Racy Victorian divorces online at genealogy website

LONDON Tue Jan 22, 2013 3:34pm EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - The original Mrs Robinson's diary and scandalous suggestions about a former heir to the British throne are all part of the latest ancestral revelations to go online.

British genealogical website Ancestry.co.uk said on Tuesday it has put the transcripts of thousands of Victorian divorce proceedings online, which reveal the racy details of an era that most modern Britons consider to have been dominated by imperial duty, a stiff upper lip and formal familial relations.

The UK Civil Divorce Records, 1858-1911 date from the year when the Matrimonial Causes Act removed the jurisdiction of divorce from the church and made it a civil matter.

Before this, a full divorce required intervention by Parliament, which had only granted around 300 since 1668. The records also include civil court records on separation, custody battles, legitimacy claims and nullification of marriages, according to the website.

Primarily due to their high cost, divorces were relatively rare in the 19th century, with around 1,200 applications made a year, compared to approximately 120,000 each year today, and not all requests were successful due to the strength of evidence required.

The rarity of such cases, combined with the fact that it was wealthy, often well-known nobility involved, made the divorce proceedings huge public scandals, played out in the press as real life soap operas.

Famously high-profile divorces included that of Henry and Isabella Robinson, the inspiration for the novel "Mrs Robinson's Disgrace", by Kate Summerscale.

Henry Robinson sued for divorce after reading his wife Isabella's diary, which included in-depth details of her affair with a younger married man.

The diary was used as court evidence and when reported by the media became a huge scandal, partly because of the language used within the journal. Isabella, however, claimed the diary was a work of fiction, which led to her victory in court.

Conservative MP and baronet, Charles Mordaunt, filed for divorce in 1869 from his wife Harriet who stood accused of adultery with multiple men.

The case became national news when the Prince of Wales was rumored to be among the men who had had an affair with her. This rumor was never proven and Lady Mordaunt was eventually declared mad and spent the rest of her life in an asylum.

"At the time, such tales often developed into national news stories, but now they're more likely to tell us something about the double standards of the Victorian divorce system or help us learn more about the lives of our sometimes naughty ancestors," Ancestry.co.uk UK Content Manager Miriam Silverman said in a statement on Tuesday.

When the divorce laws first came into effect, men could divorce for adultery alone, while women had to supplement evidence of cheating with solid proof of mistreatment, such as battery or desertion.

Despite this double standard, roughly half of the records are accounts of proceedings initiated by the wife. Many of the nullifications of marriages fall into this category, with failure to consummate the nuptials a common reason.

One such example in the records shows a Frances Smith filing for divorce in 1893 under such grounds.

In the court ledgers it is noted that the marriage was never consummated, with the husband incapable "by reason of the frigidity and impotency or other defect of the parts of generation" and "such incapacity is incurable by art or skill" following inspection.

(Reporting by Paul Casciato; editing by Patricia Reaney)

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