Divorce in the 19th century

From 1 January 1858 a divorce could be granted by the new Court for Divorce & Matrimonial Causes. In its first 10 months of existence there were 288 petitions, but only 37 divorces were granted. In the first ten years there were 1,279 dissolutions of marriage. Until 1937 men could obtain a divorce on the basis of adultery, but women had to additionally prove another offence, such as cruelty.

I have so far discovered two divorces in my family in the 19th century. The first involved Harriet Statham, my 1st cousin-4-times-removed. In February 1868 Harriet married John Philip Thompson, a groom, at Aston parish church, & on 23rd March of the same year their son William Leonard Thompson was born. On 3rd June 1874 John filed a petition for divorce on the grounds of Harriet’s adultery. The petition stated that John & Harriet had lived together from when they were married until March 1870, when they separated. In March 1873 Harriet gave birth to a child ‘of which your petitioner was not the father‘. The divorce was granted & the final decree was issued on 1st June 1875. In March 1876 Harriet married John Sheffield in Tamworth parish church. Her condition on the parish register was ‘Divorced person’. I found this interesting, as I had assumed divorcees could not get remarried in a church.

The second divorce involved Margaret Gallimore, my 1st cousin-5-times-removed. In June 1855 Margaret married David Withinshaw, a miner, at Fazeley parish church, and later that year their daughter Ann Elizabeth Withinshaw was born. On 14th April 1888 Margaret filed a petition for divorce on the grounds of David’s bigamy with adultery. The petition stated that the couple had lived together at varous places since their marriage, including Fazeley, Linton in Leicestershire, Westphalia in Germany ‘& divers other places in England‘. It also stated that ‘David Withinshaw has been guilty of cruelty, desertion, bigamy & adultery… [He] treated me with great unkindnesss and cruelty – that he frequently endeavoured to extort & did extort money from me by violence – that he frequently in violent & offensive language abused & violently assaulted me‘. There were descriptions of specific instances of physical abuse. In June 1880 ‘[he] deserted me without cause and left me destitute‘. In June 1887 David married Elizabeth Marples bigamously at Sheffield parish church. Margaret was granted her divorce & David was ordered to pay her costs, which amounted to £45 5s 5d. David was tried for bigamy at Liverpool Assizes, but as there was no evidence he had heard from Margaret for 7 years, or that he knew she was alive, he was acquitted.

Useful links:
England & Wales, Civil Divorce Records, 1858-1911

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