Jane Campbell: Parliamentary divorce pioneer

On 23 June 1801, a woman called Jane Campbell divorced her husband Edward Addison by Act of Parliament, and became the first woman to obtain a Parliamentary divorce.  Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives and joint Project Manager for Vote 100, discusses how this came about, the significance of the case, and investigates who Jane Campbell was.

In 1801 Jane Campbell won the first Parliamentary divorce by a woman, one of only four in history. She obtained her divorce on grounds of ‘incestuous adultery’ committed by her husband Edward Addison with her sister Jessy, and also won custody of her children. Meanwhile Jessy’s husband also divorced her by Act of Parliament, and she was forbidden from ever marrying Edward Addison. This fascinating case involved a tangle of family relationships which were sensationally described in evidence to the House of Lords by servants.

How unusual was a divorce by Act of Parliament?

An Act of Parliament was the only way of ending a marriage and allowing re-marriage during the lifetime of a spouse before 1858 in England and Wales, and required proof of adultery or life-threatening cruelty. (In Scotland, both men and women could obtain a divorce on grounds of adultery or desertion from the 16th century). Instances of Parliamentary divorce can be traced back to the 1540s, but they became more frequent from the 18th century, with around 320 private divorce Acts passed between 1700 and 1857 (for example, see ‘House of Lords 1660-1715…and divorce‘).  In 1798 the House of Lords set out regulations for divorce bills in its Standing Orders, and these were followed in Jane Campbell’s case. It was expected that before petitioning for a divorce Act, the petitioner would already have obtained a legal separation (‘a mensa et thoro’) from an ecclesiastical court, and damages for adultery (‘a suit for criminal conversation’) from a civil court, wherever this was possible.

It might be assumed that Parliamentary divorce was only available to the aristocracy and the very rich. Undoubtedly many of the cases did involve men and women from the peerage or baronetage. However research has shown that many husbands bringing divorce bills also had middle-class occupations including clergy, merchant and surgeon, and a few might even be considered lower class. In this case, Jane’s father was a baronet, and she married a merchant, while her sister Jessy married a surgeon. Estimates of the cost of proceedings through the various courts also vary.  A Royal Commission in 1853 put the total cost of divorce at about £700 (equivalent to c. £22,500 today) of which the Parliamentary process cost about £200.

The Campbells of Inverneil

Born in 1771, Jane Campbell was one of twelve children of Sir James Campbell (1737-1805) of Killean and his wife Jane (also called Jean), from Inverneil in the county of Argyll. The Campbells of Inverneil traced their lineage back to the 16th century. Perhaps significantly for the success of her case, Jane had Parliamentary connections. Her father was MP for Stirling 1780-1789, but he was only keeping the seat warm while her uncle, Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell (1739-1791) was abroad serving as governor of Jamaica and commander-in-chief of Madras.  Wealthy from previous service in the army and the East India Company, Archibald Campbell was MP for Stirling 1774-1780 and 1789-1791, and knighted in 1782. He also purchased the role of hereditary Usher of the White Rod for Scotland in 1790. This office then passed to Jane’s father James on Archibald’s death in March 1791 as he had no children.

Archibald Campbell was buried in Westminster Abbey on 5 April 1791, at which time his nieces Jane and Jessy were both married with families of their own.  Jane married Edward Addison, merchant of London, in the church of St Clement Danes, Middlesex, on 29 April 1788. They lived together in Surrey Street in the Strand and in Blackheath, and had a son and a daughter.

Her older sister Jessy (also spelled Jesse and Jessie) had married a cousin, Dr James Campbell from Edinburgh, a Surgeon and a Doctor of Physic, in December 1785. She was 18 years old and he was 29. The following year they went to live in Calcutta, India, where they had four children. Jessy returned to England in 1791 and, some time over the next few years, had an affair with Edward Addison. As the husband of her sister, this was deemed to be an incestuous relationship at this time even though he was not a blood relative, so strong was the taboo.  Marriage with a deceased wife’s sister was voidable in this period, and illegal between 1835 and 1907.

‘An Act so atrocious, so infamous’

The news broke in 1798 when Dr Campbell successfully brought King’s Bench 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.  As described by Jane’s brother-in-law, James Henry Cassmajor (also called Casamayor, husband of her sister Elizabeth) in evidence to the Lords:

She at first would not receive it; and I read the Contents of the Letter; she said her Husband could not be guilty of an Act so atrocious, so infamous; and that she would not believe the Fact till he was convicted: In consequence of speaking more on the Subject, she said she had not made up her mind to leaving her Husband; but would probably determine very soon: this, I conceive, she said from being informed that her Brother was coming from her Father’s to accompany her to Scotland. (House of Lords Journal)

Jane’s response was important because it showed she had no previous knowledge of the adultery. The Lords were always very alert to any sign of a collusion between husband and wife in divorce cases.  They pressed Cassmajor on this point:

Q: Did any Thing occur in the Course of the Conversation you had with Mrs Addison that gave you any Reason to believe she even suspected such an Intercourse before you delivered the Letter?

A: I think not, because whatever she said expressed an Unbelief that her Husband could be guilty of so atrocious a Crime. (House of Lords Journal)

Jane then left her husband and went to stay with her father in Scotland. She successfully brought divorce proceedings against Edward in the consistory court, then petitioned Parliament for a full divorce.  As was usual with divorce bills, Jane Campbell’s case was considered by a committee of the whole House of Lords, and testimony was heard about the state of the marriage from servants and family members, although not from either Jane or Edward in person. Jane’s agent, Mr George Bedford, was tasked with finding Edward Addison to give him a copy of the bill and notice of its upcoming second reading, but failed, petitioning the House of Lords to explain he had:

…made diligent Search after the said Edward Addison, but has not been able after the Strictest Enquiries to discover the said Edward Addison: that the Petitioner has discovered that the last or usual Place of Abode of the said Edward Addison was at Number 27 in Leicester Square, and the Counting house of the said Edward Addison, where he carried on or transacted his mercantile Business, at Number 24 in Cornhill, in the City of London, at neither of which Places however the Petitioner was able to get any other Intelligence of the said Edward Addison, but that he was gone Abroad, in consequence of the Verdict with Five Thousand Pounds Damages and Costs which had been recovered against him… (House of Lords Journal)

No counsel appeared for Edward Addison during proceedings in the House of Lords. The House of Lords called a number of witnesses. Among these were John Brions (also called Brims), 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. 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. As examined by the Lords:

Q: When the Ghost passed was he dressed or undressed?

A: He had only his Night-gown and Slippers on. (House of Lords Journal)

During debates in the Lords, the Duke of Clarence opposed the measure on grounds of the sex of the petitioner. However Lord Thurlow supported it, on the grounds that this was not just adultery, but the aggravated ground of an incestuous adultery:

Were Mrs Addison ever so much inclined to forgive her husband, a reconciliation could not legally take place, because a future connection between them as man and wife would be tainted with incest… Could their lordships, after what they had heard upon oath at the bar, refuse the request? Did they see nothing immoral in compelling Mrs Addison, after what had passed, to remain connected and under the power of her husband?  (Cobbett’s Parliamentary History)

He also argued that Mr Addison was ‘unfit to be entrusted with the education of an innocent and virtuous daughter’. Thurlow’s argument convinced the Lord Chancellor (Lord Eldon) and others, and even the Duke of Clarence ‘owned that his opinion was much altered.’

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 given custody of her daughter, and her son and daughter were both made Wards of Chancery – a clear indication of how outrageous Edward Addison’s ‘incestuous adultery’ was deemed to have been. Custody of children was normally assumed to go to the father in this period, a situation which did not start to change until Caroline Norton’s Custody of Infants Act 1839.

Jessy’s husband Dr James Campbell also divorced Jessy by Act of Parliament. As he was living in Calcutta, his brothers John and Archibald Campbell had power of attorney to bring the case to the House of Lords on his behalf. His counsel was Mr Adam, who had also acted for Jane Campbell; no counsel appeared for Jessy, and some of the same witnesses appeared including Amelia Laugher who again told the tale of the ‘Ghost’, and waiter John Brims who confessed to spying:

Q: What did you do?

A: I cut a Hole in the Door.

…Q: What did you observe?

A: That she was on the Carpet on her Back, and the Gentleman above her.

Q: Had you any Doubt about the Situation they were in?

A: I certainly thought what I heard was right. (House of Lords Journal)

A rider to the bill declared that it would not be lawful for Jessy to marry again in the lifetime of Dr James Campbell, and a second rider added that any marriage to Edward Addison would be void at any time. The Lords could not have made their censure any stronger! Jessy’s divorce Act received Royal Assent on 27 June 1801, a few days after Jane’s. It is not known what happened to Jessy or Edward Addison; Dr James Campbell died in Bengal in 1817.

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. On the contrary, the Lord Chancellor concluded that:

The divorce, in the present instance, from the specialities of the case, stood manifestly contradistinguished from any other application by a wife for a divorce, that was likely to be brought before the House, and that the bill might pass without operating as a dangerous precedent. (Cobbett’s Parliamentary History)

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. There were just three other Parliamentary divorce cases successfully brought by women before the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 finally allowed divorce by legal process.  These were Louisa Turton (in 1831), whose husband, like Jane Campbell’s, had committed adultery with her sister; and Mrs Battersby (1840) and Georgina Hall (1850), whose husbands had committed bigamy. 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.

Of most immediate significance was that Jane Campbell was now free to marry again, and start a new family.  Less than a year after her divorce, on 2 February 1802, she married Roger Pocklington junior (1775-1847) of Carlton Hall, Nottingham. Roger Pocklington senior was an architect, and the Pocklingtons were a wealthy family when Jane married into it. They ran into money problems a few years afterwards, however; Roger senior went bankrupt, and Roger junior and Jane moved to Leamington.

Roger and Jane Pocklington had a number of children, including Roger (later the Reverend Roger Pocklington), who was born as early as 15 November 1802; Joseph Pocklington, who later married into the eminent family of Senhouse and assumed the surname Pocklington-Senhouse by royal licence; and Jane Augusta Pocklington, who married a James Archibald Campbell (some distant relation of her mother, one can only assume) and had another family of Campbells before dying, possibly in childbirth or soon after, in 1842.  As for their mother; divorce pioneer Jane Pocklington nee Campbell died on 27 February 1851 aged 80, and was buried alongside her husband Roger at All Saints’ Church, Winthorpe.



This blogpost originated in research done initially for Parliament’s Living Heritage website, and expanded upon in the Petition of the Month May 2016. Many thanks to Paul Seaward for subsequent discussion.

Further reading

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