In the early 1900s, divorce in pre-Federation Australia was not something a woman considered, even if she was in a domestic violence situation. Popular newspapers of the day, more often than not trivialised, or even condoned wife-beating. Despite reforms extending the divorce laws, allowing women to apply for separation in some situations, the simplistic thinking by law-makers of the day was to restrict access to divorce, encouraging women to stay in physically abusive situations to prevent marriages from breaking down.
In 1883 Constance Amelia Whittle would have been like any other bride, marrying t
he man she loved, and planning a life together in South Australia. It was her second marriage and it was to William Crombie. In 1895 William bought a block of land and with 100 pounds from Constance’s father’s estate, they built a house and had four children.
Suffering the loss of two of her children, Constance became aware she also had to contend with a husband who was drinking too much and becoming violent. Many women of Constance's time would have suffered silently in violent and dangerous marriages, but she became the exception.
In 1902 Constance took William to the divorce courts. She made allegations of threatening language and incidences where he had struck her and threatened her and her children’s lives by saying he'd throw them out onto the street and cut their throats. On top of that he had been seen with other women.
Her son, Allen Crombie testified to his mother’s claims of cruelty and threats as he had seen his father hit her. Constance’s doctor attested to visiting her at home in the previous six months. He said she had been suffering from a nervous debility.
The doctor believed she would be in danger of damaging her health if she stayed with her husband. The evidence was enough for the judge to rule in Constance’s favour. It didn't end there, however. A year later she made William return to court to claim her 100 pounds back, and won.
Constance Crombie's headstone in East Lismore cemetery. Photo: Samantha Elley
Some time after her court cases, Constance moved to Lismore in Northern NSW. In 1917 she died and is buried in East Lismore cemetery. The inscription on her headstone offers no clues to the strength of character of the woman who suffered and fought for her rights at the hands of an abusive husband.
‘Application for Divorce’, Chronicle, Saturday, 6 September 1902, Page 35
Births, Deaths, Marriages, South Australia, https://www.genealogysa.org.au/resources/online-databases.html, accessed on 19th June, 2019.
James, Dr Colin, 'A History of Cruelty in Australian Divorce', ANZLH E-Journal, accessed online 13th December, 2021, Microsoft Word - Paper 7.James.doc (austlii.edu.au)
'Crombie vs Crombie - A cruel husband', The Daily News, Perth, Tuesday 2 September, 1902, Page 1