Today, when marriages break down and there are children from that marriage, issues of childcare, welfare, maintenance and custody are considered of paramount importance. Long and bitter disputes over child custody and access arrangements have become a standard feature of modern divorce proceedings. In our ‘child-centred’ culture, protecting children from violence, and removing them from homes where they could be at risk from physical and/or sexual abuse is a major concern. A wide range of professionals, from social workers to police officers are trained to minimise the harm that can be inflicted upon children who endure violence, directly or indirectly, from their parents. It is highly unusual, especially in cases of divorce due to marital violence, for mothers not to gain custody of their children.
The situation could not be more different from that experienced during the period from the Restoration until the mid-nineteenth century, as represented by the Norcott and Veitch marriages. There were children living in both households. In the case of the Norcott children, harm was inflicted upon them from their father even as they lay in their mother's womb. We know that Rachael Norcott had been pregnant on two occasions when her husband, John, struck her. She was ‘big with child’ when he hit her so hard on the head that she was knocked senseless to the floor, and six or seven years later, a midwife was present in the household when Rachael had to be treated for injuries that her husband had inflicted.