A New Methodological Approach to the History of Divorce, 1857-1923.

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Arts, Design and Social Sciences


High-profile divorce cases regularly grab headlines and public attention and their circumstances (not to mention the public response to them) can reveal much about social norms and behaviours. Divorce cases can also lead directly to legislative reform, e.g. Owens v. Owens (2018) led directly to the passing of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2022, which made it possible for couples living in England and Wales to divorce without ascribing blame to either party, something unimaginable when divorce first became a concern of the state under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. Much contemporary family law legislation can be traced directly back to the 1857 Act, yet historic data about the lived experiences of the men, women and children who appeared before this first family court is currently unknown. Moreover, without a methodological framework to examine the poorly indexed court records (held under J 77 at The National Archives), such information is unknowable.
This project will address these shortcomings using a new, multidisciplinary methodology that combined mixed-method historical approaches with feminist legal theory and digital humanities. An innovative relational database, designed by the PI, will enable the systematic examination of petitions made to the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes (CDMC) from its establishment in 1858 to 1923 (the limit of the 100-year rolling embargo). The project database consists of two smaller interlinked databases. The first uses core information about the case itself to create an Individual Case Record (ICR), and the second create Individual Person Records (IPR). IPRs can be attached to multiple ICR. The names of solicitors, barristers, clerks, judges, petitioners, respondents, and co-respondent(s), including their occupation, address, details of marriage, legal grounds of the petition, details of any children and related custody arrangements, along with the decision reached by the court, will also be recorded. There are also a small number of cases where an IPR outside of the legal professions is attached to multiple ICR. For example, Nadine Sophie Charlotte Brinkley appears as a child and later (twice) as a petitioner, offering the exciting opportunity to examine the longitudinal socio-economic effects of divorce in the 19th and 20th century.
The resulting dataset will be interrogated to address 4 key research strands:
a) History of divorce and domestic abuse
b) Economic cost of divorce
c) Child custody and mediation
d) Development of the family law profession
Systematically examining the J 77 files using the innovative relational database will answer direct queries about the CDMC, its officers, and the couples who appeared before it. The data will contextualise contemporary issues but, more importantly, through a collaborative workshop with policy makers and third sector groups including CAFCASS, and Women's Aid, and tailored policy reports, it will also influence new practice direction. The PI will also collaborate with project partner The National Archives, to engage with groups outside the academy, notably the family history and genealogy community and raise awareness of the rich information contained in the J 77 collection.
This innovative, multidisciplinary methodology will transform not only our understanding of petitions made to the CDMC but also of 19th century society more broadly. In addition to policy and public facing outputs, the database will also form the basis of a field-defining monograph on the lived experience of divorce in 19th and early 20th century England and Wales and 2 journal articles. Crucially, the database will also act as a gateway to J 77, allowing scholars including human geographers, linguists, criminologists, psychologists, social scientists, historians, and legal scholars to create their own J77 cohorts for the first time, thus inspiring new research in multiple sectors and ensuring an afterlife for the project.


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