Divorce in the years between the two world wars
Listener Margaret Edwards contacted the programme after finding out that her maternal grandmother, Martha, divorced her husband Arthur – a rarity for someone from a poor background in those days.
The couple married in 1918 after he had been invalided out of the army and they had three children. Margaret told Making History that the family story was that Arthur died soon after the children were born.
However, some recent family research has disclosed that Arthur didn’t actually die until 1934 and that in 1945 when Martha re-married the words “formerly the wife of Arthur Wilkinson from whom she obtained a divorce” were written on the marriage certificate.
Vanessa spoke to Dr Caitriona Beaumont at London South Bank University who explained how difficult it was for women to get a divorce between the wars, particularly if they didn’t have any money. She went through the milestones in divorce law history:
• 1857 Divorce Act: husbands could petition for divorce on grounds of adultery alone whilst wives had to prove adultery plus cruelty or desertion
• 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act: husbands and wives now able to petition for divorce on grounds for divorce on adultery alone
• 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act: new grounds for divorce introduced including desertion of 3 years or more, on grounds of insanity, cruelty, adultery, rape and sodomy
• 1969 Divorce Reform Act: ‘no fault divorce’ with ‘irreconcilable breakdown’ of marriage recognised as a ground for divorce.
Statistics (taken from “Road to Divorce 1530-1987” by Lawrence Stone. OUP)
• 1923 -1939: 50 to 60 per cent divorce proceedings initiated by wives
• 1930s average 7,500 marriages end in divorce
• 1949 average 39,000 marriages end in divorce
First marriages (England and Wales) ending in divorce:
o 1920-24: 13 per cent
o 1925-29: 15 per cent
o 1930-4: 18 per cent
o 1935-39: 22 per cent
o 1950-4: c33 per cent
Charlotte Bronte in Hulme
Listener Helen Warren’s family research has taken her to Hulme in south Manchester where, she has discovered, Charlotte Bronte began writing Jane Eyre in 1846. Charlotte was with her father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte, who was having treatment for cataracts (see below).Professor Alan Kidd
Helen wants to know what Hulme would have been like in the 1840’s.
Vanessa met up with Professor Alan Kidd at Manchester Metropolitan University who explained that Manchester was the world’s first modern city. Its population exploded and areas like Hulme right next to the city centre were quickly overcome by the movement of people out into the suburbs.
In the 1840’s it was home to the skilled working class and many houses would have had three bedrooms and access to a privy. Nearby, however, there were streets of classic Mancunian ‘back-to-back’ housing and from this moment in time onwards the area became more and more run down.
Professor Kidd pointed out that Manchester was where Engels wrote “The Condition of the English Working Class” (1844) and this is the first time that the spatial layout of a city was described.
The Reverend Patrick Bronte was almost blind because of his cataracts. However, there were several skilled eye-surgeons working at this time – particularly in the North West. Vanessa spoke to Professor Will Ayliffe a consultant opthamologist in the NHS and also Gresham Professor of Physic.The History of Cataract Surgery
Professor Ayliffe described the procedures used at this time and how the Reverend Bronte would have needed to have spent several weeks lying very still so that his eyes recovered. This explains why he and Charlotte were in Manchester for a month when the operation probably took less than half an hour.
This painting shows a Dr Little using similar techniques to those used on the Reverend Bronte during an operation in the 1890’s.
Listener Frances Burnel was intrigued by the tomb of Archbishop Thomas Bourchier in Canterbury Cathedral. She was disappointed that there was no effigy and finds it odd that more isn’t known about a man who lived through the politically tumultuous times of the 15th century, crowned 3 monarchs and survived 32 years in post.Thomas Bourchier
Useful Link: Thomas BourchierThomas Bourchier
Guest: Dr James Clark
Reader in HistoryDr James Clark
Department of History,
University of Bristol
Guest: Dr Benjamin Thompson
Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History,Dr Benjamin Thompson
university of Oxford
Guest: Matti Watton
Archivist at Lambeth Palace Library in LondonMatti Watton