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Divorce Records (Including Scotland)

Nature of Source

Records from divorce suits regardless of the success or otherwise of the case. Divorce and other matrimonial cases were heard before a new London-based secular and civil divorce court, the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes The court was established in 1858 following the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act covering England and Wales. In 1873 the court was transferred into the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty division, one of five specialist divisional courts created under a new Supreme Court of Judicature.

Before 1858, the church or ecclesiastical courts had the jurisdiction to grant a formal separation. From 1668, a private Act of Parliament could be used as an instrument to gain a full divorce. Therefore divorce was only available to a small class of wealthy people. Private separation agreements were heard in the Chancery Court.

The petitioner initiated the proceedings whilst the respondent was the partner. The co-respondent was the person accused of having the affair with the respondent. The ‘decree nisi’ is the document issued by the divorce court to dissolve the marriage and the ‘decree absolute’ makes the divorce officially final.

Up to 1927 all cases were heard in London and between 1858 and 1927 almost all divorce files survive and about 80 per cent from 1928 to 1937. Most papers were destroyed from 1938 onwards with only a sample of files kept for each year after 1938. A 75 year access rule applies to files and a 30 year rule to the indexes. After 1927 petitions for divorce could be filed at district registries across the country. Unfortunately case papers filed at district registries were destroyed after 20 years. Very few case were heard in the early years but from the late 1920s divorce became a realistic option for many people. After 1971 a married couple were able to divorce by mutual consent.

Also consult local and national newspaper reports covering divorce hearings as up to the 1950s divorce was still a relatively rare event. Disputes could arise over the issue of maintenance especially with the passing of the Married Women's Property Acts of 1882 and 1907 which removed a husband's right to his wife's property on marriage. Cases of bigamy, the illegal act of marrying whilst already legally married, might  appear as newspaper reports and criminal cases of bigamy can be searched online at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913. Bigamy cases can also be found by speculatively searching various online catalogues such as the TNA Discovery and Access to Archives. In the absence of a common divorce procedure, many couples simply lived as bigamous couples undetected by the authorities. Other couples might chose to live as husband and wife without any marriage ceremony.

In Scotland divorces were granted by the Church Courts until 1563 and then by Commissary Courts until 1830 and after that by the Court of Session which deals with cases relating to debt, damages, divorce and children. In many cases divorce was granted to the lower classes. For Scottish divorce records prior to May 1984 contact the Court of Session or search the records at the National Archives of Scotland. From the 1st May 1984, the Register of Divorces has been held by the General Register Office for Scotland which which now form part of the National Records of Scotland. Prior to 1984 divorces in Scotland, of couples who had married in Scotland, were recorded in the Register of Corrected Entries.

Where Found

The National Archives (J 77, Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Files 1858-2002 heard at the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, later the Supreme Court of Judicature: [Subject to 30 year closure]; J 78, Indexes to Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Files found in J 77. The records covering 1858 to 1943 can be searched at TNA Discovery. Enter the name being searched and then under ‘Refine results’ select ‘J - Supreme Court of Judicature’ within the ‘Collection’ category. Alternatively search these files directly from the TNA guide on divorce)
Central Family Court (Central index. The Index is from courts across the country of all successful Decrees Absolute [the final stage of divorce] granted in England and Wales from 1858 to date. These indexes are not open to public inspection but can be searched by staff at the Central Family Court. To request a search of  the Central Index of Decrees Absolute complete form 'D440 - Request for search for Divorce Decree Absolute')
The Parliamentary Archives/House of Lords Records Office (Private acts of parliament pre-1858. Summaries of Private Acts of Parliament are available from the Office of Public Sector Information [OPSI] website. Summaries of Private Acts of Parliament are also accessible via Access to Archives [A2A])
Lambeth Palace Library (Church court records)
County Record Offices (Church court records and post 1858 assize records)
ScotlandsPeople Centre (Statutory Register of Divorces from 1 May 1984. The Register of Corrected Entries records divorces in Scotland prior to the introduction of the statutory register of divorces in 1984. From 1935 to 1984, individual divorce cases are listed in the catalogue and can be found by searching for either party involved in the action. The ScotlandsPeople Centre is the official government resource for family history research. ScotlandsPeople Centre is a partnership between the National Records of Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon. The National Records of Scotland was created on 1 April 2011 by the amalgamation of the National Archives of Scotland and General Register Office for Scotland)

Period Covered

1858 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Names of parties, date and place of marriage, wife's maiden name, reason for divorce, date of divorce. Occupation of parties. Name and address of co-respondent. Names and dates of births of children. Copies of birth and marriage certificates.

Further References

Annal, David & Collins, Audrey. Birth, Marriage and Death Records: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2012

Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The National Archives, 2006

Cohen, Deborah, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day: Viking, 2013

Horstman, Allen. Victorian Divorce: Croom Helm, 1985 (Limited preview available from Google Books)

Leneman, Leah. Alienated Affections: The Scottish Experience of Divorce and Separation 1684- 1830: Edinburgh University Press, 1998 (Preview available from Google Books)

Phillips, Roderick. Untying the Knot: A Short History of Divorce: Cambridge University Press, 1991 (Preview available from Google Books)

Probert, Rebecca. Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved? The Family Historian's Guide to Marital Breakdown, Separation, Widowhood, and Remarriage: from 1600 to the 1970s: Takeaway Publishing, 2015 Buy Now on Amazon

Stone, Lawrence. Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987: Oxford University Press, 1990 (Preview available from Google Books)

Stone, Lawrence. Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England, 1660-1857: Oxford University Press, 1993

TNA Research Guide: Divorce Records Before 1858
TNA Research Guide: Divorce Records After 1858

Websites ( Knowledge base guide: Divorce and matrimonial causes) (Looking for records of a divorce)
(LawTeacher: History Of Divorce Law)
(Cambridge Family Law Practice: A brief history of divorce) (Divorce Courts-Family Records Centre Factsheet) (BBC Family History: Matrimonial Causes Act-1857) (National Records of Scotland: Research Guides: Divorce and Separation Records) (National Records of Scotland: Research Guides: History of Divorce in Scotland)

Online Databases (Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, 1858-1903. Indexes and digitized images of the original entry books where divorce and matrimonial suits were filed taken from TNA series J 78) (UK, Civil Divorce Records, 1858-1916. This database contains records from civil divorce proceedings that followed the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act and are taken from TNA series J 77) (GOV.UK: Get a copy of a decree absolute or final order. The Central Index is a record of all decrees absolute granted by Courts in England and Wales since 1858 and anyone is entitled to apply for a search to be carried out, and to receive a certificate of the result and any decree absolute traced. Fill in the form [D440] at the back of the leaflet Request for search for Decree Absolute) (Graham Maxwell Ancestry: Paternity Case Search. online searchable database for paternity cases in Sheriff Courts in the south of Scotland) (The ScotlandsPeople website is the official Scottish Government site for searching government records and archives including the Statutory register of divorces from 1 May 1984 and the Register of Corrected Entries for divorces prior to 1984)