Divorce and Bigamy in Liverpool, 1857-1912

Ryan, Sharon Louise (2020). Divorce and Bigamy in Liverpool, 1857-1912. Student dissertation for The Open University module A826 MA History part 2.

This dissertation was produced by a student studying the Open University postgraduate module A826 MA History part 2. The research showcased here achieved a distinction.
Please note that this student dissertation is made available in the format that it was submitted for examination, thus the author has not been able to correct errors and/or departures from academic standards in areas such as referencing.
Copyright resides with the author.


This dissertation considers the extent to which patterns of divorce and bigamy in Liverpool changed following the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 which theoretically made divorce more accessible. Using a sample of newspaper reports it examines who was initiating divorce or committing bigamy, and variations in sentencing patterns for bigamy. It compares Liverpool to the national picture and seeks to identify local factors which impact on the patterns of divorce and bigamy.

Recent national studies have demonstrated that although access to divorce remained difficult for most, petitioners represented a broader social group than had been assumed. However, divorce rates remained low and it has been argued that the tradition of self-divorce continued into the nineteenth century with couples, particularly from the working class, rearranging their marital relationships through other means such as bigamy. This dissertation considers attitudes to divorce between 1857 and 1912 when a Royal Commission made proposals for reform and, the alternative approaches used by couples whose marriages failed. It then addresses the extent to which residents of Liverpool accessed the divorce court before considering the extent of bigamy in the city.

The cost of divorce and the location of the court in London did not prevent a broad range of the residents of Liverpool from accessing divorce. The lower middle class and skilled working class were represented in greater numbers than might be expected. Bigamy continued to be used, mainly by the working classes, as an alternative means of rearranging marital relationships. While sentencing took account of individual circumstances there was no evidence of increased leniency suggested by some historians. Marital breakdown was the main reason given for committing bigamy. Cruelty, ill-treatment and drunkenness featured as causes of marital breakdown in both divorce and bigamy and suggests that for some bigamy may have been a substitute for divorce.

Viewing alternatives

Download history

Item Actions