Lord and Lady Colin Campbell’s Contentious Divorce

Divorce was practically impossible in England until the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. One man who decided to take advantage of the Act was Lord Colin Campbell, a Scottish Liberal politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1878 to 1885. He had become engaged to Gertrude Elizabeth Blood, daughter of the Irish landowner Edmund Maghlin Blood, in September 1880. About a month later, Campbell “underwent an operation for a painful disease from which he was suffering.”[1] They married in July of 1881, but shortly before their marriage, Campbell intimated to his wife Gertrude that they would have to occupy separate apartments for a time. However, he never informed the new Lady Colin Campbell that the reason why was because he was suffering from complications related to venereal disease.

Lord and Lady Colin Campbell

Lord Colin Campbell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the newlyweds set off for their honeymoon on the Isle of Wright, they were not alone. Campbell was “attended by a hospital nurse, and until 1883 he was never without such professional attendance.”[2] Because of Campbell’s illness, he was also unable to consummate his relationship with his wife until October of 1881, and before they did, he gave Lady Colin Campbell a veiled warning to take care of her health. It was a warning she did not heed. As a virgin, she had no idea what he meant. Unfortunately, shortly after they consummated their relationship, she began to suffer from “a violent attack of metritis and perimetritis, which seriously prostrated [her].”[3] Unsure of what to do or why she was suffering, Gertrude went to visit her mother and sister.

Because of the attack, Gertrude became less than enthusiastic to resume marital relations with Campbell, even after the doctor claimed it would improve her health. This was also one reason why she undertook several more trips and began to assume an increasingly hectic social life. Campbell, in the meantime, wrote his wife a letter attributing his health problems to something other than venereal disease. In addition, Campbell became more and more upset that his bride was not at his bedside when he was sick. Lady Colin Campbell for her part wanted to lead an exciting social life and having a sick husband who was from time to time relegated to his bed, was boring and unsatisfying. Therefore, when house parties, charity balls, or other invitations were issued, Gertrude was eager to attend, and she often did. These absences began to wear on Campbell, and, before long, the couple argued over Gertrude’s hectic social life.

Lady Colin Campbell by Giovanni Boldini in 1897, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Lady Colin Campbell by Giovanni Boldini in 1897. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Campbell also became jealous of any male attention his wife received as there were several male visitors that called on Lady Colin Campbell. Among her visitors were Lord Blandford (later known as the 8th Duke of Marlborough) and Captain George Shaw. Lord Blandford was a married man who quickly became bored with his wife and was described as possessing “diabolical charm.” He and the stunning Gertrude found they had many common interests and similar to Gertrude and her husband, the Blandfords were also refurbishing a home in Cadogan Square. Besides Lord Blandford’s attention, Captain Shaw also began visiting Gertrude. Shaw was a member of the London Fire Brigade and old enough to be Gertrude’s father. In fact, Shaw’s daughter had been a bridesmaid at Gertrude’s wedding. Neither Blandford being married, nor Shaw’s age, discouraged Campbell from putting his foot down. He soon ordered Gertrude that neither man was allowed to visit her. However, Gertrude did not heed his order and continued to see both men.

At some point, Gertrude became extremely sick, and it was then that Campbell accused her of having suffered “an induced miscarriage” or in other words an abortion. This was a serious charge as Lady Colin Campbell had not slept with her husband for months and confided as much to her cousin, Lady Miles. It was also around this time that it dawned on Gertrude that her health problems were related to syphilis or gonorrhea or both. The couple continued to live together, but now Gertrude was terrified of having any sexual relations with Campbell. He, however, had other plans. He tried to force sex with her, but she would not relent and held her ground, despite the fact Campbell had every right to demand she perform her wifely duties. This lack of sex was the reason Campbell finally threatened divorce. Things broke down from there, and in July 1883, Gertrude filed for a legal separation claiming cruelty and adultery by Campbell.

Lady Colin Campbell, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Lady Colin Campbell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Campbell responded on the 11th of September and denied that he had been cruel. He then became “determined to humiliate and disgrace [Gertrude] by accusing her of adultery and desertion.”[4] He even went so far as to write to Lady Miles and ask her to be a witness for him in his actions against Gertrude. When the case went before the court in 1886, mud-slinging was the norm with both sides accusing the other of adultery or other outrageous acts. Campbell’s butler even testified and reported that he saw Gertrude having encounters with various men and claimed to have observed these encounters by spying through the dining room’s key hole. At length, Campbell’s case hinged on Gertrude’s supposed in flagrante delicto with Captain Shaw.

Fortunately, Lady Colin Campbell had numerous friends “who demanded that an exhaustive inquiry should be instituted before any decree … be made. The testimony was published, and popular sympathy was manifested so strongly in behalf of the injured wife that the court dismissed the noble Lord’s appeal.”[5] This allowed Gertrude to be officially exonerated. Although neither could prove that the other committed adultery, it was determined that Gertrude had been injured not only in health and reputation but also vilified and publicly slandered by Campbell. Outrage was so high, requests were made to modify the law, and it was noted syphilis was a more subversive object of matrimonial bliss than any other offense because it shackled couples together whether they wanted to be or not.

In the end, Lady Colin Campbell was the winner. She obtained a legal separation and went on to acquire her own apartment and to have a career in journalism. Campbell died of pneumonia in 1895, and although Gertrude could have remarried, she never did. She died in 1911 at the age of 53.

References:

  • [1] “The Colin Campbell Divorce Case,” Gloucester Citizen, 27 November 1886, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Journal of the American Medication Association, Vol. 8-9, 1887, p. 80.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.

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