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The first parliamentary divorce brought by a woman

28 April 2016

Dr Mari Takayanagi writes about the first parliamentary divorce by a woman, Jane Campbell, who divorced her husband Edward Addison on grounds of ‘incestuous adultery' with her sister Jessy in 1801.

Petitioning for divorce

It might seem strange today, but before 1858 the only way to get a full divorce was to petition for an Act of Parliament and prove adultery or life-threatening cruelty, an expensive and lengthy process.  Most people simply separated privately, or if they could afford fees then a legal separation (‘a mensa et thoro') could be obtained from an ecclesiastical court, and damages for adultery (‘a suit for criminal conversation') from a civil court. However, an Act of Parliament was required to get a full divorce which allowed re-marriage. This was the case until the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 finally allowed divorce by legal process.

Who was Jane Campbell?

Jane Campbell was one of twelve children of Sir James Campbell (1737-1805) and his wife Jane, from Inverneil in the county of Argyll.  She had Parliamentary connections – her father was hereditary Usher of the White Rod for Scotland, and he and her uncle Sir Archibald Campbell were both MPs for Stirling during the late 18th century.  On 29 April 1788 she married Edward Addison, merchant of London, in the church of St Clement Danes, Middlesex. They lived together in Surrey Street in the Strand and in Blackheath, and had a son and a daughter.

During the 1790s, however, Edward had an affair with her older sister Jessy. In 1798 Jessy's husband (Dr James Campbell, a medical doctor from Calcutta, India), brought King's Bench (civil court) proceedings for ‘criminal conversation' against Edward and was awarded £5,000 in damages. The news was broken to Jane in a letter from her father; it was reported in the House of Lords that she was horrified and initially refused to believe ‘so atrocious, so infamous' an act. Jane then left her husband and went to stay with her father in Scotland. She successfully brought divorce proceedings against Edward in the consistory (ecclesiastical) court, then petitioned Parliament for a full divorce.

Divorce in parliament

As was usual with divorce bills, Jane Campbell's case was considered by a committee of the whole House of Lords, and evidence was given there by witnesses and printed in the House of Lords Journal.  Testimony was heard about the state of the marriage from servants and family members, although not from either Jane or Edward in person; Edward had in fact left the country to avoid paying the £5,000, and was said to be in Hamburg.

Among the witnesses heard was John Brions, a waiter at an inn, who testified how he looked through a hole in the door and saw Jessy and Edward in a posture ‘as Man and Wife'; John Rosser, a servant of Mr Addison's, who testified how he found clothes laid out after a night, as if his master had never been to bed; and Jessy's maid Amelia Laugher, who told of various trips when Edward and Jessy were found in locked rooms together, with him in ‘slippers and Night Gown' and nothing else. She also spoke of how the servants in Surrey Street talked about a ‘Ghost' in the house, and how she had gotten up to see it when it walked one night, only to see Mr Addison entering her mistresses' room and departing half an hour later.

What happened next?

Jane's petition was successful and the Act was passed, giving her a full divorce. Very unusually for the time, she was also given custody of her children – a clear indication of how outrageous Edward Addison's ‘incestuous adultery' was deemed to have been. Jessy's husband also divorced Jessy by Act of Parliament, and a rider to the bill added that Jessy was not to be allowed to marry again, in particular not to Edward Addison. A year later, in 1802, Jane Campbell married Roger Pocklington of Carlton Hall, Nottingham.

The significance of the case

The Addison-Campbell divorce was a milestone in allowing a woman to divorce her husband for the first time. However, it did not lead to a rush of similar cases. As a woman, Jane's petition would not have succeeded on the grounds of adultery alone; it was the additional fact the adultery had been committed with her sister that made it ‘incestuous' and persuaded Parliament that a divorce was justified. Inequality between men and women in areas of family law such as divorce, custody of children and property ownership, persisted for many decades to come.

Dr Mari Takayanagi is Senior Archivist in the Parliamentary Archives.

Image: The Addison/Campbell Divorce Act, petition and other associated documents.

© Parliamentary Archives.