My cousin got divorced in the 1940s. It took her years to live down the shame. I never understood why a woman felt humiliated by chucking in an abusive partner who beat her up – or why neighbours gossiped behind their hands about this ‘scarlet woman.’ He, on the other hand, was regarded as just one of the lads… Imagine, therefore, how a woman was treated in the 1890s!
Before 1857, just over 300 marriages ended in divorce. Let me rephrase that. Before 1857, for a married person to wed someone else, he (it was inevitably the husband) had to obtain a Private Act of Parliament. Only the exceedingly wealthy could afford one and the only permissible justification for divorce was adultery. Because it was an individual Act of Parliament, the paperwork for 314 divorces is stored in the archives at the Houses of Parliament…
As for everyone else… they didn’t bother.
Following legislation in 1857, it became slightly easier but still expensive. And, because divorce courts were only tried in London and, because the background to a divorce was generally juicy, divorce hearings and their sordid details were published in local and national newspapers. News of the screws indeed.
This is the backdrop to a story I discovered about Scottish-born Ellen Frances Addie who’d grown up in an affluent area of Stockport; Heaton Moor. On the 16th November 1892, 22 year old Ellen married Frederick Pickard, also 22, at the local congregational church. For a short while they were in Douglas on the Isle of Man before returning to Heaton Moor to live with her parents in Lea Road. They’d been married less than a year. As Ellen was already pregnant, perhaps she wanted the support of her mum; she certainly wasn’t getting it from Frederick.
It gets worse. As I read the petition (Ancestry, subscription), my jaw dropped lower and lower and the ‘Oh my Gods!’ grew louder and louder. Today, we might laugh. To a late Victorian this was… well… indescribably shocking.
Ellen’s divorce petition (24th April 1900) explains what happened next. On 1st November 1893 Frederick ‘has since lived separate and apart from her and discarded her without reasonable excuse.’ Less than a month after leaving his wife, their daughter Marie is born. Callous brute.
Not only had Frederick deserted her but, on the 25th April 1898 under the assumed name of Frederick Cecil Gill he ‘married’ Catherine Phelan at St Joseph’s Church, New York, USA. Bigamously! By November 1898, Catherine Phelan, too, had given birth. A son. Did she know Fred was already married? Did she care? We might never know. To compound Ellen’s chagrin, all dates and places of her husband’s binky-bonky were announced, in public, to the London court.
Ellen’s petition was undefended. Frederick, presumably pursuing the American high life with ‘wife’ Catherine, didn’t attend the court hearing. Ellen’s decree nisi was granted 12 November 1900 and her decree absolute 20 May 1901. About a fortnight afterwards, a free woman, she married second husband James Barker.
Of course the neighbours knew about the divorce. Details were published in the Manchester newspapers twice in the same week – just in case someone missed them the first time.
After remarrying, Ellen set up home with her eight year old daughter, Marie, and new husband a few hundred yards from her parents who were still living in Lea Road. Memories are long. Was the behind-the-back gossip too painful? Within a handful of years Ellen and James had relocated their growing family (four more daughters) to Southport, Lancashire. They were now well out of earshot of the scandal. They were still there in 1939.
You can read more about the mechanics of divorce 1815-1914 in Tracing Your Female Ancestors.