In January this year we were very happy to welcome Olivia Colman and the Who Do You Think You Are? Team to the Parliamentary Archives. They were in search of records about Olivia Colman’s ancestors and they found the information they were after in one of our private acts. Specifically, a private act granting a divorce. Our private acts are not widely known as a family history resource, so I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you a little more about them and how you can search for them.
Divorce by legal process only became possible after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. Before that date people could get a legal separation called a mensa et thoro from an ecclesiastical court, and damages for adultery could be obtained from a civil court - this was called a suit for criminal conversation. However, the only way to get a full divorce which allowed re-marriage was to obtain an Act of Parliament by proving adultery or life-threatening cruelty. Parliamentary proceedings were expensive and so it is only the very rich who divorced in this period.
The Parliamentary Archives holds the records of divorces obtained by Act of Parliament between 1670 and 1857, including the initial petitions to the House of Lords, Acts, Bills, amendments and copies of earlier proceedings in the ecclesiastical courts. Divorce Bills were usually considered by a committee of the whole House of Lords, and evidence was given there by witnesses. The evidence can give large amounts of personal information about the people involved, as maids, butlers and coachmen were called alongside family members to testify about the state of the marriage.
The first women to successfully divorce her husband was Jane Campbell in 1801. You can read more about the records and the case here.
If you think your ancestor may have been divorced by Act of Parliament, search the Parliamentary Archives catalogue for their surname and the date or date range in which you think it happened. If you find an Act or any other material, you can contact us to make an appointment to see it, or order copies.