Age of Majority


Jun 12, 2004
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Does anyone know what the Age of Majority/Consent was in the early twentieth century? I figured that it was younger than it is now. The list of children on this site has 14 as the oldest age.

By the way, I ask because two years ago, someone, I don't remember who, told me that children were considered 12 or 14 and younger (which is nearly the same today, although the law in American considers anyone under 18 as children. Teens aren't technically children except by the law, yet they aren't adults either). I tend to think it was the latter for two reasons: (1) the fact that 14-y/os are on the list of children, and (2) because of the issue of the Ryerson boy (13 y/o) being turned away from a lifeboat, an action that the boy's mother immediately challenged.

Another reason I ask is because of the order "Women and children first." Today, that would mean women and anyone under, what--16 or 18? But what did it mean at that time? The reason that Lightoller initially refuse to admit the Ryerson boy into the lifeboat suggests that younger teens (under 18) may have been viewed as adults at that time.

Anyway, I was curious about the age at which young people at that time were viewed as adults. I got the impression that, in earlier times, the Age of Majority was originally set lower and rose over time. I know it wasn't necessarily unusual (but not common) for a man in his 20s or early-30s being involved with a 15 or 16 y/o around that time, a relationship that would be unheard of today. Some relationships with an age disparity, I've noticed, did exist, although I can't think of any specifically at the moment, aside from Astor, who was even older. On the other hand, Madeleine was 19 (I've read 17 in a couple of accounts, but I'm pretty sure it was the higher). However, the gap was still there.

Take care, all.
 

Julie Goebel

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Feb 24, 2007
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It's funny you should mention Lightoller not letting the Ryerson boy into a boat, my daughter and I talked about that subject yesterday. I told her it may have been a matter of his perspective.

When Lightoller was 13 he was already on his own and in him mind he may have thought he was an adult. However if his sons were that age he may have seen a 13 year old in a different light.

My daughter thought the boy may have looked much older that 13. Which reminded me of a time I saw her talking to boy who I thought was a senior in high school but it turned out he was in 7th grade.

As for the age of consent I'm not sure what it is anymore. I do know that when I graduated from high school I was going to join the army and needed my dads consent, because I was only 17. I also remember seeing Lightoller's marriage certificate and it saying that his wife needed her mom's consent because she was under 21.

As my kids get older I wish the legal age was changed to 22!

Julie
 

Paul Rogers

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Hello Mark.

"Does anyone know what the Age of Majority/Consent was in the early twentieth century?"

I would suggest that it was most likely age 21.

According to HMRC, the age of majority in England and Wales changed from age 21 to age 18 on 1st January 1970. In Scotland it is currently 16. The full wording from the HMRC website is as follows:
The age of majority was reduced from 21 to 18 as from 1 January 1970 (Section 1 Family Law Reform Act 1969, and Section 1 Age of Majority (Northern Ireland) Act 1969). Where, however, an interest arises under a will or trust deed made before 1 January 1970 (or, in England and Wales only, under a statutory trust of an estate of an intestate who died before that date), the age of majority remains twenty-one for the purposes of interpreting the will, etc; if the original instrument was made before 1 January 1970, but the interest arises under an appointment made on or after that date, the age of majority is taken as eighteen.
In the UK currently, there is no standard legal 'age of majority', with different minimum ages applying in relation to different activities. For example, at age 16 one can leave education, enter full-time employment, have sex and smoke (probably in that order!) but one cannot buy alcohol without a meal until one attains 18 years of age.

Despite (or because of) the above, there seems to be some confusion between when one ceases to be a 'minor' and when one reaches the age of majority. For example, the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act defined a 'child' as a person under 14 years and a 'young person' as someone between the ages of 14 and 17 years. This implies that one becomes an adult at age 18 despite the age of majority at that time being 21 years. Likewise, the minimum voting age was set to 18 years in 1949.

Bored yet? ;)

In retrospect, all of the above was just me rambling on instead of simply saying: "I think it was probably 21 but I'm not sure"!
 

Bob Godfrey

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In most countries today the age of majority, at which people assume full adult control and responsibility for every aspect of their own lives, is 18. In 1912 it was generally 21. I can't speak of the situation in every country, but that was the case in England and Wales. It was the age at which a man could vote, for instance, and a couple could marry without their parents' consent. Anybody under the age of 21 was regarded in law not necessarily as a child but always as a 'minor'. Within that period of life, the 'age of license' was variable for different activities and situations. The British Board of Trade regarded all aged 12 and above as adults. They are so designated on passenger lists, and all were charged adult fares.

All were obliged to attend school until the age of 12, could not enter licensed premises before the age of 14, and could not buy tobacco before the age of 16. The age of consent for sex outside the bounds of marriage was 16. The age of consent for marriage without need for parental approval was 21, but a 12 year old girl and a 14 year old boy could be legally married with their parent's consent. Most people, however, would have regarded a girl as unready for motherhood before the age of 15 or 16.

Minors up to the age of 15 were referred to in Law as 'children and young people', for whom the Law provided special protection from exploitation. The age at which a child became, in the eyes of society, a 'young person' (roughly equivalent to the later concept of the 'teenager') was open to interpretation, but it was generally 12 or 13, the point at which they left school and entered the adult world of working for a living. A boy generally regarded himself as a man at the age of 16, at which point he was still a minor but no longer regarded as a vulnerable 'young person', so most legal restrictions on his bevaviour had been lifted.

So, on the boat deck of the Titanic, there were three age groupings - those who were adult by any definition, the children under 12, and those who were minors in the eyes of the law but no longer children. Among the male passengers, it's that last group, or rather the lower end of it (the 'young people' aged 12-15), who are often now considered to have been harshly treated on the boat deck. But in 1912 the boats were being loaded by men who had begun their own working lives at sea at the age of 12 or 13 and had no reason to grant much leeway to others who had the look of being at least as old as that, like the 13 year old Ryerson boy. So the steward (not Lightoller) who wanted to exclude him was acting in a way that most would have expected. It was, however, a matter of personal judgement in each case. Winnie Coutts had trouble persuading the crew to allow her 9-year old son into a boat, but Frank Goldsmith told how an officer seemed willing to allow Alfred Rush (just turned 16) through to the boat deck. It was Alfred himself who was determined to stay behind because he considered himself to be a man.
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Jan 28, 2003
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And, Paul, to add to your plethora of inconsistencies - you can die for your country in the UK at 17 before you can buy alcohol legally in a pub or off-licence, or contract a marriage without consent. And in the Isle of Man, you can vote at 16 before you can do either of those things, or even buy cigarettes (soon to be 18 everywhere). Government policy on all of this seems to be a confused mix of expediency and social engineering i.e. you need fit young people who think they are immortal to go into battle, but they can't be trusted with health issues, emotional relationships, or voting. I think the MoD tries to keep the under-18s generally out of front-line conflict, but the law is not exactly rational on all of this.
 

Paul Rogers

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Bob: I won't say a word!
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Mon: Law is rarely rational, is it? For instance, one can enter into a contract of insurance to ride a motorbike at 17 (16 for a moped) but, for life/health insurance, a valid contract will not exist until one has reached 18. And I won't even mention the godawful mess our current Chancellor has made of Trust Law (it was never the most logical collection of statutes to begin with).

This has reminded me of the Tort Law case involving a beverage and a garden invertebrate - I know you'll remember it too - but let's not bring up (pardon the pun!) Donoghue v Stevenson (1932)... I used to like ginger beer!

Sorry Mark; we've gone off track a bit...

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Jun 12, 2004
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Thank you all for your detailed explanations. I wasn't quite sure, as the age of consent has wavered over time, throughout history.

Yes, I was curious about the "women and children first/only" issue. There were obviously some inconsistencies on the boatdeck that night, as Bob pointed out (rather long-windedly, LOL. Just kidding, Bob). I knew you'd pop up sooner or later because you're one of the ET experts on Edwardian cultural, legal, and social mores.

By the way, Bob, I read in several sources that the crew member in question who attempted to exclude the Ryerson boy was Lightoller, who was even the crew member who confronted Ryerson in ANTR (the book/movie supposedly most accurate). That's strange. Can you provide me with the source on that? If a steward had been the one, and this fact was clarified in the inquiries, then why say it was Lights? Hmmm, interesting. I've been out of the loop for a while now, so I need to re-read up on a few things.

Monica, thank you for providing me with the legal details regarding modern day England. I heard that the AOC there is 16, but I wasn't certain about the AOM or the specifics regarding tobacco, the RAS (Royal Armed Services?), or voting. It's funny that a 16 y/o there can have sex with anyone (16 or older), but they aren't yet able to smoke. As if they can handle the intricacies of sex [with an adult] but are not able to comprehend the health risks brought on by smoking.

Oh yes! A friend of mind, 55, who loves London and wants to go back there to live one day, told me once that 16-year-olds could legally be serviced in bars. Perhaps I misunderstood her, but then again, England is a different country. Teenagers in Europe tend to be, generally speaking, more mature than their same-aged counterparts over here.

Yes, each issue is different, but it sure tends to get confusing as heck, doesn't it? And, yes, the law isn't totally rational on everything. Social and religious influences tend to sway legal decisions in many areas.

In America, it's no less confusing: Each state has its own AOC. Not all the states are the same, BUT most have established 16. To further the inconsistencies, the national AOC seems to be 18, which would void out the states' AOC (so why should the states bother to even have their own AOCs if the national law supercedes it?). 18 is typically the AOM, BUT teens 16 or 17 can apply for Emancipation with parental consent, and 16 is the age at which teens can legally leave high school if they so wish. My own niece did at 16, but she is doing just fine now at age 29. Smoking and buying adult material: 18. Drinking: 21.

That reminds me of a related program (or part of one) that I saw not too long ago. It was an episode of Law and Order, which is set in New York City. The AOC is [theoretically] 17 there. I came in on the last scene, where a young girl and a man in his 30s were walking hand-in-hand down the street. They were talking and then kissed. My eyes popped, as did those of a female cop who saw them. She attempted to arrest the man for making a sexual initiation upon a young women who clearly looked 13 or 14. At that point, a male cop familiar with the man and girl came along and explained the situation to the female officer who then let the man go. Apparently, theirs was a case where the girl was 17--legal age in NY--but looked younger because she had Turner's Syndrome. The man and girl, lovers, proceeded to walk away, the girl throwing an evil look over her shoulder at the female cop as they did so. I didn't see the entire episode (I don't usually watch Law and Order), so I don't know what the case was about. The glimpse I saw, though, reflected how complicated--and sensitive--such matters are here in the States.
 
Jun 12, 2004
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That's all right, Paul. Actually, we're discussing the AOC and AOM, so it's not really far off track. Discussions here tend to take the detour more often than not anyway, considering how thoughts fly around, hehe.

Speaking of the Chancellor, I take it Blair has become very unpopular over there, eh? He's stepping down, I hear, although I never learned why. Is it the natural end of his term or was he asked to?
 

Bob Godfrey

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"16-year-olds could legally be serviced in bars" - Sure. You just can't buy them a drink first.

The source on the Ryerson story is Mrs Ryerson. In her affidavit she refers to 'an officer', but in another account (according to George Behe) she specifically refers to the very senior Second Steward (George Dodd).



Paul - Early days yet!

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Paul Rogers

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"Oh yes! A friend of mind, 55, who loves London and wants to go back there to live one day, told me once that 16-year-olds could legally be serviced in bars. Perhaps I misunderstood her, but then again, England is a different country."

You owe me a new keyboard; this one's got coffee all over it. The UK may be different to the USA but I'm sure it's illegal to, ahem, service a 16-year-old anywhere in public... Lifting my mind out of the gutter for a second, your friend is absolutely correct: anyone over 14 can order soft drinks in a pub/bar.

Tone is stepping down because he's become a liability to the Labour Party and, (if one believes the stories) because he promised Gordon [Brown] a go at being Prime Minister. It's a strange state of affairs as the UK will get a new Prime Minister without the benefit of a General Election. That's democracy for you!
 
Jun 12, 2004
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LOL, Sorry Paul. Didn't mean to blow your mind there, hehe.

As for "servicing," I was referring to selling alcohol, but I know you knew that.
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Soft drinks do seem more plausible.

Ah, that's the first time I've ever heard of a public office being obtained on the exchange program. Presumably, someone changed the British Constitution and didn't bother to tell anyone.
 
Jan 28, 2003
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"Ah, Mark. I'm sorry to tell you that there is no such thing as a British Constitution."

British law has been edited by court judgements, obiter dicta, and statute from at least William the Conqueror and thus contains some very peculiar laws still extant e.g. you may kill or give away a bullfinch, but not sell or barter it. The Dutch have a "one in - one out" system, whereby if you want to put a new statute onto the books, you have to repeal a mad medieval one in its place. Very sensible.
 
Jun 12, 2004
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Ah, sorry. I am not up on British legislation. I used the term "British Constitution" as a placeholder to represent whatever equivalent document you have there to establish your democratic processes.

As for what I've personally been doing, I am in the middle of a large freelance writing project for a client. It is fun and interesting, but it is time-consuming. Other personal projects, too, have my attention, not to mention the onset of my article regarding the break, from a post that I left two years ago and never managed to get back to because of time and work constraints.

What about you, Paul?


Monica: Updating laws is sensible, yes, since it is very unlikely that many medieval statutes would apply today.

I would be curious to know of other silly medieval laws Britain still has in its books.
 

Paul Rogers

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"I would be curious to know of other silly medieval laws Britain still has in its books."

Well, it is illegal to be drunk in possession of a cow or to enter parliament in full armour. It is still legal however (or so I believe) to urinate against the rear wheel of your vehicle, as long as you shout: "In pain!" three times, to warn passers by. A good site for this sort of stuff is: http://www.dumblaws.com

As for me, I'm still working for the financial services arm of a UK bank, focusing on Taxation & Trust knowledge. In other words, I'm a sad git.
 

Bob Godfrey

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That's a great idea from the Dutch, Mon. Maybe we could extend that to the House of Lords - every time a new Peer of the Realm is created, a mad medieval one is pensioned off.
 

Bob Godfrey

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Mark, don't run away with the idea that all of our medieval laws are silly. How would you like it, for instance, if you were strolling along the the Old Kent Road, admiring the costers in their colourful costumes, and somebody discharged the full contents of a chamber pot from their window without first shouting "Gardez l'eau!". Especially if you'd just encountered Paul washing his car.
 
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I personally love the old-but-never-repealed British law that it's perfectly legal to kill a Welshman, as long as its Sunday, he's on a hill and you do it with a bow and arrow.
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(nothing against Wales you understand, but my ex was Welsh, lol)
 

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