Changes in divorce: the 20th century

Between 1909 and 1910, in response to extensive campaigns outside Parliament and various failed Bills, a Royal Commission examined ways of reforming Victorian divorce law.


Existing law was full of inconsistency which made it difficult, particularly for women, to end unhappy marriages. There was much concern, too, about the number of couples 'living in sin' owing to the difficulties and costs involved in obtaining divorce.

Divorce increases

The Commission's recommendations for simplified, less costly and fairer proceedings did not result in any immediate change. However, the increased numbers of divorces during and after the First World War led to more pressure for change, especially from groups representing newly-enfranchised women.

A Private Member's Bill introduced in 1923 - which passed as the Matrimonial Causes Act - made adultery by either husband or wife the sole ground for divorce. A wife no longer had to prove additional faults against the husband.

Marital separation and maintenance

Campaigning in the early 1920s also led to the Summary Jurisdiction (Separation and Maintenance) Act in 1925 which extended the grounds on which either partner could obtain a separation.

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Lords debates the Second Reading of the Matrimonial Causes Bill

Also within Living Heritage

Glossary link