Penelope Russell

Divorce (and marriage) in England & Wales in 1858


This paper considers what we can learn about the institution of marriage from the first English divorce statute, namely the Divorce & Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which provided the foundations for our current law of divorce over 150 years later. This statute gave both men and women in England and Wales access to divorce in the civil courts for the very first time, making divorce available as a civil remedy to maintain purity of bloodlines for the purposes of property ownership and inheritance, while simultaneously seeking to promote the Christian ideal of marriage as a life-long union. By conducting a historical analysis of the law of divorce and the conduct of proceedings, I will suggest what this might mean for our understandings of marriage – both in 1858 and today.


Penelope Russell is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield. Russell runs the undergraduate family law module and has also conducted archival research into the lives of women who petitioned for divorce in the mid 1800s. Prior to becoming an academic, Russell practised as a family law solicitor for nine years.