When Your Money Is Not Your Own: Coverture and Married Women In Business in Colonial New South Wales
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 February 2015
In 1860 and again in 1864, Alexander Spiers appeared before the insolvency court in Sydney, endeavoring to explain his failure in business. He was described as a milliner in the records but he had never made a bonnet in his life. The real milliner and businesswoman was his wife, Ann Spiers, who had been running her business since her marriage in 1846. She made purchasing and pricing decisions, managed staff, was the front person in the shop, and advertised in newspapers. She told the insolvency court in 1860 that her husband “used to keep the books and attend to the house business but he never sold anything in the shop. He used to mark the goods occasionally.” Alexander Spiers similarly distanced himself. “My wife put the value upon the articles in our stock,” he said. “She is much better acquainted with their value than myself.” In spite of this, it was Alexander Spiers' name that was on the insolvency papers. Under the law of coverture, he was responsible for his wife's debts and her business legally belonged to him.
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35. Sydney Chronicle, September 5, 1846, 2. Similarly, Becke and Another v. Hopson and Another, SMH, July 7, 1864, 8. For contrast, see Ivey v. Kingsbury, The Australian, September 3, 1846, 3.
36. Macarthur probably had legal documents naming her as her husband's agent. Bruce Kercher notes that wives with absent husbands were able to sue in their own names in the early years of the colony, but this was not so by the 1830s. Kercher, An Unruly Child, 50.
37. This was also evident in neighboring New Zealand, where Mrs. Goodbraid and Mrs. Frost both failed in court purely because of absent husbands. Daily Southern Cross, January 30, 1867, 4; November 8, 1867, 4.
38. See Durand v. Williams, SMH, July 10, 1862, 2; July 11, 1862, 3. The coverture defense could be a delaying tactic. See Salway v. Jones, SMH, February 12, 1863, 5.
39. Southland Times, August 1, 1866, 3. Barron was a businesswoman and mother of Joseph Ward, New Zealand prime minister (1906–1912). Judith Bassett, “Barron, Hannah Ward – Biography”, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/2b7/1 (June 1, 2013). See also Terrett v. Cockerill, SMH, July 7, 1855, 3.
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41. Sydney Herald (SH), March 11, 1833, 2; SG, April 5, 1832, 2; and The Australian, January 6, 1834, 4.
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48. Levels of maintenance were not specified, and it was not clear how the orders were to be enforced. Barlow v. Barlow, SMH, February 12, 1845, 3; Barker v. Hutchinson, SMH, November 19, 1847, 2; and Anthony v. Jones, SMH, February 17, 1858, 3.
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50. A few exceptions included Margaret Seymour, SMH, April 21, 1854, 5; April 27, 1855, 5; and anonymous case, SMH, November 4, 1846, 3.
51. SMH, September 22, 1849, 3; May 6 1850, 2; May 6, 1850, 2; August 28, 1850, 3; March 24, 1851, 2; June 8, 1850, 4.
52. G.P. Walsh, “Nichols, George Robert (Bob) (1809–1857),” National Centre of Biography, Australian National University http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nichols-george-robert-bob-4296/text6957.
53. An Act to Amend the Act for the Maintenance of Deserted Wives and Children, New South Wales (August 25, 1858), para. 6.
54. Ibid., para. 4, 5. See Clark v. Hart, SMH, November 25, 1865, 4. See also the Australian Mutual Provident Society Incorporation Act (1857), which protected women's policies from their husbands, SMH, October 26, 1850, 2; March 5, 1857, 4. See also debates about legislation, SMH, June 23, 1858, 4; June 26, 1858, 5; July 31, 1858, 5.
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56. Comments by members of the Legislative Council indicated concern that marriages not be permanently dissolved. See, for example, SMH, November 14, 1857, 5.
57. The uniqueness of the South Australian case is interesting, and possibly reflects the strong nonconformist presence. South Australia was also the first colony to grant women the vote.
58. See Holcombe, Wives and Property, chap. 4, 5.
59. SMH, June 2, 1863, 3; June 3, 1863, 5.
60. For custody, see Atkinson v. Barton 1841, Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788–1899. See also Britcher v. Britcher, SMH, February 14, 1866, 2; May 19, 1866, 5; Empire, January 23, 1874, 3; Register of Orders. For violent husband returning, see Margaret Cunningham, SMH, December 20, 1856, 4.
61. See Register of Orders under the Deserted Wives Act, 1858–1948, SRNSW, 13476 (Register of Orders).
62. SMH, June 1, 1843, 3; June 10, 1864, 1; January 6, 1869, 1; February 22, 1871, 8; Ex parte Craddock, SMH, November 9, 1858, 2; George Boyle White (transcribed by Jenny McCarthy and Les Dalton), Diary, 1875, SLNSW, CY4700, May 21 1875; and “Jane Craddock, Bourke Street Sydney Insolvency,” SCIF, 1864, SRNSW, NRS 13654, 06491. For other examples of businesswomen who took advantage of the legislation, such as Frances Cowell, Margaret Allison, Goodlet Chauncy and Elizabeth Bene, see Bishop, ‘Commerce Was a Woman’, 2012, Chapter 4, especially 202 ff.