Monash University
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Masculinity and fatherhood in representations of male-perpetrated child homicide in London, 1889–1913

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posted on 2019-06-10, 01:39 authored by Lister, Alesha
This thesis is the first legal-historical study of male-perpetrated child homicide cases tried in the Central Criminal Court of London between 1889 and 1913. It examines how concepts of masculinity and fatherhood were mobilised in representations of men accused of killing their children in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England. The research draws upon a dataset of 306 homicide cases involving victims under fourteen years of age tried at the Central Criminal Court of London between 1889 and 1913. The 120 homicide cases involving male defendants are the specific focus of the study and select cases are analysed using gender as the primary category of analysis. Divergent representations of men indicted for the death of their child within legal and social contexts are examined within a post-structuralist theoretical framework. Qualitative and quantitative methodologies are employed to analyse archival material produced by the Criminal Court and Home Office, and relevant cultural discourse within the printed media. This study finds that constructions of male-perpetrated child homicide in nineteenth and early twentieth-century England were highly gendered and culturally specific. It argues that contemporary cultural expectations of working-class masculinity played a decisive role in determining verdict and sentencing outcomes in trials of child homicide. The first chapter establishes the research design and conceptual framework of the thesis and positions my thesis in relation to existing literature on child homicide in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England. In chapter two I explore how cultural assumptions about masculinity and fatherhood were bought into play within criminal trials of women accused of killing their children. Chapter three considers how cultural assumptions about class and gender underpinned spousal provocation as a mitigating defence for men and women accused of killing their children. Chapter four examines the construction of masculinity and fatherhood within insanity defences of paternal filicide. My fifth chapter demonstrates the extent to which perceptions of men’s guilt and culpability in cases of child homicide were shaped by cultural expectations of class, gender and sexuality. The final chapter analyses how contemporary understandings about paternal responsibility and authority played out in trials of homicidal paternal negligence. The willingness of the Court to accept socio-economic explanations of male- perpetrated child homicide was underpinned by late Victorian and Edwardian understandings of class and gender. Rulings recognised working-class men’s ability to attain full masculine status was subject to a range of external social and economic forces beyond their control. Juries repeatedly showed their willingness to extend mercy to men who killed their children out of desperation when they tried and failed to provide for their family. The strength of cultural associations between child homicide and the economic marginalisation of London’s poor lent credence to men’s appeals to socio- economic circumstance to mitigate acts of child homicide.


Principal supervisor

Christina Twomey

Additional supervisor 1

JaneMaree Maher

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts