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Jury of matrons

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Title: Jury of matrons  
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Subject: Murder of Julia Martha Thomas, Reference desk/Archives/Humanities/2007 October 2, English family law, Jury
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Jury of matrons

The jury of matrons was a form of special jury at English common law, usually used to resolve legal disputes over whether or not a party to a legal action was pregnant.

Civil juries

The civil jury of matrons was used to determine whether a recently widowed woman was pregnant with what was presumed to be her late husband’s child. Such a pregnancy could delay or prevent the late husband’s property from passing to his father or brother, if he died without male heirs. Civil matrons juries were composed of twelve knights and twelve matrons, summoned by a writ de ventre inspiciendo ("to inspect the belly").[1] Civil juries of matrons appear to have largely died out by the turn of the 19th century and became obsolete with the Married Women's Property Act 1882.

Criminal juries

In the criminal context, women convicted of capital crimes were permitted to plead that they were 'quick with child' (that is, the motions of the foetus could be felt), and to have this claim tested by a group of six women. If the woman was found to be quick with child then she was reprieved until the next hanging time. Criminal juries of matrons were customarily drawn from the women observing the proceedings.

The use of matrons’ juries in a criminal context was documented as early as 1387, in language which suggests that it was already a customary procedure. By the sixteenth century, women who successfully pleaded their belly, as the practice was colloquially known, were frequently either pardoned or granted a lesser sentence, such as penal transportation. With the decline of capital offenses and the rise of a more sophisticated medical understanding of pregnancy, the practice was increasingly regarded as obsolete, and was generally regarded as archaic and ridiculed in the press on the rare occasions it was employed in the 19th century.

A jury of matrons was employed at least once in the twentieth century, by Ada Annie Williams, who was sentenced to death in December 1914 for the murder of her four-year-old son, but received a reprieve until delivery on account of her pregnancy and subsequently had her sentence commuted.[2][3] The common law was superseded by the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931,[4] which was itself repealed by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 along with numerous other statutes relating to the death penalty.


The practice of drawing of jurors from the observers and lack of a process vetting the jurors’ expertise and honesty opened the possibility of stacking the jury pool, leading one eighteenth century commentator to complain that female thieves would have "Matrons of [their] own Profession ready at hand, who, right or wrong, bring their wicked Companions quick with Child to the great Impediment of Justice."[5]

John Gay’s The Beggar's Opera alludes to the idea that women awaiting trial or temporarily reprieved from hanging by virtue of an inaccurate diagnosis of pregnancy would sometimes attempt to conceive by their jailers in hopes of pardon. The context of the allusion suggests that Gay expected theater-goers to be familiar with the notion.

In what was presumably an attempt to combat the practice, the law held that a woman was not entitled to a second reprieve, regardless of whether she has become pregnant a second time, even if the second fetus has quickened. In such an event, the jailer was subject to a fine for "keeping her so slackly".[6] Scholarly review of the records of the Old Bailey and Assizes suggest that this provision was not strictly enforced.

External links

  • Text of the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from the UK Statute Law Database
  • 1 May 1883: The only occasion when such a jury was impanelled in New Zealand. Phoebe Veitch's murder conviction was commuted. [1] [2] [3]
  • Shame and Scandal — Women Criminals in the Late 19th Century — Part 2: Wanganui Flossy and the Dark Lady (with Podcast)


  1. ^ Oldham, James (1985). "On Pleading the Belly". Criminal Justice History 6: 1–64. 
  2. ^ "A Jury of Matrons". American Law Review 48: 280–281. 1914. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Means, Cyril (1971). "The Phoenix of Abortional Freedom". New York Law Forum 17 (2): 335–410.  
  5. ^ Smith, Alexander (1714). A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, & Cheats of Both Sexes (2nd ed.). London. pp. 2:185.  cited in Oldham, James (1985). "On Pleading the Belly". Criminal Justice History 6: 1–64. 
  6. ^ The Office of the  
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