Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Unfortunate Clerical First - in Divorce Court

On the morning of 10 October 1858, the newly established court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes sat for the first time in London's ancient Westminster Hall. Previously, divorces required a prohibitively expensive process through the House of Lords. The first case called that morning was Norris v Norris and Gyles. William Norris, a prominent Worcestershire solicitor, petitioned for the divorce on the grounds of his wife's elopement with the Rev. George Gyles, the 30-year old curate of St. Mary's, Tenbury Wells. 

Gyles, with a Cambridge degree, had been an "edifying" clergyman in Tenbury for several years, working closely with Norris at the workhouse and other civic chores. The curate had been welcomed into the Norris home on Teme Street and the company of the young Mrs. Louisa Norris, "a woman of great personal attractions and accomplishments." When Gyles was stricken with rheumatic fever, he was tenderly cared for by the Norrises. Louisa's people were from the Isle of Wight and in 1857, for a change of air, she went to stay with her aunt, Lady Holmes. In March, "in consequence of a letter she had received," Louisa asked for the carriage stating that her husband had summoned her home. But she never returned to Tenbury. In fact, at the same time, the Rev. Mr. Gyles also "disappeared from the scene of his clerical labours."

William Norris now came to court with evidence showing that his wife and the clergyman had sailed for America, returning to England some months later, residing at a hotel in Paternoster Row (in the shadow of St. Paul's!) and, finally, living as "Mr. and Mrs. Grant" off the Vauxhall Road. No effort was made to challenge the petition and Norris' divorce was granted. The papers expressed their sympathy with the cuckolded husband whose wife "had listened to the insidious poison instilled into her ears by a 'reverend gentleman' whom Norris had befriended in sickness."

The sequel to the Tenbury scandal was a sad one. Rev. Gyles and Louisa were married three months after the divorce was heard. She died in childbirth only five months later. Their son survived. Gyles remarried the following year and had two more children. 

The new Divorce Court (1858)
The often salacious proceedings of the new divorce court were closely covered in the press causing much distress in thoughtful circles. Clearly, it was an embarrassment for the church that the very first case involved a clergyman. However, prior to the Clergy Discipline Act of 1893, being found at fault in a divorce was no bar to church employment. The Rev. George Gyles B.A. remained on the clerical rolls but "without cure," i.e. without a church. He was allowed to preside at one or two "private chapels" and did the occasional wedding up to his death in 1887.

The undefended Norris case was a rather perfunctory one in the courts, unlike the sensational story of the Rev. Seton Karr, vicar of Berkeley, who was also accused of seducing a solicitor's wife. The fascinating details of that case are told in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2, now available in paperback at and

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