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Scandal and Divorce in the 18th Century – by Julian Hawkhead

In Lady Worsley’s time, divorce was a privilege of the wealthy.

I recently came across an interesting article in the BBC History Magazine about an infamous 18th Century divorce. It brought to mind the recent news about the lady in Dubai who has been imprisoned for committing adultery and may never see her children again once she is deported from that country, I wondered to what extent progress has been made.

The case in question concerned Sir Richard Worsley and his wife, Lady Seymour Dorothy Worsley. The year was 1781 and Lady Worsley had eloped with her lover Captain George Bisset, leaving for the big smoke and staying at the Royal Hotel on Pall Mall. The affair, colourfully described in Hallie Rubenhold’s book Lady Worsley’s Whim, led to her husband’s instigation of divorce proceedings.

Back in the 18th Century, divorce was a privilege of the wealthy, as it was only the wealthy who could afford the expense. Proceedings could only be brought by the husband. He could obtain a divorce through an Act of Parliament, which was an embarrassing rummage through the history of the marriage by his peers (imagine the scandal and gossip!) who would then agree that the marriage should be dissolved. An alternative option was to go to the religious ecclesiastical court to obtain a “separation from bed and board”, which ended the husband’s financial responsibilities towards his wife but left the couple in a “half-life” of still being married.

Sir Richard Worsley made an intriguing claim that related to a charge of “criminal conversation”. The charge was brought by Sir Richard against Captain Bisset for compensation, for damages to Sir Richard’s property. The “property” in question? His wife.

The religious laws against adultery – and perhaps these are still echoed in the law of Dubai – had been relaxed in the late 17th Century. This meant that other ways of seeking recompense could be sought. Sir Richard also alleged that Captain Bisset had committed the civil offence of trespass and damaged his wife’s chastity. He sought £20,000 in damages – the equivalent of £25.4 million today.

Reading about the case, I fell to thinking about the state of our current law and how the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973 has given the Court wide powers to exercise its discretion and deal with assets in a “fair” manner. The Court looks at a whole range of factors, prioritising the needs of any children, but looking at every factor in a balanced way. It was only as a result of successful campaigning for wives’ rights that in the early 19th Century, the first Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 recognised women as individuals with rights separate from those of their husbands.

Even now, no law is perfect. The current requirement for parties to wait for two years to avoid a “fault based” divorce is too long, in my opinion. At the same time there is an awful lot to be said for our English system, which steers away from black and white and from formulaic outcomes. Instead, it attempts to provide fair outcomes in differing circumstances. Hard rules can lead to unfair outcomes: the lady in Dubai has claimed that she was set up by her husband, who aimed to take custody of the children from her and have her thrown out of the country.

Back in the 1780s, the unfortunate Lady Worsley became the object of a terrible dispute. Captain Bisset defended the charges brought against him by claiming that Lady Worsley was simply not worth £20,000. In fact, he said, she was worth nothing! He alleged that Sir Richard had actively promoted Lady Worsley’s liaisons – not only with Captain Bisset but also with move than twenty other men during the couple’s six years of marriage.

In effect, Captain Bisset argued that the damage had already been done. The Court agreed with him – and the compensation awarded to Sir Richard was a meagre shilling.

You probably read a great deal about Sir Paul Mcartney’s divorce last year. Imagine reading about Lord and Lady in your Sunday newspaper!

Julian Hawkhead is the Head of the Domestic Family Law Department at Stowe Family Law. Specialising in cases involving complex financial arrangements for high net worth clients, often with a corporate or business element, Julian is becoming known as a leader in the field.

Julian has also trained as a collaborative lawyer through Resolution, the family solicitors group, and has successfully dealt with multi-million pound cases on that basis.

Julian is Stowe Family Law’s Senior Partner and is based in our Leeds office. Julian has extensive experience in all aspects of family law particularly in complex financial disputes. He has been with the firm for over 20 years and has a reputation for his strategic thinking and ability to cut through to the key issues and solve the most intractable of cases.

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