A Scandalous Victorian Divorce

Updated on July 24, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The 1886 divorce trial involving Lord and Lady Colin Campbell involving unmentionable testimony had London gasping for every last salacious detail. Nothing beats high society airing its dirty laundry in public.


The Cast of Characters

Any marital melodrama worth its salt involves a triangle, so here are the participants in this sordid affair.

  1. Lord Colin Campbell was the fifth son of the Duke of Argyll. He could not have won a more privileged status in the lottery of life. He went to the best school, the best university, and was handed a commission in the army. In 1878, he became a Member of Parliament, although this had more to do with connections and shenanigans than popularity among his constituents who, apparently, hated him.
  2. Gertrude Elizabeth Blood also came from privilege although not as blue-blooded as her husband-to-be. Her family was among the landed gentry of Ireland although she spent a large part of her childhood in Italy. The family had ambitions to elbow its way into the British aristocracy.
  3. The third member of the triangle was syphilis.

Lord Colin Campbell.
Lord Colin Campbell. | Source

The locals re-jigged a traditional song to express the lack of enthusiasm for the Campbell family.

But their aim, and their claim, which are one and the same,

Are founded in falsehoods of sand, you know.

The Campbells are cunning, oho, oho ...

Victorian Morality

It was understood and accepted that young men from the upper echelons of society had certain – um - physical needs that had to be satisfied.

Young women of the upper classes were expected to walk down the aisle as virgins, or at least to have the appearance of virginity. So how was a young Jack-the-lad supposed to mollify his urges?

It was left to the unfortunate women who worked in the sex trade to take care of the needs of randy gentlemen. In Victorian Britain there was an abundance of brothels ready to cater to every predilection.

The downside of this commerce was the acquisition of incurable diseases.


Cupid Fires His Arrow

In 1880, Gertrude (23) and Colin (27) became engaged.

Apparently, Gertrude’s mother, Mary, was overjoyed at the prospect of her daughter marrying into a top-of-line family. My Heavens, wasn’t young Colin’s brother, John, married to Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise? Perhaps, an invitation to the palace might be in the offing.

However, Gertrude’s father, Edmund, had his ear to the ground and he was picking rumours about his son-in-law to be that he didn’t like the sound of. He questioned the young swain.

(Here, the reader’s indulgence is asked for as the following dialogue is made up, but it carries the gist of what passed between the two men).

George Blood: “I must ask you Sir, do you have a loathsome disease? Yes or no.”

Lord Campbell: “No, no, Sir. A slight inconvenience of the plumbing system. Bit of ointment. Clear up in no time.”

The rascal was lying; he had syphilis and he knew it.


The Infection Spreads

However, the marriage was delayed as Colin Campbell underwent treatment. Eventually, in June 1881, the bells rang out to announce the wedding of Lord and Lady Colin Campbell.

The consummation caused Gertrude to come down with a dose of the clap. The nature of the ailment from which she suffered was kept from her, and, as a Victorian lady she would have no idea that such things as venereal diseases even existed.

Gertrude went to stay with her sister and mother as she recuperated, while Colin fumed at being cut off from his conjugal rights.

She was very beautiful and witty and attracted a large circle of friends, some of them men, while her husband brooded at the marital home. Colin tried to put a stop to her social life, but she ignored him.

At some time in 1882, the syphilis flared up again and physicians revealed the nature of her illness to their patient. Papers were filed for a “judicial separation” on the grounds of Lord Campbell’s extreme cruelty in giving his bride a venereal disease.

Gertrude Elizabeth Blood.
Gertrude Elizabeth Blood. | Source

The Divorce Trial

Colin was a vindictive character. When, Gertrude moved to Paris he sent agents to spy on her. He wrote threatening letters and generally hounded her. She filed for divorce and he counter-sued for the same thing.

In 1886, the whole messy affair landed in the divorce courts to the delight of the scandal rags. The public lapped up every salacious detail with an epic amount of tut-tting and “Well I never.”

Lord Campbell alleged that his wife had enjoyed the bedroom company of at least four men. He even produced a butler who claimed to have spied the romping through a keyhole. For her part, Lady Campbell produced testimony that her husband had been intimate with a housemaid.

When Colin Campbell’s syphilitic condition was revealed only The Evening News dared printed the shocking evidence and it got sued for obscene libel for its troubles. Other papers simply referred to “Revolting evidence.”

For the jury it was a wash. Its members believed that neither side had proved adultery so no divorce was granted. Gertrude remained married to Colin, in name only, until his death in 1895 from tertiary syphilis at the age of 42. An obituary noted that he lived “neither wisely nor well.”


Sparkling Lady Campbell

While Lord Colin Campbell vanished from society until he turned up dead in Bombay, his wife became a darling of London’s artistic community. She was close friends with George Bernard Shaw who called her a goddess. Shaw wrote of her: “Imagine a lady with a lightning wit, a merciless sense of humour, a skill in journalism surpassing that of any interviewer, a humiliatingly obvious power of reckoning you up at a glance, and probably not thinking much of you …”

But, the incurable syphilis kept returning, and she finally succumbed to the disease in 1911 at the age of 54.

Her obituary in The New York Times said “She was not only distinguished as a writer and art critic, but painted and sang well and was accomplished in sports. In fencing she was recognized as one of the best women experts.”

Lady Colin Campbell painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1897.
Lady Colin Campbell painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1897. | Source

Bonus Factoids

There was no effective cure for syphilis until penicillin came along in 1947. Early treatments involved bloodletting and bathing in herbs and wine. Then, mercury was thought to be effective but, of course, it caused death by mercury poisoning for some patients. Derivatives of arsenic were equally ineffective.

Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler are all suspected of having syphilis. The list of those who died from the disease includes: Al Capone, Oscar Wilde, Paul Gaugin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Schubert, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

“What the Butler Saw” is a generic term in Britain to describe machines set up, mostly at holiday resorts, which showed saucy images that amounted to voyeurism. They took their name from the testimony of a butler in the Campbell divorce trial who claimed to see, through a keyhole, Lady Campbell frolicking on the floor with a male companion.


  • “Campbell Versus Campbell, In The Divorce Of The Century.” Ciaran Conliffe, headstuff.org, July 10, 2016.
  • “Love Well The Hour.” Anne Jordan, Matador, December 2010.
  • “Campbell Divorce Case.” paperspast.natlib.govt.nz, November 1886.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)