Victorian Divorce Records Revealed

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Historic divorce records revealed

Information on how Victorian families lived, including details of their marriages, affairs and divorces have recently become available to the public. The UK Civil Divorce Records for 1858 to 1911 are now available online, thanks to family history website, Ancestry.co.uk.

Divorce records unveiled

The records have revealed details of around 70,000 divorce proceedings that took place in the UK in the 19th and early 20th century, including:

  • the names of the husband, wife and any other ‘involved parties’, and
  • the grounds for divorce or nullification – such as adultery, mistreatment, or inability to consummate the marriage due to ‘malformation or impotency’.

The records also include civil court details on separation, child custody battles, legitimacy claims and applications for the nullification of marriage.

Divorce in Victorian times

The online records start in 1858, which was a significant date in the history of divorce in the UK, as the Matrimonial Causes Act came into force that year. This Act removed jurisdiction of divorce from the church and made it a civil matter.

Prior to 1858, it had been difficult for couples to obtain a full divorce, as an application required intervention by Parliament, and only 300 were granted in almost 200 years.

Divorces were expensive to obtain in the 19th century and therefore were much rarer than they are today. In addition, proving the necessary grounds for a divorce was much harder, with a greater degree of evidence required.

Approximately 120,000 divorce applications are made each in year in current times, but in the 19th century the average was only around 1,200 a year.

Marriage the only option

Despite the fact that divorce would be very difficult for couples to obtain in the event that their marriage broke down, marriage was the only real option available to couples who wanted to live together. Cohabitation, or living together without marriage, was not considered acceptable in Victorian society, and census records from the 19th century show that cohabiting couples only comprised around 1% of households, compared to 10% today.

Divorce double standards

Under the provisions of the earliest divorce laws, only men were able to divorce on the grounds of adultery alone. Women were required to provide supplementary evidence of mistreatment by their husbands, such as battery or desertion. This double standard persisted in the laws governing divorce until 1923.

Many divorces initiated by women

Despite this, it seems that around half of the proceedings that took place during the period were initiated by women.

According to Miriam Silverman, UK Content Manager for Ancestry.co.uk, the accounts detailed in the records are fascinating.

“At the time, such tales often developed into national news stories, but now they’re more likely to tell us something about the double standards of the Victorian divorce system or help us learn more about the lives of our sometimes naughty ancestors,” she said.