‘Of idle and vagrant habits’: Women and divorce in colonial Australia

PhD candidate Marian Lorrison explores the sensational divorce – yet typical experiences – of colonial woman Annette Miller.

Most historians realise how difficult it is to trace the intimate lives of ordinary women, especially those of the working class, who were too busy earning a living to write letters or diaries. This is why colonial divorce records offer the historian such a variety of archival treasures, revealing abundant detail about the daily lives and loves of women from different social classes and backgrounds.

Thanks to this goldmine, my recent master’s thesis explored the marital woes of four ordinary colonial women in 1870s’ New South Wales. Each appeared in court to refute charges of adultery; their stories put paid to the idea that all colonial women were doormats or confined to the domestic sphere.

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Divorce petition. Image via New South Wales State Records Office.

Before I start, a few pointers about colonial-style divorce. It’s hard to believe what people had to go through when divorce was introduced in 1873. Marital dissolution was expensive, time-consuming and complicated, sometimes even ending in a jury trial. A man could sue his wife just for adultery, but women also had to prove bestiality, sodomy, cruelty or desertion. While men initiated 115 of 173 cases tried between 1873 and 1881, only four adulterous women appeared on the stand to answer charges. Most simply ran off to avoid scandal and humiliation. Given these statistics, the women whose lives I explored were anything but ordinary.

If an adulterous woman had children, her husband was granted immediate custody, a significant deterrent against wifely misbehaviour. (While it may seem hypocritical to the contemporary reader, an adulterous husband was also entitled to custody of his children). If the judge decided a case was going to trial, the press published proceedings verbatim, throwing discretion and privacy out of the window. It is no wonder so few women fronted up to the inevitable character assassination.

The story I am about to relate concerns a woman called Annette Miller. When she appeared in court in 1875, she had been sporadically homeless, and a regular inmate of Darlinghurst Gaol. To the modern reader, her crimes were fairly petty – receiving stolen goods, drunk and disorderly conduct etc. But in the colonial era these were punishable by imprisonment.

Born Annette Bain in Scotland, 27-year-old Annette worked as a barmaid and stewardess on a Hunter River steamboat when she married Compton South Miller in Maitland in 1861. They had no children. For the next four years, they moved around the colony while Compton worked as a station overseer. In February of 1865 Annette travelled by coach from Armidale to Sydney to visit relatives – or at least that’s what she told her husband.

When the time came for her return, Compton duly went to meet the Sydney coach, but Annette was not on board. He wrote begging her to come home, and regularly mailed small sums when she asked for money. They kept this up for a few years until the correspondence dropped off. In Sydney, Annette took up with a certain ‘John, Jack or Thomas Smith’. The couple moved around chasing short-term jobs; together they cut rags at a Liverpool paper mill, Annette worked as a cook and laundress while Smith did gardening, and sometimes she took in sewing. Unfortunately, numerous arrests for petty larceny (theft) and drunk and disorderly conduct suggest Annette was not about to settle down to a comfortable respectability with her new partner.

Meanwhile, Compton Miller sailed to London chasing horseflesh for his employer, and was gone several months. While he was away, a friend wrote to say he’d run into Annette. She was going about calling herself Annie Smith and claiming to be married to someone else. He told Compton she looked like she’d seen better days, and was obviously having a rough time.

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Darlinghurst gaol, circa 1887. Image via National Library Australia.

Making his own enquiries on his return, Compton Miller discovered that Annette had ‘led an immoral life in Sydney amongst disreputable characters’, and immediately launched divorce proceedings. Unlike the other case studies in my research that were tried by jury, the Miller case proceeded by legal affidavit and witness interview. Nobody could find Annette or Smith to serve papers on them since he had long departed the colony on a whaling expedition and she had ‘no fixed place of abode and (was) of vagrant habits.’

The case would have been straightforward if Annette had not arrived in the middle of proceedings, no doubt causing a stir. Compton Miller’s barrister was about to call evidence, when attorney James Greer stood up and stated that ‘the petitioner’s wife was in court and had just instructed him to defend her case.’ Naturally he asked for an immediate postponement. When the judge asked why she had not appeared before, Annette explained that she had been unable to afford a lawyer.

Evidently, she managed to overcome her financial difficulties. The few newspapers covering the case described Mrs Miller as a ‘well-dressed middle-aged woman’ and commented on her confident manner. Since witnesses and her husband had damned Annette’s character and conduct, it must have been a shock to find she was not the shabby and dilapidated creature they had heard about. It is tempting to assume Annette’s change of circumstances resulted from ill-gotten gains, but there is no evidence to support this other than logical suspicion based on her criminal record. It’s difficult to know how else she found the money for new clothes or a solicitor, particularly since she had no family support.

Annette’s denial of her affair showed definite imagination. She told the court Smith was ‘a shingle short’, with a mania manifesting in an urge to tell people Annette was his wife. The jury wasn’t buying it. After all, several witness testimonies described Annette as dissipated and immoral, a drunk, and an associate of prostitutes. There was also the issue of her criminal record.

Despite her impressive chutzpah in fronting up, the judge decided Annette was an adulteress and granted Compton Miller his divorce. He was not held liable for Annette’s court fees, which was unusual since the law usually forced a husband to pay his wife’s legal costs. I do not know what happened to her after she left the court, (there are numerous Annie Smiths in the records) but I doubt it was a happy ending.

Despite her miserable life, I am inspired by Annette Miller. She willingly abandoned a comfortable financial existence with Compton (alias Bill Payer) in favour of independence. She showed determination and dignity in turning up to court, which was an intimidating all-male affair. In accounts of her life with Smith, it was she who touted for short-term jobs, and her court performance was gutsy in the extreme. She was a woman of agency.

Because she was childless, Annette could not access welfare – or garner sympathy for her plight. She could only rely on herself and her wits. Her story reminds me that women in the past were viewed as either wives or mothers and, as Anne Summers argued so long ago, if they did not fit into either of these categories, as whores. I doubt anyone today remembers Annette Miller, and so I offer her story here, ending with a detailed witness description of a:

dark complexioned woman, about forty years of age, and of a very gentle figure with a thin face, medium sized nose, rather a large mouth with thin lips, dark black piercing eyes, … a scar under one of the lower eyelids (and) short black curly hair, which she used to wear in ringlets’

I will remember Annette Miller.


Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 9.44.53 amMarian Lorrison is a Ph.D. student at Macquarie University. Her thesis examines the rise of the New Woman in Australia between 1880 and 1914, and traces the effects of increasing emancipation on twelve ordinary women. It considers how a growing sense of autonomy for women transferred to sexual and gender relations. Marian’s interests lie in histories of sexuality, gender and feminism and writing the stories of ordinary women.

Follow Marian on Twitter @MarianLorrison.

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