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Obtaining a divorce

Before the mid-19th century the only way of obtaining a full divorce which allowed re-marriage was by a Private Act of Parliament. Between 1700 and 1857 there were 314 such Acts, most of them initiated by husbands.

Divorce granted by Parliament only

Divorce was granted by Parliament only for adultery. Wives could only initiate a divorce Bill if the adultery was compounded by life-threatening cruelty. Because of the high costs, only the wealthy could afford this method of ending a marriage.

Special court set up

A movement for reform of divorce law emerged during the early years of Queen Victoria's reign. In 1853 a Royal Commission recommended the transferral of divorce proceedings from Parliament to a special court.

Matrimonial Causes Act 1857

These proposals were carried out in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, but the grounds for divorce remained substantially the same. Adultery remained the sole ground for divorce, although wives could now allege cruelty and desertion, in addition to the husband's adultery, in order to obtain a divorce.

Related information

The Parliamentary Archives holds divorce acts from before 1857

Find out more about Private Bills and Acts