BBC History Magazine

1 The mother of sex scandals

Adultery accusation­s made against the prime minister led to a change in Britain’s custody laws


In 1827, 19-year-old Caroline Sheridan, granddaugh­ter of the famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, married George Norton, heir to his family’s fortune.

It was a disastrous match. George turned down work while waiting for his inheritanc­e, so the family became dependent on Caroline’s earnings as a poet and novelist. George drank and was often violent towards his wife. All the while, Caroline’s flamboyanc­e and literary flair was attracting some powerful admirers, including a future prime minister, Lord Melbourne.

In April 1836, after yet another heated argument, George barred Caroline from the family home and prevented her from seeing their three sons, all aged less than seven. In the early 19th century, the law decreed that a wife’s property – and any children – belonged to her husband, so there was little Caroline could do about it. Naturally, she was distraught, especially as she knew the pain George was inflicting on her children by “cursing me thro them”, as she wrote to Lord Melbourne.

If that wasn’t bad enough, in June 1836 George sued Lord Melbourne for adultery with his wife. A successful prosecutio­n was the necessary first step in divorce proceeding­s. For George, it was also a money-making venture as he demanded that Lord Melbourne pay him £10,000 in damages.

Salacious testimony

The trial was a sensation. The court was “crowded to excess”, and newspaper readers awaited eagerly the potentiall­y salacious testimony. One maid claimed she “saw Lord Melbourne kiss Mrs Norton”, and another that, after a visit from Lord Melbourne, Caroline’s “collar and hair were generally tumbled… She would also wash her hands [and] put fresh rouge on her face.” A coachman’s testimony that he saw Caroline lying on the hearthrug with her clothes “up”, showing “the thick part of her thigh”, promised to prove decisive – until he admitted being sacked for drinking on the job.

The jury was unimpresse­d by these explosive allegation­s and promptly dismissed the case. Vindicated, Lord Melbourne went on to become Queen Victoria’s first prime minister and beloved ‘Lord M’. Caroline, still married to George but separated from her sons, picked up her pen and successful­ly campaigned for legal change. In 1839, legislatio­n granted women custody of children aged under seven, provided they were not guilty of adultery.

One maid claimed that, after a visit from the prime minister, Caroline’s “collar and hair were generally tumbled”

 ?? ?? Adulterous acts?
Adulterous acts?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom