A deserted wife takes advantage of a change in the marriage laws

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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]

The actress and her ‘lunatic’ husband

L0011787 Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Southgate, Middlesex: panoramic

Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in the late 1800s. Munster House was much smaller but I can’t find a surviving image of it.

The Victorian Police Courts acted as a place of public record in two key ways. First there was a formal method of recording the business that took place there (although sadly very few of these records survive). Secondly, the newspapers reported on what went on in court (even if this was partial and somewhat anecdotal). So if you wanted to make an announcement or a statement of fact relating to the law the police court was a good place to do it.This was clearly the intention of Mr W. Doveton Smyth, a solicitor, when he approached the bench at Westminster in late January 1888.

Mr D’Eyncourt gave Doveton Smith permission to make a statement in relation to a complaint that had come before the court on the previous day. That had been brought by a Mrs Lloyd, who was described as an actress. She had complained that following her marriage to Mr Lloyd he had been whisked away by his family and placed in a lunatic asylum for his own good. Mr Smyth had investigated the circumstances and had come to report on what had transpired since.

The background appears to have been that Mr Lloyd’s family did not approve of his choice of bride. Despite the fact that he was 30 years of age (and she was 25) and so capable of ‘knowing his own mind’ they had moved to separate the couple. The disapproval stemmed not from any difference in age but instead in class. The Lloyds were a wealthy and very respectable family, Mr Smyth explained, and the new Mrs Lloyd was an actress – something that at the time was not deemed to be ‘respectable’ at all.

The pair had married at St. Mary’s church, Clerkenwell on the 17 December 1887 and had known each other for at least two years. Mrs Lloyd had been married previously, to an army officer who had died. The widow was also the sister of a solicitor, a very respectable profession as Mr Smyth was keen to point out. Since all Police Magistrates were trained barristers at law Mr D’Eyncourt was hardly going to disagree with his analysis.

Following the wedding, Smyth continued,  the ‘bridegroom seems to have indulged heavily in stimulants, and he was brought to such a condition that it was thought desirable that he should be put in confinement for a short time’.

This sounds a bit like a modern celebrity checking himself into the Priory to detox but I don’t think Mr Lloyd was given a choice in the matter. Two weeks after the wedding he was taken to Munster House Lunatic Asylum in Fulham where he remained until Mr Smyth visited him the day before his appearance in Westminster Police Court. The solicitor said that he spoke with Mr Lloyd for about an hour:

‘I must say, sir, that he has entirely recovered; and I think that all parties admit that if he was insane, he is now perfectly sane. I am bound to say he appears to be treated with the utmost kindness and consideration: but naturally he is anxious to obtain his liberty’.

D’Eyncourt enquired if he was asking for any help from him that day.

‘No sir’, replied the solicitor. He had met with the Commissioners of Lunacy which oversaw the care of the mentally ill in Victorian asylums, and they had agreed to look at Mr Lloyd’s case forthwith. Had they not I suspect Mr Smyth would have asked the magistrate’s help in taking the case to a Judge in Chambers so a court order could be obtained to secure the man’s release.

Having made his statement Mr Smyth withdrew but was back a few hours later clutching a telegram. This was from the Commissioners to Mrs Lloyd and it confirmed that they had authorised the ‘complete discharge of her husband from the asylum’. So it seems that Mrs Lloyd’s determination to get her new husband out of an institution where his family had imprisoned him had borne fruit. He was to be freed and Mr Smyth saw this as a very ‘happy termination of the case’.

Mr D’Eyncourt seems less sanguine about it; ‘I hope so’ he concluded, perhaps suspecting that a family so determined to go to such lengths to thwart what they saw as a social climber marrying into their clan were unlikely to make life easy for the newlyweds. Time would tell and now the whole affair was in the public domain, and a good name dragged through the newspapers.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, January 25, 1888]