Custody of Infants Act of 1839

The Custody of Infants Act of 1839 was initiated by female activist, Caroline Norton. Norton had previously suffered a failed marriage to an abusive man and was seeking the rights to obtain custody of the children they had had together. She began handing out pamphlets sharing her story with the public, defending a mother's natural right to her children, and eventually gaining the attention and sympathy of parliamentary members. This attention is what would come to result in the Custody of Infants Act of 1839. This act would allow mothers to petition the court for custody of their children younger than seven and grant them the opportunity to petition for the rights of their older children. This act would prove monumental, as it would serve as a starting point for women to reestablish their rights independent to that of their husbands. 

In 1873, this act would be amended for the benefit of the child, rather than for the benefit of the parents. This meant that mothers could petition for custody of their children sixteen and younger, but the child would be placed with the parent best fit for the child's well-being. Though, chances could still be slim for a mother to gain custody, as parliament could still rule in favor of the father depending on the circumstances. For example, if the mother committed adultery because she had an abusive husband, the child would most likely be placed with the father, as a woman committing adultery was deemed worse than an abusive man. Though, this would eventually come to change in 1878 with the Matrimonial Causes Act. This would grant women protection against their abusive husbands, offering them legal separation, and custody of their children. 

“Caroline Norton.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Sept. 2020,

“Custody Rights.” UK Parliament,

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