60 years since the Coronation, a time when divorce was a dirty word

The celebrations at Westminster Abbey marking 60 years since the Coronation have an added potency if we consider how society’s attitude to divorce has changed over the past six decades.

Figures compiled by the Office of National Statistics tell us that in England and Wales in 1953 there were 30,326 divorces. In 1971 the divorce figures rose to 74,437 and in the most recent survey, in 2011, the tally stood at 117,558.

It would be glib to conclude that these figures suggest marriages were significantly happier or stronger in 1953 than they are today, because fewer people divorced.

On June 2, 1953 when some 20 million people gathered round their nearest television set to watch history being made at Westminster Abbey, family life in post-war British society was in a very different place – and divorce as we know it – did not exist.

Couples were under pressure to contain or settle their differences and extended family members, invariably in the same locality, helped them do so. Divorce was difficult, shameful and costly so couples were under considerable pressure to contain their relationship problems and to ‘give it another go.’

Sadly, a lack of financial independence and the stigma associated with divorce at this time must have kept many women trapped in abusive relationships, because they had no way out.

Divorce 1953 style involved a hearing in the High Court and was riddled with the kind of inequality that made it hard for women to support themselves or gain custody of their children in the case of marital breakdown.

The vital role women played in the workplace during the war years was the start of an evolutionary change that ultimately helped to highlight the need to bring in legal changes that would result in a more equitable approach to matrimonial law.

Whilst their husbands had been away at the front, war work had given women financial independence and control over their lives. There was no going back and new legislation had to reflect the way society was changing. The 30,326 divorce cases recorded in 1953 reflect a shift was under way.

The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 finally made it easier to end a marriage that had irretrievably broken down, although we were still some way off the non-adversarial approach that is the hallmark of collaborative family law today.

Perhaps we should look at the Queen’s reign as an accurate reflection of the changing times and attitudes to relationship breakdown. When Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten in 1947, few would have believed that a generation later three out of four of their children’s marriages would end in divorce and in the harsh glare of media publicity.

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