Annie Elizabeth: marital relations masterclass continued

In my last post we left James having bigamously gone through a marriage ceremony with Margaret in 1872.  Margaret and James were leaving Leeds for Manchester.  Annie Elizabeth and her new man, John William, remain in Leeds and by 1881 there have been five more children, although four of them have died.  The family provisions business in the centre of town is doing very well.  However, contrary to all appearances, they are not married.  Annie Elizabeth is, in fact, still married to James.  And this wrankles.

Facts: divorce petition
On 22nd February 1881 Annie Elizabeth swears an affidavit as follows: that she was married to James in 1866 and had borne his child; that in February 1872 he had gone through a second marriage ceremony with Margaret; that this pretend and illegal marriage had been consummated; that James had committed adultery on that day and on diverse occasions since; and that he had deserted her without just cause, ever since leaving her destitute.  As Annie Elizabeth picks up the pen to sign this as a true version of her sworn affidavit, she is seven months pregnant with her seventh child by John William. The divorce petition is officially filed the following day.

James does not contest the charges.  The Decree Nisi is awarded on 5th July 1881 on the basis of adultery plus bigamy.  The hearing, reported over the following two days in newspapers in London, Leeds and Manchester, does include the true reason for James’s absence (7 years penal servitude).  However, the detail surrounding his release is economical with the truth: ‘In 1871 he was returned to Leeds, but instead of going home he went to the residence of another woman […] whom he afterwards married…’  ‘Severe comments’ are made on the conduct of James’s sister Mary Elizabeth who had been present at both marriages.  The Decree becomes Final on 17th January 1882.

The hypocrisy, injustice and cruelty of this petition shocked me.  James had a great deal to lose, and although it’s true that he had bigamously ‘married’ another woman, he did so in the knowledge that Annie Elizabeth was with another man and had a child.  In other words, Annie Elizabeth had already committed adultery long before James did.

Only by understanding the contemporary grounds for divorce, was I able to make my peace with Annie Elizabeth.  Until 1923 a woman could bring an action for divorce only on the grounds of adultery combined with an aggravating factor, e.g. bigamy, cruelty, desertion.  Annie Elizabeth had no alternative but to cite bigamy and desertion alongside her claim of adultery.  She was, even so, taking a huge risk: as petitioner for divorce her behaviour must be seen to be unblemished.  Any petitioner found also to be an adulteress/ adulterer would be denied the divorce.  Having by now given birth to six of John William’s children, there could be no doubt that Annie Elizabeth was also an adulteress.

The fact of having the finances to file for divorce also sits uneasily with the claim that Annie Elizabeth has been left destitute.  Although the Marital Causes Act of 1857 had opened up the possibility of divorce to all, the cost of obtaining one remained out of the pocket of the vast majority of people.  The location of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Court in London meant that petitioners had to be willing and able to pay travel and living expenses for themselves, as well as respondents and any witnesses.


Facts: Freedom to remarry
Annie Elizabeth and James are now divorced and free to marry.  James, having not contested the divorce, does not celebrate any change in his marital status by legally marrying Margaret, although the two of them will remain together for life.  It also seems there is no trial against him for bigamy.

For Annie Elizabeth and John William, however, the divorce enables them to put their life together in order.  Thanks to the relative anonymity afforded by life in a large, industrialised town, it would have been easy to disguise the fact that they were unmarried.  However, a marriage at this late stage might not go unnoticed.  They therefore marry in Halifax, on 23rd January 1882.  Annie Elizabeth’s marital status is correctly recorded as divorced, but a Halifax address is given as her residence.

Analysis: Why is James not prosecuted?
The criminal act of bigamy (regulated by the Offences against the Person Act 1861) is dealt with separately from the citing of bigamy as grounds for divorce.  By this time the granting of divorce on grounds of bigamy did not necessarily lead to a separate criminal prosecution.  It is, in any event, not in Annie Elizabeth’s interest to have the facts open to further scrutiny.


Facts: Domestic Violence
Back in Leeds, Annie Elizabeth and John William have had more children.  By 1886, excluding George, there have been ten live births, although five of these have died.  All is not champagne and roses…

In March 1887 John William is arrested and charged with having assaulted Annie Elizabeth on three occasions by striking and kicking her.  On 1st and 2nd April, three Leeds newspapers carry reports of the hearing against him for domestic violence.  John William, ‘a respectably dressed man’, is said to have recently been frequently drunk.  His attitude does not endear him to the court: ‘When asked if he had anything to say, the accused replied in a flippant manner, “I have not been my own man.  It’s never too late to mend, is it?”’  The magistrate grants a separation order.  John William is fined £5 and ordered to pay Annie Elizabeth 15s per week.

The separation is temporary.  By March 1888 Annie Elizabeth and John William are reunited, since their final baby is born 31st December of that year.  At the time of the 1991 census they are still together.

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878 enabled magistrates to grant protection orders to women who were victims of violence from their husbands.  These protection orders differed from ‘judicial separations’, which were granted in the High Court.  However, they amounted to the same thing, giving the woman custody of the children, and frequently including a requirement that the husband pay a regular sum of money to the wife.


I hope this has helped you to see how, by reading around the subject, using the two books by Rebecca Probert, I was able to make sense of this very complicated series of situations Annie Elizabeth found herself in.  I wouldn’t do this amount of work for all my ancestors, but as I’m sure you’ve found for yourself, some of them leap out as having more to say.

As for Annie Elizabeth, John William dies in 1898, leaving her a further 28 years in which she seems, sensibly, to have decided enough is enough.  No more marital relations!

1 thought on “Annie Elizabeth: marital relations masterclass continued

  1. Pingback: Here’s why we should look at online trees! | English Ancestors

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