By Chris Jones
In May 1824 a labouring man of Tunbridge Wells put a halter around his wife’s neck and led her to the market place. There he sold her to the highest bidder for £3.
This practice of ‘wife-selling’ was deprecated by polite society, but was reported quite regularly. EP Thompson identified some 400 cases between 1780 and 1840. At a time when divorce required a private Act of Parliament it was one way of dissolving an unsatisfactory partnership (though it had no legal sanction). In many cases, it is said, the wife and her purchaser were already lovers.
Divorce law changed fundamentally with the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. Divorce was taken out of the hands of the church courts and of Parliament, but it was still very expensive. One early case raised important questions about the nature of evidence.
Henry Sopwith was a surgeon. A widower, he lived in Calverley Parade, Tunbridge Wells. In 1857 he married Matilda Deane. Things didn’t work out. In May 1858, Mrs Deane accused him of treating her daughter as little more than a housekeeper. Asked whether he still loved her, he replied ‘not as I did’. The Deanes took her away to Cheltenham.
They employed an ex-detective called Shaw to investigate whether Henry was seeing another woman. Shaw discovered nothing, but a second detective, called Topp, was more successful. Topp’s suspicions centred on Mary Ann Prickett, aged 24, who had worked for Sopwith before his marriage. She had then moved to London, but returned in 1858.
Topp interviewed James Buss, another ex-servant of Sopwith’s. Buss claimed to have watched through a keyhole and seen ‘indecent familiarities’ between Sopwith and the girl (a cork was later placed in the key-hole). More dramatically, he claimed that he had seen Mary Ann come secretly to the house one night. There had been shadows on the sitting-room blinds, and then upstairs, two people undressing.
Topp found neighbours of Mary’s mother who said that Sopwith had visited her there at all hours. Others said that they had actually seen the pair in adultery, among furze bushes in a nearby quarry. He tracked down a friend of Mary’s in London who spoke of Sopwith visiting her there; and further uncovered the story of a Henrietta Pearce whose baby had died in 1858. Sopwith had paid for her medical expenses. Pearce’s landlady would testify that ‘Henrietta Pearce’ was in fact Mary Prickett.
The 1857 Act was unequal in that it allowed a man to sue for divorce on his wife’s adultery, but a wife had to cite adultery plus some other cause. Perhaps because of this, the Deanes only petitioned for legal separation.
The case was heard in December 1859, before Sir Cresswell Cresswell (yes that really was his name), the judge in charge of the new Divorce Court. There had been doubts about his suitability ‘a confirmed bachelor, with an irascible judicial temper’, but in the event he was judged a success, ‘upholding the sanctity of marriage while vindicating the rights of outraged spouses’.
Cresswell had a ‘very decided opinion’ in this case, influenced by the involvement of ‘men of the class to which Shaw and Topp belong’. While the use of detectives by the police might be acceptable, a private detective whose income depended upon what he uncovered ‘becomes a most dangerous agent’. Topp actually had extensive police experience. Starting as a Metropolitan Police clerk he was recorded as a police officer in both 1841 and 1851. To Cresswell, though, investigation was best left to ‘regularly educated’ attorneys responsible to the courts for their conduct.
Topp’s ‘Henrietta Pearce’ theory was easily demolished – the surgeon who had attended her confinement confirmed that she was not Prickett. Cresswell then turned to the credibility of James Buss. He had already admitted sharing a gin-and-water with Topp at the White Bear. Now he admitted accepting five shillings from him.
As for the neighbours, Cresswell considered their testimony ‘preposterous’, and contrary to all probability. By contrast he was impressed by Mary Ann, ‘her appearance and demeanour were singularly in her favour’. Sopwith’s explanation for her nightly visits – that she was copying out details of births and deaths (he was the local registrar) – was both plausible and praiseworthy.
Matilda’s petition was rejected. Cresswell thought that Topp had ‘got up’ the evidence – how was it that Shaw had found nothing in nearly a year? He considered it monstrous that he was unable to award costs to Sopwith (rules intended to ensure that costs were not a barrier to wives seeking a divorce).
It would be easy to see Cresswell as part of a Victorian conspiracy against women. Or representative of a class that resented its affairs being opened up to the lower orders. A year earlier, another judge had complained about the use of detectives, saying that the people of England held such spies in utter abhorrence. Even police detectives were disliked. In Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) they were described as ‘stained with vile associations and unfit company for honest gentlemen’. In this centenary year we might allow Cresswell to have simply been a conscientious lawyer concerned about due process and standards of proof. Wasn’t it important for Lord Mansfield in 1783 that he judged the Zong case on legal rather than moral grounds? And surely the point about Atticus Finch is that he put legal process above his own interests and now, it seems, above his own prejudices.
In 1860 Sopwith brought a case against Matilda for Restitution of Conjugal Rights. Such cases were usually futile in the sense of re-uniting a couple, and were more to do with recovering costs. Matilda never did come back. In 1861 and 1871 she was living with her parents in Ilfracombe.
Sopwith remained in Calverley Parade for another twenty years. In 1860 he was made Assistant Surgeon to the Rifle Volunteers – the local establishment, perhaps, affirming their confidence in him.
What of Prickett? It is difficult to be sure. The problem of evidence afflicts historians as much as judges – her name and place/year of birth are not unique: she may have married and moved to London.
And Topp? He turned up in the Codrington divorce case of 1864, another juicy story. There was clearly a demand for spies.
Chris Jones is studying for a DPhil in English Local History at OUDCE.