marquess of Queensbury offered Miss Lanchester £50 if only she would get married, but she refused, cohabited with Mr Sullivan for fifty years and had two children.(From Notable Sussex Women)

In the 1890s there was a Society for the Abolition of Marriage, based in Leeds.

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All pages © Helena Wojtczak 2009. Corrections and additions are warmly welcomed. Email me