In my previous blog, The Footman, I discovered that Fanny Basing, the wife of William Basing, was living with her children in Poplar, in the East End of London, in 1881. Fanny was recorded as the head of the household and married, but where was her husband? William Basing, now a butler and valet, may have been serving in a household abroad, perhaps in Ireland, as there is no sign of him in the 1881 census in England, Wales or Scotland. The census paints a picture of an absent husband. It appears that William was not coming home anymore and had left Fanny for good for in April 1883, Fanny took the bold step of petitioning for a divorce. In Fanny’s eyes, at least, their marriage was truly over.
Until 1858, it was only possible to obtain a divorce through an Act of Parliament. This meant that it was an option exclusively for the very wealthy, not for ordinary people. After this date, divorces could be obtained more easily and cheaply but the numbers were still relatively small. According to Professor Rebecca Probert in her book, “Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved?“, only 258 petitions for divorce were heard in 1858, the first year of the new law’s operation. Even by 1911, although the numbers of divorces had increased steadily over the period, it has been estimated that only 0.2% of marriages ended in divorce. Part of the reason for this was that the rules were still pretty restrictive, particularly for women. A husband could obtain a divorce on the grounds of adultery alone (this was the only grounds for divorce until 1937) but this was insufficient reason for a wife. She had to prove that her husband had “aggravated” his adultery with another cause (until 1923). There were also many reasons why a petition for divorce might fail. For example, a divorce would not be granted if the petitioning spouse was also found guilty of adultery. On top of this, the cost could still be prohibitive. Parties would have to travel to London to appear before the court and find the money to fund their petition and any expenses incurred. It is therefore not surprising that only a small number of spouses each year took the step of petitioning for a divorce.
Divorce records are held by the National Archives in J 77, accessed by indexes in J 78. Almost all the records survive between 1858 and 1937. Between 1929 and 1937, 80% of the records survive but very few have been preserved after this date. The files have been indexed and are available on Ancestry from 1858 to 1918. The information contained in each file varies, but you can expect to find a short history of the marriage, (often a copy of the marriage certificate), and detailed information on the grounds for the divorce petition. They are therefore one of the most personal of genealogical records.
On April 16th 1883 Fanny Basing filed a petition to dissolve her marriage to William Basing on the grounds of his adultery, coupled by two years of desertion, appearing in court before the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division in London. This is Fanny’s petition, dated April 13th 1883:
Fanny, now of 94 Cantor Street, Poplar, said that she had been lawfully married to William Basing on April 31st 1861 in Paddington (she supplied a copy of their marriage certificate) and had cohabited with him in Ryde on the Isle of Wight and “at divers other places”. They had had five children during their marriage. She asserted that William had deserted her without just cause for seven years and upwards, (amending this from two). She also alleged that William had committed adultery on several occasions. Firstly with an unknown woman on 15th February 1883 in Percy Street, Tottenham Court Road, Middlesex. The following day at 5, Seymour Street, Euston Road, Middlesex, again with an unknown woman. Finally, William is accused of committing adultery on the 25th and 26th February 1883 with an unknown woman at 52 Ivey Street, Birkenhead. Fanny testifies that she is not in collusion or conniving with William to dissolve their marriage (this would invalidate her petition). During this period, there was no divorce by mutual consent.
William’s solicitors responded a month later on June 13th 1883 by ordering Fanny to provide the names and addresses of the different women with whom William was alleged to have committed adultery within seven days. In other words, William was defiant and was asking her for proof! Fanny swore an affidavit on June 18th 1883 that set out the times and places where the adultery was alleged to have taken place but it seems she was unable to supply the names and addresses of the women:
This was the paper produced by Fanny marked “A”:
William, chose to contest the divorce and hired solicitors of his own. He wanted to dismiss the petition with costs. As the respondent, he gave his response on June 29th 1883. Curiously, William’s answers on whether he had deserted Fanny are rather ambiguous and contradictory, but he rebuffs all the charges of adultery and indeed, “denies that he has committed adultery at all”:
1 That he denies that he has deserted your Petitioner Fanny Basing.
2 That if he has deserted your said Petitioner he has not deserted her for the space of two years.
3. That if he has deserted your said Petitioner he has not deserted her without just cause.
4. That he denies that he committed adultery on the 15th February 1883.
5. That he denies that he committed adultery on the 16th February 1883.
6. That he denies that he committed adultery in or about the 25th and 26th days of February 1883.
7. That he denies that he has committed adultery at all.
Therefore the Respondent humbly prays That the Court will be pleased to reject the prayers of the said Petition and dismiss [the said Petition with costs]
A judge was to decide on the case on July 6th 1883. If Fanny’s allegations were true, one wonders who were these various ladies. Did William have multiple paramours, or was he seeing prostitutes. How did Fanny find out and who were the witnesses who testified on her behalf? To prove William’s guilt, Fanny had had to produce witnesses to testify that the adultery had taken place (though in actual fact, circumstantial evidence was accepted as sufficient).
Despite William’s protestations of innocence, Fanny’s testimony and that of the witnesses called to give evidence was obviously convincing. The judge granted Fanny a divorce, finding William guilty of adultery coupled with desertion of his wife without reasonable excuse for two years or upwards. A decree nisi was granted on April 23th 1884. After a statutory waiting period of six months, a final decree was granted on November 25th 1884. The custody of their youngest child (Charles Alfred Basing b.1870), was to remain with Fanny, and William was ordered to pay all the costs. Fanny’s costs alone amounted to £69.18.14. Charles Dickens junior, in Dickens’s Dictionary of London, published in 1879, said that the average wage for a butler in London at the time was £40-£100, so William must have had to use all his savings to pay the legal bills.
One wonders about Fanny’s motivations when she took the brave step of applying for a divorce from William. Did you she want to humiliate him publicly and hurt him financially? Perhaps the evidence of his adultery earlier in 1883 was the final straw after he had deserted her, (though one cannot rule out that she had left him because of his behaviour). Fanny might have also wanted to be free to marry someone else, perhaps Henry Walter Porter, her next door neighbour in Poplar. It looks likely that she was already in a relationship with him by the time of the 1881 census, (Henry’s son was recorded with her), but Fanny would have needed to be very careful, for if any evidence of her adultery surfaced, the divorce would have been denied. In fact, Fanny did marry Henry but not until Boxing Day 1887, when she described herself as a widow. Fanny and Henry appear to have had a long and happy marriage of nearly forty years.
In a draft version of Fanny’s petition that is included within the divorce file, William Basing is described as being of Gilston [sic] Castle, in Douglas. Gelston Castle was owned by the Maitland family for most of the 19th century so it is possible that William working for them at the time. A search of the 1881 census revealed that Matilda Maitland, the 93 year old owner of Gelston Castle, was living there at the time along with two grandsons and a granddaughter. There were six servants in the household but they were all female: a housekeeper, two lady’s maids, a house maid, a dairy maid and a kitchen maid. Perhaps William joined them soon afterwards, leaving his family and wife far away in London. Only the facade of the castle remains today; the castle was requisitioned during the Second World War and afterwards, the roof was removed:
After his divorce, William Basing disappears for a while. I cannot find him in England, Wales or Scotland in the 1891 census. Perhaps he had moved with his employer to Ireland. Wherever he was living, he was undoubtedly smartly turned out, addressed as “Basing” by his employer and “Mr Basing by the servants. Every day his duties included laying out his master’s clothes, arranging the table and service for each meal, ironing newspapers, polishing silver, answering the door and keeping the wine cellar, all the while managing the other servants. I wonder whether his employer knew of his marital troubles or even that he was a divorced man.
I finally catch up with William Basing in the 1901 census. Sadly, at this time, he is an inmate at the workhouse in Brighton:
William Basing was recorded as a 57 year old butler (domestic), though he was in fact, a bit older than this. Although he is described as a widower, I can find no subsequent marriage for him after his divorce from Fanny in 1883 in England and Wales. It is probable that he never married again. He didn’t live for long after this census was taken for a search of the General Register Office (GRO) death indexes revealed an entry for a William Basing, aged 60, registered in Brighton in the September quarter of 1903. I obtained a copy of the certificate:
William Basing was described as a 60 year old hotel waiter of 20 John Street in Brighton. Brighton had many hotels and was a popular seaside resort so this would have been a good place for a former butler to find work. His main cause of death was pulmonary phthisis (tuberculosis) and he had died in the workhouse. It would be interesting to look at the records of Brighton workhouse, held by East Sussex Record Office, to find out how long he had been an inmate and any other information on his stay there. Further information on the workhouse and photographs of the infirmary can be found here: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Brighton/ William was probably estranged from his family after his divorce so it is a sad end to his life.
It seems fair to say that William Basing did not behave honourably in his marriage to Fanny. He had an affair with a married woman and fathered the twins in 1865, and was found guilty of committing adultery on multiple occasions in 1883. His long-suffering wife had been deserted and left to fend for herself. Fanny must have been a strong character to bring up the children largely on her own and take the bold step of petitioning for a divorce. Professor Rebecca Probert in Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved? states that husbands accounted for 60% of divorces and it was more usual for women who had been married for over 20 years to seek a separation rather than a divorce. When it comes to the social profile, women from the middle to upper class were also more likely than working class women to seek a divorce.
There is still much that is unknown about William’s life, particularly where he was living and working when the 1881 and 1891 census was taken. From the evidence gathered so far, William strikes me as an ambitious person who had left behind his humble roots and forged his own career. He was probably a bit of a ladies’ man, who enjoyed the glamour of living and working in fine houses, albeit as a trusted servant. He must have been good at his job to rise in his career from being a footman to a dependable butler and valet.
One can appreciate that being married as a servant was difficult because there were only rare opportunities to see your spouse and family. Marriage was strongly discouraged by employers and if a butler lied, saying he was unmarried, he could be dismissed without notice. Your devotion was to your master or mistress. The long periods of separation, (and probably William’s unfaithfulness), must have caused a strain between William and Fanny that resulted in an irrevocable break. Fanny had had enough and decided to divorce William, making a new life for herself with a new husband. In contrast, William died lonely in the workhouse.
© Judith Batchelor 2020