Caroline Norton, 19th-century champion of women’s rights, celebrated with English Heritage Blue Plaque

The 19th century women’s rights campaigner, Caroline Norton, has today been commemorated by English Heritage with a London Blue Plaque. The charity’s plaque will adorn 3 Chesterfield Street, the Mayfair townhouse from where Norton fought for the rights to own the proceeds of her own work as a writer, as a married woman.

Norton’s abusive marriage to George Chapple Norton and subsequent separation was one of the most highly publicised cases in 19th-century Britain, and led to Norton successfully lobbying for legal rights for married women. As a result of her campaigning, mothers were eventually granted custody of children under seven in cases of divorce or separation, and access thereafter. Later advances in the way divorced women were treated under the law may also be partly traced to Norton’s efforts, along with the recognition that married women could own their own property.

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director at English Heritage, said: "Caroline Norton is an unsung hero in the fight for women’s rights and, in remembering her with an English Heritage London blue plaque, we hope to bring her story to the attention of many more people. Through her battles with the legal system in the mid 19th-century, she was directly responsible for safeguarding women from an abuse of power by their husbands. She secured landmark victories for married women, changing the legal system by establishing their existence in the eyes of the law so as to protect their children, property, earnings and bequests. Women owe her a great deal."

Lady Antonia Fraser, Caroline Norton’s most recent biographer, commented: "I’m delighted that English Heritage is commemorating Caroline Norton. In 1836, her husband George Norton unsuccessfully sued the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne for adultery with his wife. Despite the court verdict of innocence, since a married woman had no legal rights, he was then able to exclude Caroline Norton from their home, prevent access to her three young children and benefit himself from her earnings as a writer. What I admire about Caroline Norton was that instead of suffering in silence, as was expected of a woman at that time, she proceeded to campaign bravely for a change in the law and played an important part in 19th century legislation to bring justice to all women."

"Plaques for Women"

The London blue plaques scheme was established in 1866 and today, only 14 per cent of the scheme’s 950 plus plaques commemorate women. English Heritage doesn’t think this is good enough and is working to address the historic gender imbalance in the scheme. The London blue plaques scheme relies on public nominations and since 2016 the charity has been encouraging people to nominate more remarkable female figures from the past – figures like Caroline Norton – for an iconic blue roundel. Since launching our "plaques for women" campaign five years ago, we have received an increasing number of public nominations for female figures. This year, half of our new plaques will be dedicated to women, and women make up well over half of the cases currently in the pipeline.

Caroline Norton

Born in London in 1808, the granddaughter of playwright Robert Brinsley Sheridan, Caroline Norton married George Chapple Norton in 1827, bearing him three sons. They were terribly mismatched. George Norton drank excessively and resorted to physical violence in their disputes, a frequent cause of which was lack of money. Well regarded as a poet and novelist in her own time, Caroline Norton supported the family with her writing, and her first two novels The Wife and Women’s Reward both addressed themes of women’s powerlessness in marriage.

In 1836, George Norton sued Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, for adultery with his wife but was unsuccessful. As revenge for his courtroom humiliation, George Norton took full advantage of the law – which gave custody of children to their father – and prevented Caroline Norton from seeing their three young sons. Thus began Caroline Norton’s fervent lobbying to change the law, which led to the Infant Custody Bill (often described as the first piece of feminist legislation) being passed in 1839, whereby mothers were granted custody of children under seven, and regular access thereafter.

In 1852, whilst Caroline Norton was living in Chesterfield Street, George Norton cancelled his estranged wife’s allowance and refused to honour his liability for her bills, as well as resuming his practice of channelling her earnings into his bank account. This led to Caroline Norton renewing her campaigning, this time for changes in the law relating to married women’s property rights. Her arguments helped shape the Matrimonial Causes (Divorce) Act of 1857, whilst the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, which further protected the property and income of separated and divorced women, had origins in her earlier proposals.

Although her mother and son Fletcher joined her for short periods, Caroline Norton mainly lived alone and unchaperoned at 3 Chesterfield Street, where she entertained guests and supported herself with her writing – an unusual arrangement for the time that kept tongues wagging. She lived there for over 30 years until March 1877, when she remarried. Caroline Norton sadly died of peritonitis just three months later in June 1877.

The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.

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