“We are not here, Mr. Adam, to secure your happiness, but to preserve the institution of marriage and the purity of the home. And therefore one of you must commit adultery ... someone has to behave impurely in order to uphold the Christian idea of purity.”
A.P. Herbert MP Holy Deadlock (1934)
Before 1914 divorce was rare; it was considered a scandal, confined by expense to the rich, and by legal restrictions requiring proof of adultery or violence to the truly desperate. In the first decade of the 20th century, there was just one divorce for every 450 marriages.
As it did in other areas of social policy, WWI led to reforms of divorce law that put men and women on a more equal footing. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, introduced as a Private Member’s Bill, enabled either partner to petition for divorce on the basis of their spouse’s adultery (previously, only the man had been able to do this). A further Act in 1937 offered additional grounds for divorce: cruelty, desertion and incurable insanity. Though it was becoming more widespread, divorce remained uncommon enough to be a potential source of shame throughout the first half of the 20th century. As late as 1955, the Tory cabinet minister Lord Salisbury threatened to resign if a bill were passed to allow Princess Margaret to marry Peter Townshend, the innocent party in a divorce case.
Both World Wars caused a spike in divorces, but it was not until the Divorce Reform Act 1969 that they reached the level we are familiar with today. This legislation marked an important shift not merely because it added further grounds for divorce, on the basis of two years’ separation with the other party’s consent, or five years’ without, but because it removed the concept of ‘matrimonial offences’ and hence the idea of divorce as a remedy for the innocent against the guilty.
Tying and untying the knot. The chart shows the number of divorces and marriages.
These liberalisations of divorce law, combined with changing attitudes and expectations of marriage, and the greater economic independence of women, all contributed to a rise in the number of divorces from 50,000 per year in 1971 to 150,000 a decade later. More recently the number of divorces has fallen steadily, although this may be more to do with the fact that fewer people are getting married in the first place, rather than a trend toward matrimonial bliss. Today, there are just two marriages for every divorce each year.