As a warning to female virtue, and a humbleMary Ashford’s gravestone, Sutton Coldfield churchyard
Monument to female chastity,
This stone marks the grave of
Who, in the 20th year of her age,
Having incautiously repaired to a
Scene of amusement, without proper protection,
Was brutally violated and murdered
On the 27th of May 1817.
Early one May morning in 1817 Mary Ashford’s drowned body was discovered in a stagnant pit in the village of Erdington, just outside Birmingham. It was a brutal killing: she had been raped on her way home to her uncle’s farm in the small hours and thrown unconscious into the water. Abraham Thornton was soon afterwards taken into custody, charged, tried and acquitted. By asking for a trial by battle at a second process, Appeal of Murder, in London, he caused the case against him to collapse and he walked out a free man.
The crime and the trials were a sensation across the country, their details lapped up by an anxious and exhausted public happy to be distracted from the country’s economic and social turmoil. For many, Mary’s fate was entertainment (several plays used elements of the story). In general, there were two clear strands of discussion. One concerned the legal and historical precedent for Trial by Battle and the removal of both it and Appeal of Murder from the statute. My own book about Mary Ashford bears the subtitle ‘The Crime That Changed English Legal History’.
The second was fixed on what Mary’s behaviour, the public behaviour of women and their responsibility for crimes against them. As I was writing the book, this was the aspect of the case that I was increasingly drawn to and which came to dominate the finished work. Although I covered the changes to the law, I spent more time on the treatment of women in rape trials. So, apologies to any readers who have felt misled by the title. I asked the publishers to change it but they declined.
Recently I was contacted by Professor Roger Shannon, the producer of Property Rites, a remarkable feminist film made in 1983. This drama-documentary focuses on the sexual violence side of the case but rather than explore Thornton’s guilt or innocence, it looks at the way Mary’s rape and murder was used to drive home the message that women should forget notions of independence and confine themselves to the domestic sphere, and to lay blame for any violence against them at their door. As many people have remarked to me on reading my book or on watching my talk on rape culture, things have improved a great deal since 1817 – but also they really haven’t moved on at all. What Property Rites does is unambiguously juxtapose the attitudes of 1817 and 1983.
Made by the Birmingham Film and Video Workshop (BFVW) for Channel 4, the British Film institute and West Midlands Arts, it uses two characters, Cathy and Lynn (Sally Eldridge and Sianna King), to unravel the story of the murder and enmeshes aspects of their fictional life stories with an exploration of the forces at play in the wake of Mary’s death. The women visit Erdington and Mary’s grave at Sutton Coldfield and they ‘converse’ across the centuries with two men who were prominent in the debate about the causes of Mary’s death. The Reverend Luke Booker wrote the memorable lines on Mary’s gravestone quoted at the top of this article and the anonymous ‘Friend to Justice’ believed that Thornton was innocent and that Mary had killed herself in remorse at her loss of honour.
As Heather Powell, who also directed the film, explains, both these men blamed Mary for her own rape and murder, claiming that she showed either unthinking or culpable imprudence in being out at night unaccompanied with Abraham Thornton. Powell, who drew directly on her experience helping to set up the Birmingham Rape Crisis and Research Centre, makes the point that rape was considered theft of the property of a man – damage to the victim was in reality damage to either her father or her husband, who ‘owned’; it reduced her value.
The film also features Jean Mulholland (whose awesome 1982 analysis of rape reporting by newspapers for Insist: Birmingham Womens Paper is still relevant) talking about how contemporary newspaper treatment of the victims ensures that men are never responsible for a sexual assault. They are always excused as mentally ill, inadequate or following their normal male desires. The social historian Catherine Hall looks at how changes in society at the beginning of the 19th century brought moral panic around sex before marriage, which led to narrower behavioural norms for women.
In an article for the Birmingham arts journal The Triangle, Christine Hardy1 put it well:
In turning to the history of the Mary Ashford case Birmingham Film and Video Workshop’s project was to look to the past to gain insights into the contemporary construction of gender roles and attitudes to sexuality, of which rape is a part.
The film, now nearly 40 years old, is an artefact in itself, a major document in the historiography of the Mary Ashford case. When future historians look again at the case, they must include this film as a resource.
I look forward to it being made publicly available – I’ll keep you posted.
With thanks to Roger Shannon for making it possible for me to see Property Rites.
Resources and useful links
Property Rites was selected for the Edinburgh International Film Festival and was broadcast by Channel 4.
Please contact Professor Shannon directly for access to the film (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Watch ‘By her own consent’: The Murder of Mary Ashford and Rape Culture in the Georgian Era – a recording of my talk for Vauxhall History and Friends of South Lambeth Library.
There is a version of ‘What we’re trying to do is make popular politics’: the Birmingham film and video workshop [With Yasmeen Baig-Clifford, Roger Shannon and Paul Long], which was published in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 2013 on academia.edu (requires an account).