‘Have I to serve life-long misery for her infidelity?’ 1921 census reveals anger at divorce laws

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The newly-released 1921 census, filled out by more than 8.5 million households, has revealed deep public anger at the state of divorce laws in the United Kingdom.

The census returns had room for 10 entries, with many people using the leftover space to express thoughts on the state of the nation.

Unhappiness at the divorce laws was among common complaints. The dissolution of marriages through the civil courts had become legal in 1857, but it was not until the 1921 census that respondents were permitted to list it as their marital status by writing “D” under “Marriage or Orphanhood”.

The full census found that only16,000 people claimed to be divorced, but the inclusion of the status as an official answer prompted many to vent differing feelings on the matter.

‘A CURSE on the country’

Divorce was a “CURSE on the country”, wrote Henry Forrest, of Stretford Road, Manchester, an unmarried 42-year-old teacher living with his five younger sisters and brother.

William Ambler, a Bradford factory worker, explained in his form that he had not lived with his wife for two decades because she had been unfaithful to him, but a divorce was beyond his financial means. “Is it not high time there was divorce laws to dissolve such unions?” he wrote. “Have I to serve life-long misery for her infidelity?”

Prior to 1857, divorce could only be obtained either by an Act of Parliament or through annulment under canon law. This effectively limited it to the aristocracy and the very wealthy. By 1920 it was more common, but still mostly available to men who could prove adultery by their wives and afford the legal costs.

The inclusion of divorce was a cause of debate even before the census had begun. “People believed that this was going to be the undoing of society because they said if you write about it you might encourage it,” said Myko Clelland a genealogist at Find My Past, which has digitised the census.

Divorce was one of several issues to trigger angry responses, with the long shadow of the First World War, the effects of the 1918 flu pandemic, high unemployment, poor housing, inflation and labour unrest also tackled.

The mental scars of the First World War, were poignantly displayed in a small cartoon drawn by Arthur Vince, a civil servant and veteran. The sketch features top-hatted men at a table reading the census, with one proclaiming: “Counting available ‘cannon fodder’/ next war 1936/ from census returns 1921!!!!”

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