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ANSWERED on Wed 2 Feb 2011 - 6:38 am UTC by q21

Question: Divorce buried in act of parliament

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 1 Feb 2011 17:41 UTCTue 1 Feb 2011 - 5:41 pm UTC 

In my youth I recall reading that in the UK back in the days when it was only possible to divorce through an act of parliament, an unhappily married parliamentry clerk buried in an obscure part of an act the words "and the marriage of (name of clerk) is hereby dissolved", thereby successfully granting himself a divorce when the act was passed.

Is this a legend or a fact?




 1 Feb 2011 23:33 UTCTue 1 Feb 2011 - 11:33 pm UTC 


Very often, when this story is being told, the following book is mentioned as its source:

Miscellany-at-Law: A Diversion for Lawyers and Others, page 345 (published in 1955, reprinted in 2006)

by Robert Megarry (1910-2006)

- - - - -

One of several webpages quoting this book:

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This story was actually already told by Megarry in his 1949 "Lectures on the Town and country planning act, 1947":

Clicking on this link to the 1949 publication you’ll find two results, one of them being a book from 1947 by Charles de Bois Murray.
It appears to be the case, however, that Google Books didn’t quite get it right here as the depicted title page of the second book ("How Scotland is governed") is indeed the title page of the book by Megarry.

Megarry presents his account by starting with the words "you may know an old story". He does refer to the exact clause in question ("clause 64"). However, he does not mention a specific date or place.

- - - - -

It is only later, when the story was picked up again, that the town gets a name (without a specific year, however): Liverpool in 1969, and Birmingham in 2000.

In a House of Commons debate, 20 February 1969, Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington) stated:
"[...] although I do not think they go so far, usually, as the Section introduced into the Liverpool Corporation Act prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857. Section 87 of the Liverpool Corporation Act went through the House at a late hour. It said, ‘The town clerk's marriage is hereby dissolved’. Thus, the town clerk got his own private Act of Parliament and I gather that succeeding town clerks of Liverpool took advantage of the provision for some years until the matter was put right in the 1857 Act."

According to Arthur Skeffington it was "Section 87 of the Liverpool Corporation Act"

It is not clear which Liverpool Corporation Act he had in mind:

More on Arthur Skeffington:

- - - - -

In 2000 (21 February) Lord Taverne told another version of this story:
"It reminds me of a story of a town clerk in Birmingham who was unhappily married at a time when divorce was possible only by Act of Parliament. He was the author of a long water Bill relating to Birmingham."

More on Lord Taverne

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This story is also mentioned here:
including the following comment: "This story would be even more amusing if it was true".

I didn’t manage to find the source of the version as told by Megarry.

Despite the fact that this story is being retold now and then there seems to be no evidence that these events actually occurred.

It is, of course, not impossible that a town clerk whose name is currently not known managed to get a divorce by inserting the specific wording in the bill.

But someone, by now, surely would have found the bill in question.

As the account by Megarry is rather vague I see no reason to currently assume that these events actually took place.

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Here is some background information regarding divorce records before 1858:

and after 1858:

About the bill

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I am posting the results of my research not yet as an answer in case a fellow researcher is able to find additional sources.





 2 Feb 2011 02:54 UTCWed 2 Feb 2011 - 2:54 am UTC 

Wow - that is comprehensive! Please post as answer as is. I'm embarrassed as this overkill research for a $10 question. Thanks so much!




 2 Feb 2011 06:38 UTCWed 2 Feb 2011 - 6:38 am UTC 


Thank you for accepting the results of my research as an answer. Should I come across any version of this story prior to 1949 I shall let you know.



Phil Answerfinder 


 2 Feb 2011 09:01 UTCWed 2 Feb 2011 - 9:01 am UTC 

Intrigued by this question I searched the British Library's 19th century newspaper archive and The Times archive and could find no mention of it whatsoever. Sounds like a lawyer's apocryphal tale.




 3 Feb 2011 20:50 UTCThu 3 Feb 2011 - 8:50 pm UTC 

Outstanding for a $10 question.

As a general comment to all researchers, please stay somewhere within reason of the suggested responses for payment levels. In this case, the response was more in line with a $40-$50 question. While I am not complaining at all, I do have the interest of uclue at heart, and of course myself as a long time client. If the response is way above that expected for a particular fee, then this can have two effects: 1) Other researchers can become disillusioned as to the value of their work and thus drop out, negatively affecting myself as a client of this servier. 2) Clients such as myself can become embarrased by the level of detail of the answer and feel a need to pay a higher tip that envisaged, thus dis-incentivating them to post questions in the future on the grounds that they may feel pressured to pay more than envisaged.




 3 Feb 2011 21:07 UTCThu 3 Feb 2011 - 9:07 pm UTC 

When following the links provide, I came across some hillarious research (assuming it was taken seriously). All the references refer to the generic phrase "and the Town Clerk's marriage is hereby dissolved" rather than naming the individual concerned.

There was an additional statement added in some references that the clause was taken advantage of by several Town Clerks of the city after the original, and before the act was repealed.

The really hillarious bit was when someone queried if this meant that anyone obtaining the position of Town Clerk of the particular city while the bill was law would automatically become divorced whether they wanted it or not.

This confirms my thinking that this must be a legend, otherwise it would have been challenged in court.


Uclue Admin 

 3 Feb 2011 22:23 UTCThu 3 Feb 2011 - 10:23 pm UTC 

Hi eppy,

Thanks very much for your feedback. Uclue is a marketplace which aims to bring together customers and researchers. It's very hard to establish a consistent specification for how an answer should look at each price range, although clearly this answer is way above the norm for a $10 question.

However, it's not just the difficulty that a researcher takes into account when determining how to approach a question. It's also the subject matter. If a question is interesting to a researcher, the researcher may explore it much more deeply than he or she would otherwise do.

When the result of preliminary research answers a customer's question in the negative, a researcher will be reluctant to post an answer without extensive research. It would be unsatisfying, for example, if a researcher had posted simply that there appeared to be no evidence to back up the story about the Town Clerk, without showing that a substantial path of research had been travelled.

On the other hand, if the source of the Town Clerk legend HAD been discovered, a single link would have been sufficient to answer this question in the positive.

Finally, please never feel that a tip is required at Uclue, even if the researcher's response clearly took longer than you had expected.

We appreciate your custom, and the many interesting questions that you have brought to Uclue.




 4 Feb 2011 00:40 UTCFri 4 Feb 2011 - 12:40 am UTC 

Hi Eppy

Yours was certainly an interesting question and Q21 has also performed magnificently - as always.

Typically, it is easier to prove a positive than to disprove an urban legend but there's no way of predicting the amount of research that may be required at the outset.

Sometimes, a question can stay locked for several hours but the Researchers involved may then fail to leave even a microClue as to why they have drawn a blank.

However, if a question is patently under-priced then a Researcher may leave a Comment to this effect but, of course, not all questions get answered anyway.

Another good reason for asking ANY Question regardless of the appropriateness of the Price is that there are also several Commentators who may contribute - simply out of the goodness of their hearts.

The Mighty Myoarin is deservedly the Leader of The Pack in this regard but other Researchers also often contribute - even after a question has been answered by one of their colleagues. For example, The Awesome AnswerFinder chipped in on this very question!

Moreover, I feel sure that Researchers place a high value on the positive Ratings and Responses they receive from customers such as your goodself.

Finally, there have been several occasions (which I have experienced myself) where an interested party has contributed long after the event so - who knows? - a descendant of the mysterious Town Clerk may yet chip in and produce compelling evidence that even the UK Parliamentary system can be manipulated by a Civil Servant for his own benefit.

Here's hoping!

Good Luck, as always


Who has never been afraid of asking a $64,000 question for $2.




 4 Feb 2011 01:44 UTCFri 4 Feb 2011 - 1:44 am UTC 

Poof!  Someone conjured me up.  What's this all about? 

Oh, I see.  I am NOT the leader of the back, I just do it my way.
Intriguing question.  I go along with Eppy's opinion, also with Admin's comment  - and Probo's, of course.. 
What I find interesting is that the English legal system put divorce at such a high level, quite the equivalent for Roman Catholics' of once having to get the Rota (Vatican high court) to annul a marriage.  Now it is only the court of last resort, since most annulments are decided at the local level.
I won't bother with links  - easy to find.  Ninety percent of the cases that go to the Rota are declined.  Over 70% of RC annulments are granted in USA (no big surprise, also that Rome is not happy about it). Apparently, there is a useful clause in Canon Law that requires the parties to have really understood and meant that it was "until death do us part."

Before I go with a "foop" back in the bottle, do the Lords still address each other like that in one of Q21's links?  Great job!

In a disappearing cloud,  Myo




 23 Mar 2011 21:23 UTCWed 23 Mar 2011 - 9:23 pm UTC 


I remained interested in this question and have, therefore, taken a look into these two publications by R. E. Megarry:

1) "Lectures on the Town and country planning act, 1947", 1949
2) "Miscellany-at-Law: A Diversion for Lawyers and Others", 1958 (third impression, revised) (1955); the author lists sources and references whenever possible.

There is a short passage in "Miscellany-at-Law" in which Megarry talks about "those who still have faith in the old story about a Private or Local Bill into which an unauthorised and unnoticed insertion was made for personal reasons" (p.344). He mentions two versions of such stories:

1) "The head of an Oxford college, in far-off days when such appointments were subject to the condition of celibacy, astonished the fellows of his society by announcing his marriage and confronting them with a clause in a local Canal Act which gave him statutory sanction"; quotation from: Cecil T. Carr, Private Bill Legislation, in: Law Quarterly Review (LQR), vol. 66, 1950, p. 216.

2) The story about the Town Clerk and his marriage. - Megarry concluded his version (in 1949 as well as in 1955) of this story by pointing out that "the question then arose whether this particular provision was personal to the deceased Town Clerk", or not.

Megarry answered this particular question in 1955, by adding the following lines:
"The answer to this question remains as obscure as the source of the story, though when an Oxford don wrote to me for information, I was forced to the blushing confession that the concluding portion about successors in title was a conscious gloss on my part."

And finally, thank you for the tip.





 2 Apr 2011 12:51 UTCSat 2 Apr 2011 - 12:51 pm UTC 

Hi Q21,

Thanks very much for your additional thoughts. I have also been thinking about this question since it was answered, and now I am certain (or as close to certain as can be possible given that it is not possible to prove a negative) that these stories are urban legends.

To expand on what another commentor pointed out, we now live in an information rich, fully indexed, googlised world.

50 years ago, anyone walking into a major law library would be awed by the amount of cases and related information collected over the centuries. It would be easy to imagine some obsure information hidden away in an obscure journal, and thus existed the tantalising possibility that these stories may be true.

Now days the entire textual content of every published legal and parliamentary journal in history would comfortably fit on my tiny thumb drive memory stick in a fully indexed and searchable form.

As such, it likely that if such a story did exist, it would have been located by now.

The only remaining question is whether the UK parliarmentary archives have been fully digitised in a searchable form or not. I had a look here:


This tells me that the indexes are fully searchable, but that the content is still in microfishe (analogue) format.

So, perhaps there is still a glimmer of a possibility that the Town Clerk story is hidden away in obsucre journal,and will be found when the microfishe is finally digitized and OCRed. However, I very much doubt it.


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