In 1857 Parliament passed a landmark act that fundamentally altered the ability of married couples to obtain divorce. The Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) was only one step on the pathway to modern divorce law but it was an important one. In essence it enabled divorce to be dealt with by the civil not the ecclesiastical (church) courts so long as the grounds were adultery. It wasn’t equal (the nineteenth century was a deeply patriarchal society after all) so while men only had to prove that their wife had committed adultery women had to show an additional cause (such as cruelty or desertion).
One extra clause in the act allowed a woman to protect any earnings she had from falling into the hands of her husband if he deserted her. Previously men were deemed to own everything on marriage and so could walk away and take everything with them. This important legal change brought Louisa Lichfield to Clerkenwell Police court in July 1858 to ask for Mr Tyrwhitt’s help.
Mrs Lichfield was a ‘respectably dressed and very lady-like female’ who gave her address as 4 King Street, Lower Road, Islington. She applied to the magistrate for an order under section 21 of the Matrimonial Causes Act to protect her property from Henry Lichfield, a greengrocer of Cross Street, Lower Road, Islington.
Louisa’s solicitor (Thomas Wakeling) explained that in February 1855 she had arrived home with her husband who, ‘without any provocation’, assaulted her and threw her out of their home, dislocating her shoulder in the process. He told her that ‘she had no business there, and that she should never enter his place again’.
She had pleaded with him and returned to him several times only to be shunned and rejected again and again. With no income or saving Louisa fell into poverty and went to ask help from the parish authorities of St Marylebone. They were unwilling to help and passed her to St Mary’s, Islington and even though Henry was well aware of her desperate situation he did nothing to help her.
Since that time she ‘had been partly supported by her friends and partly by her needle’ (in other words she earned money by sewing). In the meantime she had managed inherited some money and property from a deceased relative and now was frightened that Henry would claim it and take it from her. The new law enabled her to protect it and she was therefore seeking an order from Mr Tyrwhitt to do this. The magistrate was happy to oblige her.
I think this shows that Louisa, and/or her friends, well aware of the change in the law and how it might benefit her. She was lucky to have such allies in this situation as few women would have been to organize an effective legal challenge without them. Louisa was not a rich woman from a privileged background, she was the deserted wife of a small businessman, a member of the aspiring middle class. She was disadvantaged by the system but the 1857 act did at least go some way to protecting her from the worst her husband could do, and Louisa was an early beneficiary.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 29, 1858]