Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Tudor history is a rite of passage for British school-children and many of us will have sat chanting these six words to help us remember what happened to Henry VIII’s six wives in the early 16th century though technically the rhyme should probably say ‘annulled’.
From then on until 1857, divorce was only possible through a private annulment or a private bill and an Act of Parliament. It was a hugely expensive and intrusive process. The reform in the law was largely due to the efforts of Caroline Norton, who features in Margaret Forster’s brilliant book on the grassroots of feminism in Britain.
Only with the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which created a single matrimonial court, was it really feasible for women to leave their marriage, but it was still harder for them than it was for men. While men could divorce their wives for adultery, women had to prove both adultery and cruelty. Getting divorced was expensive and had serious ramifications, particularly for women. Reform of child custody laws did not happen until 1886 so if they had children, they risked losing access to them. There were a range of social sanctions, formal (for example, divorced women could not attend the court of Queen Victoria) and informal. Staying together in name and having affairs in private was an option many couples continued to favour and in the first twenty years after the new law was introduced, divorces averaged c. 150 a year.
However, in 1886 the Guardianship of Infants Act increased the chances of more favourable custody arrangements for women and the number of divorces steadily climbed. The end of the First World War saw a sudden increase with nearly 12,000 divorces between 1918 and 1923.
In 1923, a new Matrimonial Causes Act created a level playing field, with adultery the only ground needed for both women or men to seek a divorce. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the numbers steadily increased to around 5,000 a year.
It was not until 1937 that a new Act was passed that extended the grounds for divorce to desertion, cruelty, incurable insanity, incest or sodomy. The new laws, together with even more social freedom during the Second World War, were what seemed to have triggered a huge leap in the number of cases from 1940 onwards, with the average running at 30,000 a year for the next 25 years, apart from a huge spike in 1947 when there were just over 60,000 divorces.
Divorce figures come from the Office of National Statistics. If you are a fan of graphs, you can explore all the data here.