Dr Jennifer Aston

Learning from Old Grievances: Revelations from the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes in England and Wales, 1857-1923


Under the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, divorce ceased to be the exclusive preserve of the Ecclesiastical Court and for the first time became a concern of the state and civil law. Moving divorce litigation into the courtroom had the effect of reducing the cost and theoretically widening access to a legal divorce. Paradoxically, the state also wanted to preserve the institution of marriage and therefore the Act was also strictly limited. The legal threshold to justify divorce was high, and it did not treat men and women equally, gender inequality was enshrined in law but cultural and social factors also exerted a strong influence.

In this paper I will outline how my innovative and interdisciplinary methodology, which combines quantitative and qualitative historical approaches with feminist legal theory and digital humanities, will be applied to case files from the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes in the first systematic analysis of these documents from 1857 – 1923. The extracted data will populate a relational database, which can then be interrogated to reveal totally new information on four key research themes: (i) the history of divorce and domestic abuse, (ii) the economic cost of divorce, (iii) child custody and mediation and (iv) development of the family law profession. Adopting this novel methodology creates a unique opportunity to tell a much more nuanced story about the emergence of a new legal system where gender, class and geography shaped the opportunities of men, women, children, as well as their expectations of the law.


Jennifer Aston is Senior Lecturer in History and Director of the Institute of Humanities. She is also an Associate Member of the Centre for Workforce Futures at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. 

Jennifer joined Northumbria University in 2017, having previously held the EHS Eileen Power Research Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research and research positions at the universities of Oxford and Hull. Her research interests include gender and small business ownership, bankruptcy, and the law. She is the author of Female Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century England: Engagement in the Urban Economy (2016), co-editor of Women and the Land 1500-1900 (2019) and has several articles on female property ownership. Together with Dr Catherine Bishop (Macquarie University, Sydney), Aston has co-edited Female Entrepreneurs in the Long Nineteenth Century: A Global Perspective (2020) and is a co-founder of ReWOMEN (Researching Women of Management and Enterprise Network). This global network connects scholars across business schools and humanities departments with stakeholders and policy makers in Africa, Asia, Oceania, North and South America and Europe to share key findings across four centuries of women’s management and enterprise activities. Jennifer has recently begun a new research project using previously unexamined petitions heard before the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes to explore divorce in England and Wales, c.1857-1923.