English Divorce

I have been trawling through this subject in relation to my work on wife selling, and am surprised to find that by the 1850s both of these had virtually died out, despite the population continuing to grow. Marital separation was a mess, with 3 courts being involved – the ecclesiastical, which could award separation but without the right to remarry, common law had criminal conversation cases whereby a husband could sue the wife’s lover for damages for the loss of his wife, and finally, generally after successful results in the other two, a parliamentary divorce could be granted, by act of parliament, all of which could end up costing thousands of pounds. But the women lost everything if convicted of adultery, even if innocent as they were not allowed to give evidence in court. As Lord Lyndhurst said, ‘Men make the rules and the women are the victims.

This is from Lawrence Stone’s Road to Divorce:

“Mr Drummond told the House of Commons that ‘the laws of England were more severe against women than any other country in Europe, citing another radical who had asserted that ‘adultery is in itself a dissolution of marriage’, he faced his fellow MPs with the awkward logical consequence: ‘If that is so how many men in this house are married?'”

I wonder if he is an ancestor of mine. Hope so.

The only basis for divorce was if the wife was convicted of adultery – so it is not surprising that women rarely initiated cases. But in 1801 the first case was successful, brought by Mrs Addison against her husband for incestuous adultery with her married sister. Lord Thurlow was so appalled by the sexual relations with the sister-in-law he urged the passage of the bill with a special clause to transfer custody from husband to the wife. The wife usually lost all contact with her children.


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