The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton


The Trial of the Nineteenth Century

At an early hour yesterday morning, both the public and private entrances to the Court were thronged with people eager to procure any place from which they could hear the smallest portion of a trial which has excited so much interest. Their patience and perseverance, however, were but ill-rewarded, for the galleries of the body of the Court were filled before the public doors were thrown open, so high a sum as five and in some cases we believe even ten guineas having been given for a seat. The Court is peculiarly small . . . the heat and the overcrowding can be very imperfectly imagined.

Morning Chronicle, 23 June 1836

The twenty-second of June 1836, a warm drizzly day in London. A light wind cooled the men waiting impatiently at the big doors of the medieval Westminster Hall. At half past nine the crowd, murmuring with anticipa­tion, pushed into the adjacent Court of Common Pleas: ‘a simultaneous rush was made and it appeared as if the doors had given way to the pressure from without, confusion and uproar prevailed’. A clearly annoyed Lord Chief Justice Sir Nicholas Conyngham Tindal took his seat. He ordered the doors to be shut and that only those with subpoenas be allowed in, and warned that unless silence prevailed he would adjourn the trial. The case of Norton vs Melbourne was said to be motivated more by politics – the desire of the Tories to bring down the Whig government – than the hurt feelings of a husband allegedly cuckolded by the man who happened to be the prime minister of Great Britain. Lord William Melbourne, in his fifties, was being sued by the Honourable George Norton, in his mid-thirties, for having had ‘criminal conversation’ (sexual relations) with Norton’s wife, the beautiful and well known writer Caroline Norton. Melbourne was raffish, urbane and witty; there was something of the Regency masher about him. He was old enough to be Caroline’s father and had indeed known her father, Tom Sheridan, and even her famously rackety grandfather, the playwright-turned-Whig-politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of The Rivals and The School for Scandal, those two great comedies of the English stage.


Caroline Norton and Lord Melbourne


The legal complaint was that Melbourne had denied Norton the benefits of ‘domestic harmony and affections’, which led to a dereliction of Caroline’s conjugal duties and Norton’s conjugal rights. Damages of ten thousand pounds (almost a million today) were demanded from the prime minister for the loss of Mr Norton’s enjoyment of his wife’s body. This was the second time Lord Melbourne had been sued for criminal conversation with another man’s wife, but on the previous occasion it had been settled away from the gaze of the press and the public when Melbourne paid off his lover’s husband. Now the timing could not have been worse for the prime minister, or better for the Tories who were itching to bring down the reforming Whigs. Lord Melbourne through his legal team denied the charge and was pleading not guilty.

Rumours had circulated about Lord Melbourne and Mrs Norton for three or four years, and their affair had been the subject of satirical lampoons, although the cartoons were tamer than those of a previous generation, when Rowlandson and Gillray had been in their heyday. Some drawings punned and played with Lord Melbourne’s family name, Lamb, which became Lambkin, while Mrs Norton was the ‘Norty One’. The cuckolded husband was depicted as a wide-eyed gormless goat. As the trial drew near The Times speculated that Melbourne’s political career would soon be over. A rhyming couplet entitled ‘For Better For Worse’ in The Satirist whetted readers’ appetites, but held back on lewd imagery: ‘“Nay pr’ythee, dear Norton, ne’er rave and curse / Remember you took me for better or worse.”/“I know it,” said Norton, but then, “Madam, look you. / You proved on trial much worse than I took you!” ’


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Elsie and Mairi Go to War:
Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front

Edited extracts from the first three chapters of the uncorrected proofs

Leaving the Palace of Tears
What a scramble. All the preparing to go off with Dr Hector Munro's Field Ambulance – buying clothes – rushing through Selfridge's with the help of one of the assistants.
Mrs Knocker had her work cut out… In the evening we packed up our clothes… at length we tumbled into bed about 11pm and went to sleep for the last time in Merrie England. Up at 6am to finish packing… it’s a wonderful feeling knowing that one is leaving England and going straight into the most awful horror. I look round and try and stamp everything on my memory in case I never see it again, and I wonder what my fate will be in the next few months.

Mairi Chisholm

What a rush and muddle everything seems to have been for the past few weeks, arranging and getting up this big scheme – to send nurses and men not only to help the soldiers but to find them in the outlying cottages and on the ground. At last this is the eve of departure and everything is ready.
It is now 11pm of the 24th of September and I have everything packed and ready – labels on and in a desolate lodging room – I am now prepared to go to bed, my last night in England for how long nobody can tell. It seems funny to think that this time tomorrow I shall be in Belgium – in the midst of all the terrors of war.

Elsie Knocker

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Gooden-Chisholm left for Belgium on the 25th of September 1914, they had gone to London when war was declared on the 4th of August. The past six weeks had been giddy; they were swept up in the drama of khaki jingoism. Their days were framed by red, white and blue bunting, surrounded by men and boys signing up to give the Germans a damned good thrashing, and thousands of women determined to do their bit.

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National Theatre: Her Naked Skin
Article written for the catalogue of the theatre production.

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National Theatre 1 National Theatre 2 National Theatre 1  


ew Statesman: Deeds Not Words
On the anniversary of Emily Wilding Davison's fatal Derby Day protest, Diane Atkinson suggests there are links between the Edwardian suffragette and today's suicide bombers, and recounts the iconic moments of that historic event.....

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Love & Dirt:
The Marriage of Arthur Munby & Hannah Cullwick

… From this moment on Hannah desired only a master-slave relationship like that of Myrrha and Sardanapalus. Nothing else would do as a model for love.

At the end of the Season the house in Grosvenor Street was shut up and the family and servants returned to Shropshire. During the years Hannah worked for the Cotes she did her best to keep in contact with her siblings: by the early 1850s James was a wheelwright; her younger brother Dick had left his apprenticeship with their Cullwick relations in Wolverhampton and walked to London; her sister Ellen came to work at Woodcote at Hannah's recommendation; and Polly, the baby of the family, was living with their Aunt Elizabeth at Haughton. Hannah walked across the fields to visit them both.

carrying with her a big hare, two rabbits and a plum puddin' . . . 'All the servants [at Woodcote] had roast beef and plum puddin' on Sundays - us under servants and all; and Emma the kitchenmaid and me used to save our puddins to give away. And I'd axed the keeper to give me summat for Aunt and he give me the hare - throwed it under the sink for me; and the underkeeper gie me the rabbits. Aunt was pleased wi' 'em. And her used to keep a loaded gun in her cottage, you know and shot rabbits.'

In 1854 Hannah was back in London again for the Season. and with Monsieur Quinevit's permission she had a visit from brother Dick on her twenty-first birthday on 26 May. She walked part of the way home with him to his lodgings and kissed him goodbye, and as she crossed Oxford Street to take the back streets back to Grosvenor Street 'a gentleman spoke to me and I answered him - that was Massa's face that I’d seen in the fire but I didn't know it again, till a good while after. She was wearing a Iilac cotton frock, white apron, blue shawl with red and white spots, and a black bonnet with a white cap inside.