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Thursday, 4 December 2014

Crim Cons - what a 'criminal conversation' really was.

Heyer mentions people gossiping about the latest ‘Crim. Cons’; so what actually is a Crim. Con? 
It is short for ‘criminal conversation’ which was a euphemism for adultery. 
A brief foray into the rights of divorce is needed here; Men had it all their way, and women had very few rights at all.  A marriage could be annulled not, as is generally believed, for non-consummation, but only for an inability to perform at all; for insanity; for adultery [if it was the woman being adulterous] or for inappropriate relationships, ie incest.  A woman had to show not only adultery on the part of her husband, but also extraordinary cruelty or some inappropriate behaviour.  The former was unlikely as a man was permitted to beat his wife, children and servants and considered a good man to chastise as required.  The only successful divorces brought by women involved incest – ie, that the adultery occurred with the wife’s sister.  

Right, now the convolutions of divorce.
A couple could separate moderately amicably, and a divorce in the eyes of the church applied for.  This was a divorce, but had a slight problem.  Neither could marry again.  For a full divorce, an Act of Parliament had to be passed on each case.  And this could not occur until just cause had been proven; which meant a civil case of Criminal Conversation where the woman was caught in flagrante delicto or there were enough witnesses to show criminal conversation.  As a married woman was not a person in law, the person prosecuted was her lover. Damages could be set as seemed appropriate, and the cases avidly reported in the press.  Not all of them were high society, but the majority were of the gentry, since few other people could afford to tangle with the law. 

Once the Crim. Con. case was proven, then it went to parliament, where the old coals might be raked over yet again.  And it was expensive; as much as £5,000, which was a lot of money, bearing in mind that a clerk earned £80 a year, and the extremely wealthy Mr Darcy had £10,000 a year, and at the other end of the gentry, a few hundred a year might be as much as could be hoped for.  Even for Mr Darcy, half a year’s income was significant.  It is hard to precisely equate money of the time to money of today, but sticking a couple of noughts on is a quick and dirty approximation, so we are talking about something in the region of half a million quid in today’s terms.    The excessive cost was doubtless mostly the cost of greasing palms to make sure it went through quickly and quietly, but it would not cost less than £1,000.  

York Herald 16th July 1808


Fowler ver. Hodges

This was an action for damages, brought by the Plaintiff, an attorney, against the Defendant, his clerk, for a criminal conversation with his wife.  It appeared the lady was 45 years of age, and lame, and the Defendant a young man of 21 years of age.  The criminal act was fully proved by a servant girl to have taken place on the 21st of December last, in an office of the Plaintiff’s.  The Plaintiff was at Margate at the time.  The Lord Chief Justice was fully of opinion that the lady, instead of being seduced, was the seducer.  However the Jury gave a verdict for the Plaintive – Damages 150 l. [£150]

Here the damages are in accordance with the status of the plaintiff, and the level of distress and loss of reputation to him.

5th March 1796 Newcastle Courant.

And here the damages awarded to Lord Westmeath are £10,000, after asking £20,000 which were in keeping with his standing according to the jury, and not as high as he set his own self worth.  And in his case would cover the case going to parliament.  I like the phrase “her Ladyship and her gallant in a certain situation which delicacy forbids our particularising”.

Lancaster Gazette Saturday 11th August 1804

And here, the Rev. Charles Massey was plainly hoping to take a nobleman for a small fortune, wanting £40,000 from the Marquis of Headport [so many jokes, so little time]; the jury plainly considered the damages to s reverend gentleman worth £10,000 but no more.  Well, he could afford to divorce his absconding wife with that, but one wonders if he would ever get a living again; and if the living was from the Marquis, whether the reverend gentleman might find himself without a congregation.   Of course if he did not bother with a parliamentary divorce, and invested his damages in the Funds, an income of £500 a year would do very nicely, whether he repudiated his wife or not. 

            The circumstances of an impending Crim. Con. case were also reported, and gossiped about:

24th August Kentish Gazette Friday 24th August 1804

Winchester, August 20.  A circumstance that occurred here on Tuesday night, has engrossed the conversation of every tea table:

A medical gentleman of Southampton, who had missed his wife from an country house in the neighbourhood, traced her to an inn here, and on breaking open a chamber door realised the suspicions he had entertained of her fidelity, by finding her in bed with an illicit lover, who is of the legal profession, and who was severely beaten by the injured husband.  As the affair will probably be the subject of serious investigation we forebear at present to be more explicit. – (Salisbury Journal)

Which is to say the editor did not want to be subject to contempt of court.

My recently completed novel, 'The Unexpected Bride', contains a vital Crim. Con., which has a profound effect upon my hero’s status, and his desirability to be pursued by, in particular, my anti-heroine.   It was a horrible scandal to have associated with the family, which made it highly entertaining for the gossipmongers and bored society ladies to discuss.  This is a society in which some people would go to any lengths to cover up any adultery, as the Duke of Devonshire did, when Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, found herself pregnant by her lover.  She had to go abroad for a year to have the baby [which was adopted by her lover’s family] and give up all contact with the little girl on pain of having contact with her other children removed.
Which was another thing a husband could quite legally do.
Women did not get a fair deal!


  1. Thanks for posting this. It gives me a greater understanding and will add to my reading experience.

  2. Ypu're welcome, Kathy! glad it's a help! I quite enjoyed researching it, though tracking down the vagaries of divorce law was fairly torrtuous!

  3. You do a great job, Ms. Waldock, on research as well as art!

  4. thanks Barbie! I love researching... it's the best bit about writing!

  5. Sarah, besides suing the lover for crim.con, the injured husband had to also apply for a legal separattion from his wife and receive the damages from the lover before he could submit a bill for divorce to parliament. These rules were put into place after some Lords had a suspicion that there was collusion between the husband and the lover and that the damages were never paid. Divorce dissolved a marriage but didn't annul it. Any children born in an annuled marriage were illegitimate, children born of a dissolved marriage -- except the adulterine bastard- were legitimate. Usually the lovers tried to minimize damages by picturing the wife as a schemeing wanton-- a woman without morals whose non existent virtue wasn't worth anything, When Lord Paget was sued in a crim.con suit by Lady Charlotte's husband, he refused to cast asperions on the lady's character. That and his being heir to an earl cost him a huge damages of £24,000. Do you know, that Paget's refusal to bad mouth Charlotte infuriated people! They thought it unseemly for him to claim they had fallen in love though both were married to other people and had about a dozen children between them. No jury would give damages to a man who hadn't legally separated from his wife in a church court. If the husband didn't act immediately to throw out the wife, then he was considerd as forgiving or condoning the adultery. Proof was often much less than being seen coupling in a carriage. Being together in a room with the door closed and then being seen twitching and tugging clothes into place was enough, The testimony of servants was customary. Most of the accounts of crim con in the court cases or church courts when applying for a legal separation ( church divorce from bed and board) are as sordid as divorce cases were before no fault. They have always been avidly followed by some and really made the juciest gossip. It seems that the only thing a husband could do that mightn't allow the wife to forgive him was to have sex with her sister. He could have sex with his sister without it affecting his marriage but couldn't have sex with her sister. The worse for the wife was that whether just legally separated or completely divorced in parliament-- the woman lost the children . Some never saw their children again except from a distance or in public. A husband only lost his children by being a traitor or an atheist.

  6. Many thanks for that expansion!

  7. A great post to understand the problem of crim.con. better. It is rather sobering that so much money was changing hands, degrading a wife to some kind of goods being damaged.
    I recently read that William Garrow represented Lord Roseberry in the procecution of Sir Henry Mildmay for crim. con. with Lady Roseberry. Lord Roseberry wanted 30.000 pounds. He got 15.000 pounds in the end.

  8. Isn't it just, Anna! it's a wicked amount of money, even at the level of a solicitor and his clerk.... of course, the poor went about things in a more straightforward way and sold their wives in the market place.

  9. With regards to the selling of wives, here's an excellent blog post on the matter, the going rate seems to have been around six bob.

  10. Such a fascinating post! Thank you, Sarah!

  11. Thank you Annah, glad you found it interesting!