Caroline Norton

Caroline Norton (1808-1877)

Her case helped to pass the 1839 Custody of Infants Act

Photo of Caroline Norton

The granddaughter of a famous playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, she was raised in genteel poverty and pushed aged 19 into a rushed, ill-fated, loveless marriage to the Hon. George Norton, brother of Lord Grantley and a non-practising barrister. During their many quarrels, he would hit her. Her mother had been assured that Norton had sufficient income to support a family but that turned out to be untrue. He also refused to work, so Caroline wrote to earn money (her first book was published in 1829). Through her family connections she had friends in high places and her husband urged her to ask one of them to find him a well-paid public position with a salary. In 1830, the new Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, a friend of her late grandfather and frequent visitor, found an appointment for Norton as a magistrate, with an income of 1000 per year.

She had three children by 1832, but her husband was violent and from 1834, her family refused further contact with him. In 1835 he beat her and she miscarried. She and her children sought refuge with her relatives; Norton spent his time with another woman, Margaret Vaughan. At Easter, 1836 Norton sent the children to Margaret Vaughan, and ordered the servants not to let Caroline in the house. Legally, as their father, he could dispose of them as he wished, regardless of their mother's wishes. Also by law, the house and all that was in it, even Caroline's personal correspondence, clothing, and manuscripts, were legally Norton's.

In May, 1836 Norton sued the fifty-seven-year-old Lord Melbourne, by then the Prime Minister, for £10,000 damages, for having sex with Caroline, just twenty-eight. He also intended to divorce her for adultery. Naturally this caused a national scandal. As a wife, Mrs Norton had no legal identity apart from her husband: she could neither attend nor testify. The jury found in favour of Lord Melbourne, but Mrs Norton was branded a scandalous woman. She wanted a divorce but at that time only a husband could sue for divorce, not a wife, and almost the only grounds for divorce was the wife's adultery. By declaring Caroline Norton innocent of adultery, the court case ensured that the Nortons could not be divorced. Norton retained complete legal custody of their children and refused to allow his wife access to them.

Caroline Norton lobbied political friends and influential acquaintances in government, and convinced Thomas Talfourd to introduce a Bill to give mothers the right to appeal to the court of Chancery for custody of children under seven years of age. She also began to write political pamphlets advocating changes in custody law: Observations on the Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Right of the Father (1837), The Separation of Mother & Child by the Law of Custody of Infants, Considered (1838) and A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill, written under the pseudonym Pearce Stevenson, Esq. (1839). Parliament passed the Infant Custody Bill in 1839, allowing mothers to appeal for custody of children under seven, and access to children under sixteen.

Norton took their children to Scotland, where the English laws did not apply. In 1842 their youngest son contracted lockjaw after a fall from his horse but Mrs Norton failed to reach him before he died. Norton's conscience was pricked: he increased Caroline's access to her other sons.

In 1848 Norton offered her an allowance of 500 per year if she woud not refer any debts to him (as she was entitled to do by law.) It was, in effect, a separation agreement. A document was drawn up by a lawyer, and signed by both parties.

Their eldest son, was ill of tuberculosis in Lisbon. Lord Melbourne had died, leaving her an allowance of 200 a year. In 1851 her mother died leaving her 480 a year under the laws of equity (meaning Norton could not touch it).

Mr Norton told his wife that he was reducing her allowance to 300 a year. She cited the signed agreement, and he laughed. As, by law, man and wife were one, they could not contract with one another. The deed they had signed was legally meaningless. He ceased paying the allowance in 1852. On the advice of her lawyers, she referred an outstanding bill to Norton for payment. He refused to pay it, and Thrupps v. Norton went to court on 18 August, 1853 but was lost on a technicality.

As a wife Mrs Norton had no legal identity apart from her husband, whether she was happily married, living separately, or being actively abused by her husband. She could not enter legally binding contract on her own behalf, or institute a suit in a court of law. Her husband, meanwhile, was legally entitled to all income and possessions that were not explicitly secured to her alone by the laws of equity - including the income from her writings.

Caroline Norton determined to change the law. She publicly stated that since her husband was entitled to the income from her writing, she would henceforth write solely about the need to change the marriage and property laws by which he profited. In 1854, Norton's English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century; in 1855 A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage & Divorce Bill. In the next parliamentary session, Lord Lyndhurst paraphrased long selections from Norton's writings in discussing and amending Lord Cranworth's bill. When the Bill was finally passed in 1857, it included several sections that were closely based on her pamphlet A Review of the Divorce Bill of 1856, with propositions for an amendment of the laws affecting married persons (1857).

Her eldest son died in 1859. In 1875, George Norton and his brother died. Her second son, Brinsley, succeeded to the title Lord Grantley. In 1877 she married Sir William Stirling-Maxwell and died soon afterwards.

Publications: She wrote the pamphlets English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) and A Letter to the Queen on Lord Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill (1855).

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