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Hannah Brutton and the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 – by Charlotte Fairlie

While the limitations and inequalities of the 1857 Divorce and Marital Causes Act have led to debate over its significance, the case of Brutton v. Brutton illustrates how it empowered ordinary women to escape unhappy and dangerous situations.[i] Certainly, factors such as public humiliation, travel, prohibitive expenses, and lengthy proceedings remained deterrents.[ii] In persisting despite such obstacles, my great-great-grandmother, Hannah Brutton, proved herself to have been a woman of determination and courage and the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act to have been her key to freedom.

Hannah Bridge was born in Dudley, Worcestershire, in 1833, the daughter of a Baptist minister. By 1851, she was living in London with her sister and brother-in-law, Emma and Henry Wessels. Here, in all likelihood, she met William Courtenay Brutton.

William came from a prominent Exeter family. His father, Charles, a solicitor, had served as mayor of the city from 1844-5. William was a godson of the Earl of Devon, and bore the Devon family name, Courtenay.[iii] Educated at Blundells School, he also became a solicitor.[iv] Such a background made him an advantageous match for a girl of Hannah’s modest means.

William and Hannah were married at St. John the Evangelist, in Penge, on December 18, 1858, witnessed by Brutton relatives and Henry Wessels. Surely the last thing on Hannah’s mind that winter wedding day was the passage the previous year of legislation which was to prove crucial to her future welfare and happiness.

The 1857 act brought divorce under civil law and protected women’s property rights. However, it was intrinsically inequitable: while a man could divorce a woman on grounds of adultery alone, a woman needed to base her case on adultery plus another factor, such as desertion, bigamy, cruelty, or incest.

By 1864, the Bruttons had three children, Reginald Henry, William Mortimer, and Edith Emma, and Hannah was expecting a fourth, Charles Masterman. Sadly, Charles was to die at the age of two months. Exactly a year later, on December 15, 1865, Hannah filed for divorce in the newly established Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes.[v]

Her affidavit testifies to the appalling pattern of abuse hidden behind the front door of 35 Westbourne Park Villas. In the weeks leading up to Charles’s birth, William “with a poker broke open the door of the Room wherein I was and threatened and attempted to do me serious bodily harm, I being at that time near my confinement.” A month later, he “with an open Razor in his hand attacked me and threatened to kill me.” Razor threats occurred “on divers occasions.” Later, Hannah suffered a defensive wound: she said he “assaulted me with great violence and attempted my life by attacking me with a knife and in my endeavours to save myself, my hand was so seriously injured that I lost the use of one of my fingers.” When a weapon was not available, William used his fists, leaving her upper body bruised. At least once, three servants had to restrain him.

Besides enduring repeated violence, Hannah found out in November, 1864, that her husband was conducting an affair with a woman named Ellen Bertha Trimble. Furthermore, following her initiation of divorce proceedings, she learned that on March 3, 1866, William and Ellen had been married at St.Peter’s, Pimlico. A copy of the marriage certificate reveals that William had fraudulently declared himself a bachelor—documentary evidence that Hannah’s petition met the requirement of adultery aggravated by a second offence.

In his affidavit, William does not mention Hannah’s accusations of cruelty. Instead, he emphasizes that she was fully aware of his adultery, perhaps because if the petitioner were determined to condone or be an accessory to adultery, no divorce would be granted. He says that in August 1866, he signed, under the threat of an indictment for bigamy, a deed of separation. He was, indeed, indicted and committed for trial. Although Wessels had procured proof of bigamy for the divorce case, William was found not guilty because the prosecution offered no evidence. Given that his affidavit describes how William had gone abroad and missed several court dates, perhaps the prosecution thought he wouldn’t show up. In any event, it testifies to his errant ways rather than his innocence.

The divorce hearings dragged on for four years, during which William not only faced the bigamy charge, but also a legal case in which he was accused of misappropriating money over which he had power of attorney.[vi] Adding to the drama, Hannah testified in the 1867 trial and conviction of William’s clerk, William Banyard, for libel, his having accused Ellen Trimble of being in a bigamous marriage and murdering her child.[vii]

Finally, in February, 1868, the judge decided that the Brutton marriage should be “dissolved by reason of bigamy coupled with adultery.”  Astonishingly to the modern reader, his verdict does not cite cruelty as grounds. Hannah received custody of the children while William had limited visitation rights and could not bring them into the presence of Ellen Trimble. After repeated delays, the divorce became absolute on 27 January, 1869.

William went on to marry Ellen again in 1871. The same year, he was briefly charged with assault of a ticket taker at the Haymarket Theater, though the charge was dropped.[viii] In 1874, he declared bankruptcy, and he died in 1878 at the age of 47.[ix]  Ellen Bertha Brutton, widow, was executor of his estate.

Hannah died in 1879, having raised the children alone, probably with financial help from the Wessels, with whom she shares an overgrown grave in Hampstead Cemetery.[x] William Mortimer, a renowned pub architect, took after his father: his wife divorced him, citing drunkenness, verbal and physical abuse, and adultery.My great-grandmother, Edith, inherited her mother’s strength: her husband also declared bankruptcy and, according to family lore, was a drunk. They separated, and she lived independently as a single parent supporting six children.

Perhaps because of lingering stigma, the story of Brutton v. Brutton was lost to my family within two generations, so when naming my own daughter Hannah, I did not know of the brave ancestral namesake who publicly declared that she would not tolerate abuse and betrayal. Uncovering Hannah Brutton and her long fight in the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Court reveals how genealogical research is not merely of personal value but deepens our understanding of those who have been systematically written out of history.

Charlotte Fairlie is Associate Professor Emerita of English at Wilmington College, Ohio.

Cover of court minutes from Brutton vs Brutton, and the detail from Hannah Brutton’s affadavit, are reproduced with kind permission of the National Archives. Image of Hannah Brutton’s grave is reproduced by kind permission of Deirdre King and should not be used or reproduced without her permission.

[i] Hager, Kelly. “Chipping Away at Coverture: The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 27 Oct. 2022.

[ii] Layton, Catherine, and George P. Landow. “The Origins of Victorian Divorce Law.” The Victorian Web. 28 March 2018. Web. 27 Oct. 2022.

[iii] “Brutton Bigamy.” The Western Times. 15 Jan. 1867. 3. The British Newspaper Archive. Web. 27 Oct. 2022.

[iv] Fisher, Arthur. The Register of Blundell’s School. Exeter: J. G. Commin, 1904. 150. Wellcome Collection. Web. 28 Oct. 2022.

[v] The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England; Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, later Supreme Court of Judicature: Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Files, J 77; Reference Number: J 77/64/36.

[vi] Hemming, G. W. The Law Reports vol viii. 1869. Rep. Frankfurt-am-Main: Salzwasser, 2020. Google Books. Web. 27 Oct. 2022.

[vii] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 27 October 2022), January 1867, trial of WILLIAM BANYARD (25) (t18670107-181).

[viii] “Police Intelligence: Marlborough Street.” The Morning Post. 30 Oct. 1871. 7. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 27 Oct. 2022.

[ix] “From the Gazette of Tuesday, March 31.” The Bradford Observer. 2 Apr. 1874. 4. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 27 Oct. 2022.

[x] Find a Grave, database and images ( accessed 15 November 2022), memorial page for Hannah Bridge Brutton (5 Dec 1833–30 Nov 1879), Find a Grave Memorial ID 222002869, citing Hampstead Cemetery, Hampstead, London Borough of Camden, Greater London, England; Maintained by D (contributor 48718116).