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Divorce a Century Ago

from The Barwicker No. 108
Dec. 2012

In the last few years, modem technology has made the task of finding out about the past considerably easier. The hundred years rule on official documents has not changed but in other respects the problems of finding out about what happened a century ago has eased considerably. Unless you had the time and funds to travel to London, copies of newspapers published in the past has normally caused researchers to spend many hours straining their eyes reading microfilm copies, often scratched, on over-used film readers. The same applied to census documents and birth records.

In the last decade, the growth of the internet has made a difference. Within the last few months, a start has been made in placing text copies of newspapers on the internet. This will eventually enable searches to be made on-line for places, names and incidents which have been reported in newspapers in the past. This article has been drawn from one hundred year old documents in the old method. I am obliged to David Teal who found the time to search old copies of The Skyrack at Hendon, found an article on a local divorce case and then went to find the relevant court file in Kew. It casts a light upon events one hundred years ago.

In the first decade of the 20th century, divorce was an uncommon occurrence. It was especially so in Barwick-in-Elmet and the case covered in this article is the first we know about in the parish. Being an unusual occurrence, the case was covered in the Skyrack of 22 January 1909 in some detail. The court file, on its own gives the formal legal details of the action which covers the period May 1908 to July 1909. This avoids the more salacious (by the standards of the time) details which are reported in the newspaper.

Agnes Perkin

The divorce action in question was between John Albert Perkin and Agnes Perkin and the co-respondent Frank McGrath. The action was brought by John Perkin and was considered by the High Court in London. Their marriage had taken place in Barwick-in-Elmet in October 1898.

John Perkin was 33 years old when he married 25 year old Agnes Richardson. John was the son of Richard Perkin a farmer who died in 1881. At the time of the marriage John was a farmer resident with his mother, Elizabeth, in Barwick. Agnes, described at the time of the marriage was recorded as having no occupation and residing in Alnwick, Northumberland. According to The Skyrack she had been a lady's maid. She was the daughter of a mill foreman, Robert Richardson. The Perkins had four children Richard Robert bom January 1900, William bom March 1901, Stanley bom September 1903 and Christobel Sarah Lavinia bom September 1906. William died aged five in July 1906.

For seven years after the marriage, John and Agnes lived with his mother in Barwick. About 1905 John became the licensee of the Fox and Grapes which also had a farm of about 200 acres attached to it. This was shortly before the death of their son, William. In court John Perkin said that his wife had started to drink heavily and he had to take control of the keys to the spirits. The drink problem was acknowledged by Agnes and she said that it was following the loss of her son. Evidence suggests that she became depressed and became unfit to cany out her domestic role efficiently. Matters came to a head on the evening of Sunday 5th April 1908 when she went to Barwick to attend church, met Frank McGrath, a regular customer at the Fox and Grapes, and brought suspicion upon herself. As a result her husband claimed that she had committed adultery. She left to live elsewhere and divorce proceedings were started by John Perkin on grounds of adultery.

Divorce was expensive, the husband and the wife had to engage solicitors in Leeds and London and barristers to represent them in court. The court was the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court. The court action lasted two days in London which incurred both parties in travel and accommodation costs as well as the costs of witnesses to swear an affidavit and to appear in court. John Perkin had to pay £13. 3s. Od to his wife or her solicitor and to lodge in court the sum of £90 (£45 for himself and £45 for his wife) to cover what was estimated to be the costs of the action. This had to be paid before the action could proceed. The working man's wage at the time in the parish was about £1. 0s. Od a week. The cost of a divorce therefore was a crippling amount and was a major disincentive. John Perkin had to testify that "there is not any collusion or connivance between me and my said wife Agnes Perkin in any way whatever"; this ensured that his claim for damages against the co-respondent was not a false one (which would have paid for the cost of a divorce).

In his petition to the court John Perkin had stated that, on Sunday 5th April 1908, his wife has committed adultery in a field in Barr Lane, near to the Fox and Grapes, with Frank McGrath and claimed £500 damages from him. He also claimed the custody of the children. His wife had moved out to live in Fenton Street, Leeds and had replied that she was not guilty of adultery.

The proceedings lasted two days in court in London in January 1909 in front of a jury and witnesses and was not defended by Frank McGrath the co-respondent. Judge and jury found that Agnes had committed adultery with McGrath. The divorce was to take effect in six months unless sufficient contrary case was made to the court. Costs were liable to be paid by McGrath and the three children to remain in the custody of John Perkin until further order of the court. The costs of Agnes Perkin were "reserved", as the costs of the wife were to be paid by the husband. In July 1909 the divorce was declared absolute. The corespondent, Frank McGrath did not appear in court and had not been traced to obtain any statement from him.

The detail of the case is recorded in The Skyrack. The court proceedings as reported in the paper seem the same as a criminal case with the crime being adultery and the main 'criminal' being Frank McGrath. It appears that John Perkin was strongly supported in his allegations by his brother, Richard, who farmed across the York Road in Park House Farm. The two witnesses to the alleged adultery were an employee and a former employee of Richard. The details of what they actually saw were not reported in the court papers or in The Skyrack. After the incident, they reported that they had approached McGrath but that he had run away. Two witnesses who were in the employment of another brother, Robert Perkin, said that they had seen Agnes Perkin on her way to church and one said that she had seen her afterwards with McGrath with his arm round her waist. Agnes had gone to church in spite of her husband not wanting her to and intended to visit the grave of her son, William. Another Perkin, Annie, testified that she had not seen Agnes in church. Another witness, Violet Jacques, a former employee at The Fox and Grapes, gave witness against Agnes, quoting her drinking and poor housekeeping, and said she had seen her with McGrath, with his arm around her at 9 p.m. and that she did not come home "for a long time after that".

Agnes had two witnesses (both customers of The Fox and Grapes) who stated that they had never seen her treat McGrath any differently to other customers. In her defence Agnes did deny many of the reported incidents but did agree that McGrath had put his arm around her waist. There was testimony from a retired detective superintendent that he had tried unsuccessfully to contact McGrath who was reported to be in Belfast. Agnes may have had a stronger defence had he been found. It was clear that the evidence against Agnes Perkin was heavily stacked in favour of her husband. She was found guilty of adultery. Custody of the children was given to the father, which may not have been the case a hundred years later.

There is a record of an Agnes Perkin aged 54 being buried in Barwick churchyard in 1926. It seems most likely that she never left the area, although the photograph shown above was taken in a studio in Kettering. John Perkin died in 1940 aged 74.


Having written the article, I was contacted several months later by Mr Richard Perkin of Bramhope, who I had met during a Society visit to Adel several years ago. He had a photograph to show me which was taken of his family in about 1901-1902 at Kiddal Hall. His name was of great interest and when we met he confirmed that he was the son of Richard Robert Perkin, whose parents were the subject of the divorce. He disbelieved the account which I gave of the divorce as he had never been told about it and he knew that his grandparents were buried together in the churchyard in Barwick. I was able to show him copies of the court divorce papers to prove that they had been divorced. Mr Perkin later checked with the only surviving cousin, the daughter of Christobel, and she also knew nothing of the divorce. In the 1911 census, John Albert Perkin is listed with his three children and his unmarried sister, Annice (Annie), who is listed as his housekeeper. Searches have failed to find any reference to either John and Agnes remarrying.


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