Ann Dawson, A Story of (No) Divorce

While researching the life and political writing of Caroline Norton for my MA I spent some time trawling through the archives of digital newspapers of the time, going over references to her, and to the issue of divorce law reform in general. During one of my (many) visits to the British Library while I was doing this, I came across the story of Ann Dawson. It was the first time that I became aware of the many stories that lay buried within the archives that really should be resurrected. Ann’s story is one of these. It resonated with me. Because she was a woman trapped in a bad marriage, and the only thing she wanted was to be free of it. This is her story:

It was the year 1844. London, that smoky nest of a city that straddled both side of the banks of the river Thames, was being transformed as industrialisation contributed to population growth on an unprecedented scale. People flooded into the city with the same force as the tidal waters that surged into the Thames. It was easy for anyone to come to London to start a new life. It was possible to take up residence in one of the many streets, lanes or mews that made up the labyrinth that was London and disappear, for a woman who lived in fear of her past sins to come to the city and hide in plain sight. It was in this year that a world-weary young woman arrived in the neighbourhood of London for the purposes, she said, of having her two children educated. Her name was Ann Dawson. Claiming to be a widow, she took lodgings in Bayswater. She blended in with the other respectable residents that resided there, became part of the fabric of her neighbourhood and lived in peace with her children for some time. But the ghosts from her past were waiting to catch up with her.

Night. London was always inky dark at night, the light from the street gaslights doing little to penetrate the thick grey fog that often shrouded the city. Ann was in bed, sleeping, but was disturbed by aggressive pounding on her landlady’s door and loud, insistent voices on the street below, drifting up towards her room like acrid smoke. She turned over in her bed, tried to ignore the premonition of gloom that struck her, telling herself that it had been eight years since she had last seen him. It couldn’t be him, could it? But the sounds of raucous laughter coming from down the stairs caused a torrent of icy fear to course through her body, freezing the blood in her veins. She heard the heavy, drunken stomp of boots on the wooden stairs, increasing in volume as they ascended towards her. She shifted in her bed, pulling the bedclothes closer to her chest, as if that could somehow save her from the onslaught she feared was coming. She thought she and her children were safe in their lodgings in Bayswater, but the shouting of one of the intruders had been instantly recognisable to her. She could never forget his voice. It was seared into her soul.

She heard a key being inserted into the lock to her rooms. As the key turned in the lock, she sat up in her bed, her body trembling, and her breathing shallow as her fear threatened to overwhelm her. She was no longer sheltered in her hiding place. He had found her and there was nothing she could do to protect herself and her children from his fury. Her landlady had handed over the key to her rooms, surrendering her only protection from him. He did not even have to break down the door or force entrance. Of course he was given entry to her rooms. It was his right. He was her husband. And he had come to reclaim his wife.

It was not a tender reunion. Ann was seized from her bed, and her belongings ransacked as her estranged husband sought out all her money and any property she had of value. His courage bolstered by his three drinking companions, all soaked in the sickening stench of alcohol, he inflicted blows upon his wife, cutting open her forehead, drawing blood. He ignored the cries of his daughter, aged 12 and his son, a boy of 10, and took his rightful place in the bed beside his wife.

Beaten and defeated, she could only pray that this time he would not infect her with venereal disease as he had done twice before, and she wondered if she would ever be free of this man that she had irrevocably tied herself to when she had been just a girl of 15, tricked into marriage by a scoundrel who promised to adore her, but did nothing but abuse her. The next morning, having taken what he desired from his wife, he allowed her to gather her clothing, and that of the children, and cast the three of them out on to the streets.

Ann had no other option. She went back to her father. Again. Once more he gave refuge to his battered and broken daughter, but this time, he was determined that she should be free of her husband once and for all, and be able to live her life without fear of this man coming back to claim her as though she was his property. Ann was going to petition for a divorce.

With her father’s financial assistance, Ann instituted proceedings in the Ecclesiastical Courts for a legally recognised separation from her husband, pleading desertion, his failure to support her and her children financially, and cruelty. At that time, it was impossible to petition for a divorce without first going through this procedure in the Ecclesiastical Courts. Having succeeded in this, she then brought her petition for a divorce before the House of Lords in 1848, despite the knowledge that only three other women before her had ever succeeded in obtaining a divorce on petition to parliament. The privilege of being granted a divorce was almost exclusively male.

The evidence that Ann presented in support of her petition for a divorce was compelling, comprising a harrowing account of all that she had endured since her marriage: the extreme violence he inflicted on her, including her husband breaking a riding whip on her back while beating her, throwing hot coffee into her face, pushing her down a flight of stairs, and beating their son so badly his ‘flesh putrefied.’ She also gave evidence of her husband’s excessive drinking and gambling, and his affairs, fathering two children on two other women, giving one of these mothers venereal disease in the process. Finally, she concluded her petition with evidence that her husband and his latest mistress were living together as man and wife.

In addition to Ann’s own testimony, she also called a number of witnesses to give evidence for her. One of these witnesses was the parish clerk in Eccles, Lancashire, where Ann had been married. He produced the registry of marriage, which showed that the marriage had taken place, and commented that he thought that Ann had looked to be very young at the time of her marriage, but that her husband-to-be had claimed that Ann was aged nineteen. However, as Mr Austin, Ann’s counsel, explained:

The unhappy lady who sought for this divorce was born in the year 1818, and was married to her present husband, Mr Dawson, in 1833, being at that period 15 years of age only… At the time of the application for the license, Mr Dawson, it appeared, had sworn that the young lady to whom he was about to be married was 19 years of age, when in truth she had but completed her 15th year; and he had also sworn that the marriage was to take place with the consent of the young lady’s brother. Now, it so happened that there was no brother.

The final evidence offered to their Lordships in support of Ann’s petition for a divorce is the most chilling. This evidence was given by Mary Bates, a servant in the Dawson household. She recounted an incident where her master, Mr Dawson, had brought a brace of pistols over to Birkenhead, where he and Ann were living, and upon her mistress inquiring his reason for bringing them, he said: ‘To shoot anyone and perhaps you.’  Mary Bates said that her mistress, on hearing this, turned very pale. Ann was a woman who lived in mortal fear of the man she had married. She was desperately afraid that he would kill her. Mary Bates’ testimony included her bewilderment as to why Mr Dawson treated his wife so badly, when Ann had always been, in her words, a very loving and a very kind wife. She concluded with her observation that her master was often in liquor, and on those occasions, he was generally extremely violent, especially towards his wife.

Richard Dawson, Ann’s husband, did not even bother to turn up, and offered no evidence to counter Ann’s claims. Yet despite her undisputed testimony, their Lordships derided her petition as foolish, laughing at her attempt to extricate herself from her miserable marriage. They denied Ann her divorce and she was forced to remain in her loveless and unhappy marriage, forever shackled to a violent and abusive man. Her husband had subjected Ann to cruelty, desertion and adultery, but Ann’s petition for a divorce from her wretch of a husband failed. The reason? He had committed neither incest nor bigamy, and these were the only two grounds for a divorce available to a wife at that time. Additionally, Lord Campbell, one of the Law Lords in the House of Lords, while recognising her ‘painful detail of circumstances’ said her petition for the divorce did not show anything that ‘would prevent the parties once more living together as good Christians.’

There was nowhere else for Ann to go. For over a thousand years the power of the House of Lords had been acknowledged as the last resort of litigants and the highest court of justice in the Kingdom. Ann was not to have her divorce.

Ann’s plight, for the briefest of moments, was splashed across the pages of an indignant press, almost as if they were trying to rouse the public to outrage. But neither politicians nor reformers took up her cause and she vanished from the public eye. Ann was just the daughter of a Manchester merchant, who was respectable and wealthy enough, but hardly newsworthy. Worse, she had foolishly entered into a union with a charlatan, heedless of the consequences. She had made her own bed. The public was content for her to lie in it.

Ann was a non-descript middle class woman who had made poor choices in life, even if she had made those choices when she was nothing but a girl head-over-heels in love with a conman. She was not a poster girl capable of catching the hearts of the public, rallying reformers to her cause. It would take another woman to embrace that role, a woman who had already taken a stand against one of the injustices perpetrated by the law and won. Her name was Caroline Norton. She was not only an aristocrat, but also had the advantage of being a renowned beauty. It was marriages such as hers, and the marriages of others like her: monarchs, aristocrats, politicians and celebrities that have brought to the attention of the public the injustices of the law relating to divorce.

Ann Dawson’s story started my journey of looking into the miserable marriages that shaped our divorce law of today. It is a journey that starts with her, and is still ongoing, as we wait for the government to finalise the reform of divorce laws to ensure that no one remains trapped within in a loveless union. But in Ann’s case, it was not so much a story of divorce, but a story of no divorce. She disappeared from the pages of the press, and I could find no further record of her to write an ending to her story.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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