What was the age of majority in the 1870s England? I couldn't find a concrete answer in google so this is site is my last hope. It's for a story set in the Victorian era.

  • You're using the standard meaning of "age of majority"?
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 25, 2018 at 7:57
  • 2
    Assuming you mean the usual definition, according to Wikipedia, it was 21 until 1970, when it was lowered to 18. The Demography of Victorian England and Wales also mentions 21. Oct 25, 2018 at 8:00
  • 1
    It’s worth remembering that access to voting, liability or access to military service, criminal capacity trial and incarceration, access to alcohol gambling etc, liability to compulsory schooling, access to full time work, etc. we’re not linked to majority at the time. Oct 26, 2018 at 1:41

2 Answers 2


What was the age of majority in England in the 1870s?


Coming of Age

In many contexts you'll find the phrases "coming of age" and "age of majority" being used interchangeably. However it seems to me that the notion of coming of age was initially not associated with a specific age in years but more with the concepts of ages of man, as suggested by ideas like "the seven ages of man". In many cases you were treated like an adult when you demonstrated the capabilities of acting as an adult. In medieval times if a young person were knighted, they would, by that act, come of age. At times, the concept of coming of age was fairly fluid and pragmatic to some extent. At times it could depend on circumstances - in a dispute over land, a 20-year old person might be considered an adult unless the land were judged to be military land.

Age of Majority

The "Age of Majority" is only one of many ages at which a child acquires certain adult rights and responsibilities or becomes subject to certain laws. These are often not the same age as the age of majority.

A few notable ones (as commented by Pieter Geerkens)

  • Age of Candidacy (eligibility to stand for elected office)
  • Ages of License (legal permission to gamble, marry, consent to sex, etc.)

For example, from 1918 to 1928 women's age of candidacy was 21 while age of voting remained 30.

A useful guide to the current set of such ages in English law is the House of Commons Standard Note:SN7032. Constituency Casework: A guide to age related legislation.

English Law

According to THE LAW REFORM COMMISSION, Working Paper No. 2 – 1977:

In our law, “infancy” or “minority” is a status which was recognised by the Common Law and goes back to the earliest times. This status ceased when the minor attained the age of 21 years.

The paper goes on to explain how this arose after the Norman Invasion.

In "Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law", 1876, the author writes

The period of majority in Anglo-Saxon law was first fixed at the completion of the tenth year; but later, the period of dependence was lengthened to twelve years. Even this came to be regarded as too early an age to assume the responsibilities of manhood, and the later law shows a tendency to prolong the period to the completion of the fifteenth year, though there is no sufficient evidence that this ever became law in the Saxon age.

Throughout Norman times, however, and still in the time of Glanville, this was the age of majority for all except those holding knight's fees. For these the Normans had introduced the period of twenty-one years.

(I didn't check but I guess "Glanville" refers to Ranulf de Glanville, chief Justicar of England, 1180–1189)

You can readily find other sources (sometimes attributed to 'Bracton') saying things such as

The law book attributed to Glanville asserts that Knights come of age at 21, sokemen at 15 and burgesses `when they can count money and measure cloth'

So 21 as the age of majority has its origins in Norman times. Presumably, over time, 21 became established for all classes.

By 1774 in "The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England. Or, a Commentarie upon Littleton", In one place Coke writes

An infant or minor (whom we call any that is under the age of 21 yeares)

The Family Law Reform Act 1969 said

1 Reduction of age of majority from 21 to 18.

(1) As from the date on which this section comes into force a person shall attain full age on attaining the age of eighteen instead of on attaining the age of twenty-one; and a person shall attain full age on that date if he has then already attained the age of eighteen but not the age of twenty-one.

At the top it notes

Act wholly in force at 1.3.1972

We can be sure the age of majority was 21 in 1870.

  • 3
    For a really great answer, you could touch on the distinction between Age of Majority and both Age of Candidacy (eligibility to stand for elected office) and assorted Ages of License (legal permission to gamble, marry, consent to sex, etc.) No need to list them all, just highlight the distinction. For example, from 1918 to 1928 women's age of candidacy was 21 while age of voting remained 30. Nancy Astor became an MP while still ineligible to vote in an election. Oct 25, 2018 at 12:14
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    @Pieter: Updated accordingly, thanks for the suggestion. Oct 25, 2018 at 13:21

The age of majority was 21 in England, throughout the 19th Century, and until 1970. According to the answer to this question, 21 was the common-law age of majority, and had been since the concept was formed.

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