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)
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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.
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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:
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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.
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.