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Friday, 18 January 2013

Divorce records online on Ancestry.co.uk

Wells and Wells 1863 Ref:  J77/61
Divorce files for England and Wales are a very welcome recent addition to Ancestry.co.uk It would have been even better if they had given them the right title - they are not 'UK' records, as they are described by Ancestry. The records are the files of all applications for divorce in England and Wales from 1858 to 1911, as well as other kinds of suit, mainly judicial separations. Not all applications were successful, so if a case appears here it does not mean that a divorce was granted.

Most of the files have been weeded, so you may find more information about a case in the newspapers. Divorce cases were newsworthy, especially in the early years, so it is always worth checking British Newspaper Archive. Unfortunately it doesn't include The Penny Illustrated Paper (1861-1913) which is a particularly good source, but you can find it in the British Library 19th Century Newspaper Collection.

When you do a search, you may find that some of the results do not include the name you were searching for. This is not a fault in the search engine. If you look at the full record or the original document image, you will see that 'your' name appears as a co-respondent where the petitioner was asking for a divorce on the grounds of the spouse's adultery. You may uncover more than you bargained for! I have found a number of interesting cases in these files, including the one illustrated above, the first of three cases concerning Martha Cottam, who became the first wife of department store founder Arthur Lasenby Liberty. I wrote about this last year in a post for The National Archives Blog

While exploring the online records I came across another unusual case, where John Hyde's was refused a divorce from his wife Lavinia (wrongly transcribed as Louisa) in 1866. It is interesting because it highlights the difficulty of dealing with laws of marriage and divorce in different countries. John and Lavinia were from England, but were Mormon converts, married in Salt Lake City in 1854 by Brigham Young. John was sent to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) as a missionary, while Lavinia stayed behind in Utah. During the voyage he had a change of heart and on arrival he publicly renounced the Mormon faith and returned to England. He wanted Lavinia to join him, but she refused to leave Salt Lake City. According to newspaper reports, John was then excommunicated and the marriage thereby dissolved, leaving Lavinia free to marry again, which she duly did in 1858 to Joseph Woodmansee. John Hyde named Woodmansee as co-respondent, and asked for a divorce on the grounds of his wife's adultery with him. After some deliberation, the judge dismissed the petition. This seems a little rough on John Hyde, who could not now re-marry during his wife's lifetime, while Lavinia had already done so. It was a tricky business, though, involving English and American law, further complicated by the fact that Utah was still a territory, and was already in conflict with the Federal Government over plural marriage. I have read the arguments several times, and it makes my brain hurt! If you want to read them for yourself, just search for 'Woodmansee' in the British Newspaper Archive restricting your search to 1866, and you will find plenty to choose from.

Salt Lake City
I haven't yet found out what happened to John, but Lavinia had long and evidently happy life. Se died in 1910, and there are some details about her and her large family on Find A Grave and they are also easy to find in the census, thanks to their distinctive surname.

For some useful background on these records The National Archives has a podcast by Liz Hore, a records specialist from the Legal team, and there is also a Research Guide.

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2 comments:

  1. Most people don't get divorced because of the fear of complexity they would face in the divorcing procedure. As a result they struggle with their unhappy and unsettling marriage relationship. I found John and Lavinia story a bit depressing and I feel pity for John.

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  2. I feel sorry for both of them. From further reading of newspaper reports on the judge's decision, it seems that he did not grant a divorce on the grounds that the marriage wouldn't have been recognised in English Law in the first place, so it would seem that he would be free to marry after all, as a bachelor.

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