[London]: [N.P.], 1801. First edition. Private Act: 41 George III, [Chapter 102]. Stitched at spine and measuring 300x190mm. Collating complete: 7, . A tall, wide margined copy with several pencil and pen docketing notations to top margin of page 1 and several small ink dots to the final page, neither affecting text. Internally fresh and unmarked. Private Acts such as this were printed in small numbers for private use only, and surviving examples associated with landmark events such as this are exceedingly rare. Documenting the first full divorce granted to a woman in Great Britain, this scarce piece is preserved at only one institution according to OCLC. The present is the only copy on the market.
Private Acts were non-public legislation passed for the benefit of individuals or bodies; and because their initiation and execution were costly, only the members of the most privileged classes were able to engage in them. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, these Parliamentary rulings were, in fact, the only means for obtaining a full divorce that allowed for future remarriage; and doing so "required proof of adultery or life-threatening cruelty" (History of Parliament). Of the 314 divorce Acts issued before 1857, all but five were initiated by men. Of the five women who petitioned for divorce, Jane Campbell was the first to successfully unbind herself from her husband (History of Parliament).
This Private Act records the first full divorce granted to a woman in Great Britain. "In 1801 Jane Campbell won the first Parliamentary divorce by a woman, the first of only four in history. She obtained her divorce on the grounds of 'incestuous adultery' committed by her husband Edward Addison with her sister Jessy; and she also won custody of her children...Custody of children was normally assumed to go to the father in this period, a situation which did not start to change until the Custody of Infants Act of 1839" (History of Parliament). This decision by Parliament was a testament to the egregious nature of the affair, which the House of Lords determined as a sign of Edward's moral inadequacy to raise good citizens. While the extraordinary conditions surrounding her complaint allowed Jane Campbell obtain this parliamentary legislation; and while "inequality between men and women in areas of family law such as divorce, child custody, and property ownership persisted for decades to come," her case set a precedent that opened the door to other women securing their freedoms from abusive or unhappy marriages (History of Parliament). (Item #4471)