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5 Mar 2020

The trailblazer that was Caroline Norton

Written by Angus Lyon
A man holding an omega-shaped sign that reads 'Love, the National Trust for Scotland' stands in front of a double staircase.
Angus Lyon, Visitor Services Assistant at Pollok House
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts written by our volunteers and staff, highlighting both historical female characters and their influences at their properties.

In the second of these posts, Angus Lyon, Visitor Services Assistant at Pollok House, explores the life of Caroline Norton.

Caroline Norton, granddaughter of playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was born in 1808. Her father died at a young age and this left Caroline, her sisters and her mother in financial difficulties. Caroline’s mother was keen for her to marry barrister George Norton. To help her family out financially, at the age of 19, Caroline eventually agreed.

An oval painted portrait of a woman with dark hair wearing red, set against a blue background
Caroline Norton

But the marriage was a disaster. George Norton was abusive, both physically and psychologically. Despite this, they had three children: Fletcher, Brinsley and William. A fourth child was miscarried because of a beating Caroline suffered. After this, in 1836, she left him.

George exacted his revenge by not allowing her to see the children, which he was legally entitled to do. He also exercised his right to deny her a divorce and, in so doing, remained legal owner of her income and earnings. Caroline began a long struggle to change the law so that women were granted the right of access to/custody of children and, secondly, the right to property and earnings for divorced and separated women. Her campaigning resulted, first, in the Custody of Infants Act in 1839. Unfortunately this only applied in England and Wales. George Norton then sent the children to Scotland, where the law was only changed much later.

A framed portrait of a women in a dark wood frame, hanging on a wall
A portriat of Caroline Norton hangs in the Silver Corridor of Pollok House

After the death of her youngest son at the age of 11, George relented and allowed Caroline to see the children under certain conditions. She continued her campaign, during which she had become friendly with leading politicians of the day, including the Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. Her husband had tried to sue them for ‘criminal conversation’ (a Victorian term for adultery). He lost the case but the scandal surrounding them remained, even threatening to bring down the government of the day. 

Caroline would go on to win further battles with the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870. She was a long-time friend of Tory politician Sir William Stirling Maxwell, who supported her cause. After her husband died in 1875, she and William eventually married although her ill health cut short their married life to only a few months.

The camera looks up at a grand stately home with a bush with white flowers in the foreground.
Pollok House

Although Caroline wouldn’t have described herself as a feminist and didn’t seek wider equality for women, she was a trailblazer in the fight to change laws that discriminated against women, paving the way for others.

If you’d like to learn more about Caroline Norton and other historical female characters associated with Pollok House, come along to our International Women’s Day event at Pollok House on Sunday 8 March, beginning at 11am.