Appearing in the UK divorce courts just once in the 1880s was scandalous enough. But three times seems beyond the pale, particularly as one of those appearances was for an accusation of adultery with six different men. But Diana’s life in Victorian London appears slightly more bohemian than most for the time, as were the circles she moved in, and this slight relaxation of what was considered “proper” for that period was found in pockets around the country – Dr Price of Llantrisant, for example.
However, Diana’s life started off conventionally enough. She was the youngest of five daughters born to a journeyman lawyer and his wife in mid-Sussex, in the early 1850s. Her father seems to have worked between jobs in London and Brighton, and all his daughters were sent away to school to be educated – hence he was earning a reasonable living for the time.
The family adopted her mother’s nephew, who was the same age as Diana, and grew up with them. Her elder sisters Ellen and Matilda grew up and left home, the first to be a housemaid in Brighton, and the second to run a boarding house in London. Her sister Eunice died in 1864, when Diana was around 12, and her fourth sister Eliza married a stonemason and moved in next door to her parents.
Diana, however, appears to have started her exploits at an early age. Described as “very young” when this occurred, she eloped out a dormitory window at a school in Holloway, London, with a gentleman and travelled with him to Germany. However, she did not actually marry this man – whose name remains elusive, but lived with him as his wife for a while in Germany. There were two children – the older of which appears to have been fathered by the man she eloped with, but given his mother’s maiden surname – and another born later, possibly to a solicitor. By the age of 20 she was back in the UK, however, and resident at her sister Matilda’s boarding house on Devonshire Street in London. Her son, Henry, born in Halle, Germany, in April of 1872, appears to have lived in that country with friends. The younger child, who was known to exist but not referred to by name, was born later when Diana was living in Pimlico, and its father provided for the child, who lived elsewhere.
In the early 1870s, Diana passed herself off as a widow called Mrs Shelley, but there was no-one in her life called Mr Shelley, and it’s unknown exactly how she supported herself – although she appears to have regularly lived at her sister’s boarding house. Another regular boarder at Matilda’s house was Henry Hyndman, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, and reporter at the time for the Pall Mall Gazette, who was starting to build a political career. This would have meant various learned and diverse visitors to the house where Diana was living. Henry and Matilda were lovers for several years, and married on Valentine’s Day in 1876.
Matilda’s husband Henry Hyndman
It may be that Matilda’s marriage awakened the same desire in Diana, or that she needed an alternative means of support, as she attempted to find a husband of her own the following summer. To this end, she visited the offices of a publication called Matrimonial News to place an advert for a husband.
It was there, on the stairs of the publication, that she met a widower nearly forty years her senior – John Ambrose. He had also come to the Matrimonial News to place an advert. The two fell talking, and Diana presented herself as a widow with two children – her former husband, she claimed, was from America and had died just before the birth of their second child – and in possession of a considerable amount of money. She also gave a false name and profession for her father.
However, John believed her and they were married in the February of 1877, and honeymooned at the Louvre Hotel in Paris. And it was there that the trouble began. Diana’s lies gradually fell apart, and both of them expressed some extremes of temper. John had previously been a clergyman, but had given it up to become a farmer and held some strong views about religion. They apparently entered a church, and John began verbally abusing the priest. Diana attempted to remove him in vain, and eventually left him and bolted back to the hotel – where he apparently eventually appeared and threatened her with violence when she returned to England. However, John maintained that Diana flirted with all the waiting staff in the hotel, and caused him considerable embarrassment.
Things only got worse when they returned to the UK and lived in John’s rectory seat in Essex. Diana later claimed that after only seven weeks of marriage he started to threaten and beat her, pulling her hair out on one occasion, and making an attempt to break her wrist. In addition, his home was ruled by his long-time housekeeper Ellen, who appears to have resented his new young wife, and helped John keep all kitchen equipment locked up away from Diana, so that she couldn’t even get a cup of tea unless Ellen allowed it. He invited a man called Oliver to live with them, and put everything under his control, so Diana had to ask for permission to do anything in the house. On another occasion she went to Southend for a break, and he followed her there and threatened her.
However, this state of affairs was not one-sided. John later alleged that Diana had destroyed his books and papers, and china, opened his letters, disturbed family prayers, pawned his property and threatened to kill him. On one occasion she threw a teapot at him. She knocked him over and scratched his face, and pulled his whiskers. And she insisted that he had committed adultery with Ellen and locked them in a room together. On another occasion, she refused to give him sheets for the bed, and he slept without for two nights. And apparently she swore, using “Billingsgate language”.
Violence from either side is a sure sign that a marriage is not working, and should not continue, but it does appear that Diana and John were particularly ill-suited, with little in common and a huge age gap, and each had a temper and gave as good as they got. It was after he apparently beat her up at home in April of 1880 that Diana left him, and went back to her sister’s boarding house.
It was from there, in the summer of 1880, that Diana filed for divorce.
At this time, UK divorce law was unequally weighted towards the man in the relationship. Since the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, a man could divorce his wife on grounds of adultery alone, but a woman had to prove both cruelty and adultery on the behalf of her husband to achieve a dissolution. And unfortunately Diana, though she had a great deal of evidence of cruelty, could not prove that John was adulterous. Therefore, she was awarded a judicial separation – a section of the law which meant that the parties were legally separated, and had to live apart, but did not dissolve the marriage. Legislation around divorce only came over from the ecclesiastical courts with the act of 1857, and the religious sanctity of marriage and “to death do us part” still had an influence on the judgements that were made. Many judicial separations were granted at this time, as it was clear to judges in cases of extreme cruelty that parties wishing for divorce couldn’t continue to live together – and this often acted to increase the safety of the women involved. It also meant that they could continue to live with their children. And the estranged husband would have to continue to contribute towards his wife’s upkeep.
John was therefore ordered to live apart from Diana, and to give her £200 per year, so long as she remained chaste and unmarried. He went back off to Essex, in the company of his niece and nephew and his loyal housekeeper.
Diana, newly released and solvent, found herself a position as a lady’s help in the household of a German Count living in Surrey. Having lived in Germany probably meant that she was fluent in the language and could therefore communicate with her mistress with ease. Once that job finished, she lived at several different addresses in London, including her sister’s boarding house. It was from there that Henry and Matilda founded the Democratic Federation – Britain’s first left wing political party – in 1881. This would have brought Diana into contact with a great many different people, with liberal thinkers of the day almost certainly meeting and socialising at the house. Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member and personal friend of Matilda, as was the artist William Morris. This new political party would have seen itself as progressive, and not in-line with the majority of society of the time, which meant that those associated with it would have considered themselves different to what was thought of as “proper” at the time. The party became the Social Democratic Federation in 1883.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Diana’s next appearance in the divorce courts, in the spring of 1884, involved a charge of adultery with at least six men – John had clearly been watching her movements closely, and had various witnesses and specific dates – as many would have been coming and going to the boarding house. She’d also briefly lived in other places, and he’d found witnesses to her activities at these too, including a street artist. It appears, from this action, that he resented supporting her financially, and was prepared to go to court to end that arrangement.
Of the six men Diana was accused of having relations with, two were struck off by the judge. Another two did not enter any evidence or plea – one, an Argentinian businessman, was in Ireland at the time, and the other, possibly a Goan sailor, was presumably not in the country either. The other two both entered a denial, as did Diana. The most prominent of these, a dress salesman called John, had apparently been observed entering a “private hotel” with her on numerous occasions. The judge in the case decided that the hotel was a brothel, and that both Diana and the dress salesman were lying, and therefore granted the decree nisi.
How Diana supported herself in subsequent years isn’t known, but she appears resourceful and able to get by. There was a rumour that she had been an actress at certain times, so she may have appeared on the stage – though there’s no record of that apparent. She also, like her sisters, went into domestic service – and it’s in this profession that she appears next. The 1891 census finds her as a housekeeper to a grocer, having brought her son Henry – who had taken his ex-stepfather’s surname – over from Germany to live with her.
It may be that the title of housekeeper was a front for what was really going on in the house, as Diana married the grocer – Alexander – in the spring of 1893. He appeared to be a buyer for a larger firm, but also had a reasonable-sized household with several servants so lived comfortably. Diana said on this second marriage that she was a widow. This was technically true, as John had died in 1888, and therefore she could present herself a little more respectably than a divorcee.
However, Diana again filed for divorce only a few months later. The fact that she could afford to take out these proceedings indicates that their financial situation was comfortable. She claimed that on the night before their wedding Alexander had committed adultery with a housemaid named Florence – which appears particularly cruel given he was to marry her the next day. The affair continued through the spring and into the summer. Alexander did not deny the allegations.
Again, as the divorce laws were weighted in favour of men at that time, the judge was unable to end the marriage. Alexander was judged not have raised a hand to Diana, although she did claim some violence in the month before the marriage, and as such she could not end the marriage as one of the two conditions for women – adultery AND something else (cruelty, incest, etc) – was not met. Therefore, the judge threw the case out in the December of 1893, and Diana and Alexander had to stay married and living together. Quite what this meant for the state of their relationship is unknown, but it is doubtful that it was very happy after this.
Henry married in 1899 giving his mother’s first husband as his father – which he clearly wasn’t. He made a living as a florist, and later as a commercial traveller. Diana remained with Alexander at Gower Street in London, and her life seems to have taken a quieter turn.
She took in two illegitimate girls – relatives of her mother – and raised them to adulthood. Alexander gradually took a back seat in the household, and she came to the fore. She ran a boarding house herself, like her sister Matilda – who by this stage was particularly active in the Social Democratic Federation and was involved in a scheme providing free school meals and seaside holidays for poor school children. Unlike Matilda’s establishment, and the private hotel that Diana had once frequented, her boarding house had a full cohort of staff – including Italian waiters – and catered for retired men from the legal profession.
Her sister Matilda died in 1913, and the newspapers referred to her as “the mother of socialism” for her activities in the Social Democratic Federation. Henry Hyndman apparently mourned her deeply, but was married again within a year. The fact that she left no diary or letters means that Matilda Hyndman, neé Ware, has virtually been forgotten in the history of the socialist and labour movements in the UK.
As for Diana, the two girls in her charge moved away, and Alexander died in Eastbourne – where they appeared to keep either a town house or a seaside boarding house – towards the end of the First World War. Diana kept going until her 80th year, dying in Surrey in the early 1930s, but living at her house in Eastbourne. She left her money to her son Henry, whose son Emile went on to become a vet.