Thomas Talfourd

Thomas Talfourd

Thomas Talfourd, the son of Edward Talfourd, a brewer, and his wife, Ann Nood Talfourd, was born at Reading, Berkshire, on 26th May 1795.

After studying with private tutors he was educated at the recently founded protestant dissenters' grammar school in Mill Hill (1808–10) before transferring to a local grammar school (1810–12), where he became head boy. It has been claimed that Talfourd was deeply influenced by his headmaster, Dr Richard Valpy, who encouraged his enthusiasms for literature and for good causes. (1)

Talfourd's family's economic circumstances meant that he could not attend university. On the advice of Henry Brougham he decided on a legal career. In 1813 he joined the chambers of Joseph Chitty in the Inner Temple. He continued his interest in literature and his play, Freemasonry, or, More Secrets than One, was performed in 1815. But he was simultaneously becoming involved with philanthropic causes, He also became involved in the campaign against the pillory. (2)

Thomas Talfourd also became involved in politics and on 19th October 1819, he gave a passionate speech in defence of the right of public assembly, in protest against the Peterloo Massacre. He also supported universal male suffrage the total abolition of slavery and was in favour of women's rights. Over the next few years he became a significant figure in the fight for equality. (3)

Thomas Talfourd: Lawyer and Writer

In 1821 Talfourd was called to the bar and joined the Oxford circuit and Berkshire sessions. According to his biographer, Edith Hall: "In 1822 he contracted a happy marriage to Rachel, eldest daughter of John Towill Rutt, a nonconformist minister. She was fiercely unfashionable and regarded as a lovable eccentric. They had several children; Talfourd was heartbroken in 1824 by the death in infancy of their first child, a son, and by the death of another son, Charles (named after Lamb), in 1837. But he was devoted to Mary and Kate, their daughters, and especially to Francis (Frank) Talfourd (1828–1862), their surviving son." (4)

Talfourd reported on legal cases for The Times and contributed essays to The New Law Journey and The New Monthly Magazine. He also wrote about drama and literature in The Edinburgh Review. During this period he became friends with leading literary figures such as Charles Lamb, Douglas William Jerrold, William Makepeace Thackeray, William Macready, Daniel Maclise and John Forster. (5)

On 7th January, 1835, Talfourd was elected to represent Reading in the House of Commons. He was on the left-wing of the Liberal Party and was a leading campaigner for progressive causes. According to Ray Strachey, he "was a man whose knowledge, honesty and motives no one could impeach." (6)

Talfourd continued to write for the theatre and had a great success with his play Ion, that was first performed at the Covent Garden Theatre on 26th May 1836. Cornelius Conway Felton, professor of Greek literature at Harvard University, declared it a masterpiece, and it was often revived in the American commercial theatre.At the time it was considered a very dangerous play as it featured a hero, King of Argos, who declares himself a republican, disbands the army and makes the people promise never to re-establish the monarchy. (7)

Caroline Norton and Lord Melbourne

During this period Talfourd became involved in one of the most important legal cases of the 19th century. In June 1836 George Norton brought a case for criminal conversation (adultery) between his wife, Caroline Norton, and William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, to the courts, suing Melbourne for £10,000 in damages. The case began on 22nd June 1836. Two of George Norton's servants gave evidence that they believed Caroline and Lord Melbourne had been having an affair. Caroline had been prepared for lies but what appalled her was "the loathsome coarseness and invention of circumstances which made me a shameless wretch." One maid testified that she had been "painting her face and sinning with various gentlemen" in the same week that she gave birth to her third child. (8)

Three letters written by Melbourne to Caroline were presented in court. The contents of the three letters were very brief: (i) "I will call about half past four". (ii) "How are you? I shall not be able to come today. I shall tomorrow." (iii) "No house today. I will call after the levee. If you wish it later let me know. I will then explain about going to Vauxhall." Sir W. Follett, George Norton's counsel, argued that these letters showed "a great and unwarrantable degree of affection, because they did not begin and end with the words My dear Mrs. Norton."

One pamphlet reported: "One of the servants had seen kisses pass between the parties. She had seen Mrs Norton's arm around Lord Melbourne's neck - had seen her hand upon his knee, and herself kneeling in a posture. In that room (her bedroom) Mrs Norton has been seen lying on the floor, her clothes in a position to expose her person. There are other things too which it is my faithful duty to disclose. I allude to the marks from the consequences of the intercourse between the two parties. I will show you that these marks were seen upon the linen of Mrs Norton." (9)

The jury was unimpressed with the evidence presented in court and Follett's constant demands for the "payment of damages to his client" and Norton's witnesses were unreliable. Without calling any of the witnesses who would have proved Caroline's innocence the jury threw the case out. However, the case had destroyed Caroline's reputation and ruined and her friendship with Lord Melbourne. He refused to see her and Caroline wrote to him that it had destroyed her hope of "quietly taking my place in the past with your wife Mrs Lamb." (10)

Caroline Norton by William Etty (1836)
Caroline Norton by William Etty (1836)

Despite Norton's defeat in court, he still had the power to deny Caroline access to her children. She pointed out: "After the adultery trial was over, I learnt the law as to my children - that the right was with the father; that neither my innocence nor his guilt could alter it; that not even his giving them into the hands of a mistress, would give me any claim to their custody. The eldest was but six years old, the second four, the youngest two and a half, when we were parted. I wrote, therefore, and petitioned the father and husband in whose power I was, for leave to see them - for leave to keep them, till they were a little older. Mr. Norton's answer was, that I should not have them; that if I wanted to see them, I might have an interview with them at the chambers of his attorney. What I suffered on my children's account, none will ever know or measure. Mr. Norton held my children as hostages, he felt that while he had them, he still had power over me that nothing could control." (11)

Caroline wrote to Lord Melbourne, who continued to refuse to see her in case it caused another political scandal: "God forgive you, for I do believe no one, young or old, ever loved another better than I loved you... I will do nothing foolish or indiscreet - depend on it - either way it is all a blank to me. I don't much care how it ends... I have always the memory of how you received me that day, and I have the conviction that I have no further power than he allows me, over my boys. You and they were my interests in life. No future can ever wipe out the past - nor renew it." (12)

Caroline wrote a pamphlet explaining the unfairness of this entitled The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father (1837): Caroline argued that under the present law, a father had absolute rights and a mother no rights at all, whatever the behaviour of the husband. In fact, the law gave the husband the legal right to desert his wife and hand over his children to his mistress. For the first time in history, a woman had openly challenged this law that discriminated against women. (13)

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (1791)
Thomas Talfourd by William Oakley Burgess (c. 1835)

Caroline Norton now began a campaign to get the law changed. Abraham Hayward recommended that she approached Thomas Talfourd. Caroline wrote enthusiastically to Mary Shelley: "I asked Mr Hayward to request him to undertake the task. I hardly hoped for such proper acquiescence; and if I had to choose from the whole House of Commons, I could not choose a man whose talent, good feeling and weight with the House would give a better or so good a chance of success." (14)

Thomas Talfourd agreed to Caroline's request to introduce a bill into Parliament which allowed mothers, against whom adultery had not been proved, to have the custody of children under seven, with rights of access to older children. "He was driven to do this by some personal experiences of his own, for in the course of his professional career he had twice been counsel for husbands resisting the claims of their wives, and had both times won his case in accordance with law and in violation of his sense of justice." (15)

Talfourd told Caroline about the case of Mrs Greenhill, "a young woman of irreproachable virtue". A mother of three daughters aged two to six, she found out her husband was living in adultery with another woman. She applied to the Ecclesiastical Court for a divorce. At the courts of King's Bench it was decided that she wife must not only deliver up the children, but that the husband had a right to debar the wife of all access to them. The Vice-Chancellor said that "however bad and immoral Mr Greenhill's conduct might be... the Court of Chancery had no authority to interfere with the common law right of the father, and no power to order that Mrs. Greenhill should even see her children". (16)

Talfourd highlighted the Greenhill case in the debate that took place over his proposed legislation. The bill was passed in the House of Commons in May 1838 by 91 to 17 votes (a very small attendance in a house of 656 members). Lord Thomas Denman, who was also the judge in the Greenhill case, made a passionate speech in favour of the bill in the House of Lords. Denman argued: "In the case of King v Greenhill, which was decided in 1836 before myself and the rest of the judges of the Court of the King's Bench, I believe there was not one judge who did not feel ashamed of the state of the law, and that it was such as to render it odious in the eyes of the country." (17)

Despite this speech the House of Lords rejected the bill by two votes. Very few members bothered to attend the debate that took place in the early hours of the morning. Caroline Norton remarked bitterly: "You cannot get Peers to sit up to three in the morning listening to the wrongs of separated wives." (18)

Talfourd was disgusted by the vote and published this response: "Because nature and reason point out the mother as the proper guardian of her infant child, and to enable a profligate, tyrannical, or irritated husband to deny her, at his sole and uncontrolled caprice, all access to her children, seems to me contrary to justice, revolting to humanity, and destructive of those maternal and filial affections which are among the best and surest cements of society." (19)

Caroline Norton now wrote another pamphlet, A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Law of Custody of Infants. A copy was sent to every member of Parliament and in 1839 Talfourd tried again. The opponents of the proposed legislation spread rumours that Talfourd and Caroline "were lovers and that he had only became involved with the issue because of their sexual intimacy". (20)

The journal, The British and Foreign Review published a long and insulting attack in which it called Caroline Norton a "she devil" and a "she beast" and "coupled her name with Mr Talfourd in a most impertinent way." Norton wanted to prepare a legal action only to discover that as a married woman, she could not sue. She later wrote: "I have learned the law respecting married women piecemeal, by suffering every one of its defects of protection". (21)

1839 Custody of Children Act

Thomas Talfourd reintroduced the bill in 1839. It was passed by the Commons and this time he received the help in the Lords from John Copley, 1st Baron Lyndhurst. "By the law of England, as it now stood, the father had an absolute right to the custody of his children, and to take them from the mother. However pure might be the conduct of the mother - however amiable, however correct in all the relations of life, the father might, if he thought proper, exclude her from all access to the children, and might do this from the most corrupt motives. He might be a man of the most profligate habits; for the purpose of extorting money, or in order to induce her to concede to his profligate conduct, he might exclude her from all access to their common children, and the course of law would afford her no redress: That was the state of the law as it at present existed. Need he state that it was a cruel law - that it was unnatural - that it was tyrannous - that it was unjust?" (22)

The main opposition came from George Norton's friend, William Best, 1st Lord Wynford. He argued that the proposed bill went against the best interests of men: "To give the custody of the child to the father, and to allow access to it by the mother, was to injure the child for it was natural to expect that the mother would not instill into the child any respect for the husband whom she might hate or despise. The effects of such a system would be most mischevious to the child, and would prevent its being properly brought up. If the husband was a bad man, the access to the children might not do harm, but where the fault lay with the wife, or where she was of a bad disposition, she could seriously injure its future prospects.... In his belief, where the measure, as it stood, would relieve one woman, it would ruin 100 children". (23)

Despite the protests of some politicians, the Custody of Children Act was passed in August 1839. "This act gave custody of children under seven to the mother (provided she had not been proven in court to have committed adultery) and established the right of the non-custodial parent to access to the child. The act was the first piece of legislation to undermine the patriarchal structures of English law and has subsequently been hailed as the first success of British feminism in gaining equal rights for women". (24)

1842 Copyright Act

The novelist, Charles Dickens, was a regular visitor to the Talfourd home. He recalled: "If there ever was a house… where every art was honoured for its own sake, and where every visitor was received for his own claims and merits, that house was his... Rendering all legitimate deference to rank and riches, there never was a man more composedly, unaffectedly, quietly, immovable by such considerations... On the other hand, nothing would have astonished him so much as the suggestion that he was anyone's patron." (25)

The two men became very close, although Talfourd was seventeen years older than Dickens. They shared an interest in the theatre, journalism and politics. Talfourd had an unfortunate inability to pronounce his "r"s, a habit which Dickens used to imitate and mock. Peter Ackroyd has commented "He preferred the company of those who in all important respects were inferior to himself but who shared his own interests, and it could fairly be said that he would not have been so much at ease in a society which he could not in a certain sense dominate". (26)

It has been claimed that "Talfourd's personal popularity was the result of outstanding charm and kindness, combined with winning humour and scintillating conversation, which he displayed at his favourite haunt, the Garrick Club. His sophisticated friends were disarmed by the confusing impression he gave of being simultaneously an idealist cosmopolitan and a provincial patriot: he was unashamed of being able to speak no foreign languages, was an enthusiast for English food and drink, and did not visit Europe until he was forty-six". (27)

Encouraged by writers such as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and William Wordsworth, he campaigned for a new Copyright Act. This was designed to enable the dependants of authors to profit from the sales of their writings after their deaths. Dickens was so pleased with his efforts that he dedicated The Pickwick Papers to Talfourd. (28)

As Robert L. Patten, the author of Charles Dickens and his Publishers (1978) has pointed out: "The 1842 Copyright Act, which Talfourd's friends at last succeeded in getting through a reluctant House, prolonged the copyright term to forty-two years, or seven years after the author's death, which gave some security to writers, but not so much as the French laws, where copyright passed to the widow for her life and to the author's children for twenty years thereafter." (29)

Talfourd retired from the House of Commons to become a judge in 1848. His biographer has argued: "Although not an outstanding judge, he is said to have exercised his responsibilities and duties with good humour, sound judgement, and unimpeachable integrity. His later life was blighted by anxieties caused by his son Frank's debts, failure to take his degree at Christ Church, Oxford, and half-hearted attempts to make a career in law." (30)

Thomas Talfourd died after suffering an apoplectic seizure in Stafford on 13th March 1854.

Primary Sources

(1) Claire Tomalin , Dickens: A Life (2011)

Although his name is hardly remembered now, Talfourd was an outstanding figure in his day, idealistic, hard-working and effective.... He had protesting against the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, supported universal male suffrage and the total abolition of slavery, steered through the bill giving divorced women custody of their young children, and was currently seeing through the 1842 Copyright Act that for the first time protected authors' earnings in England during their lifetimes and for a period after their death.

(2) Edith Hall, Thomas Talfourd : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

As member of parliament Talfourd was responsible for two pieces of important legislation. The Infant Custody Act (1839) modified in mothers' favour the previously unlimited power fathers had exercised over their children, giving the court discretion to award custody of children under seven years of age to the mother in cases of separation or divorce, provided she was not guilty of adultery. In 1837, encouraged by Wordsworth, Talfourd delivered a brilliant speech introducing the Copyright Act. This was designed to enable the dependants of authors to profit from the sales of their writings after their deaths. Although it did not become law until 1842, when he was not in parliament, it was known as Talfourd's Act. Dickens applauded this initiative in the touching dedication to Talfourd of The Pickwick Papers (1837). Talfourd also campaigned for the repeal of the Theatrical Patents Act (1843).

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(1) Edith Hall, Thomas Talfourd : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Alan Chedzoy, A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton (1992) page 160

(3) Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens (2011) page 91

(4) Edith Hall, Thomas Talfourd : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (1872)

(6) Ray Strachey, The Cause: A History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928) page 37

(7) Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens (2011) page 91

(8) Margaret Forster, Significant Sisters (1984) page 32

(9) Extraordinary Trial, Norton v Viscount Melbourne for Criminal Conversation (22nd June, 1836)

(10) James O. Hodge and Clarke Olney, Letters of Caroline Norton to Lord Melbourne (1974) page 83

(11) Caroline Norton, English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854)

(12) Diane Atkinson, The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton (2013) page 166

(13) Caroline Norton, The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father (1837)

(14) Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald, The Lives of the Sheridans (1886) page 433

(15) Ray Strachey, The Cause: A History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928) page 38

(16) Margaret Forster, Significant Sisters (1984) page 34

(17) Ray Strachey, The Cause: A History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928) page 38

(18) Jane Gray Perkins, The Life of Mrs Norton (1910) page 146

(19) Sir Thomas Talfourd, statement (August, 1837)

(20) Diane Atkinson, The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton (2013) page 261

(21) Caroline Norton, English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854)

(22) John Copley, 1st Baron Lyndhurst, speech in the House of Lords (18th July, 1839)

(23) William Best, 1st Lord Wynford, speech in the House of Lords (18th July, 1839)

(24) K. D. Reynolds, Caroline Norton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(25) Edith Hall, Thomas Talfourd : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(26) Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (1990) page 212

(27) Edith Hall, Thomas Talfourd : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(28) Alan Chedzoy, A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton (1992) page 160

(29) Robert L. Patten, Charles Dickens and his Publishers (1978) page 19

(30) Edith Hall, Thomas Talfourd : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)