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!

Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved

I bought this book primarily because I was confused by the historic application of the law on bigamy.  I knew of a ‘seven-year rule’ for spouses living apart and a ‘presumption of death’ if there had been no contact during this seven-year period, but I also knew there was more to it than that.  What, exactly, were the rules for remarriage without divorce in our ancestors’ times?  As confusing as this might be for us, I quickly learned that it was frequently misunderstood by our ancestors too.

The full title of Rebecca Probert’s book is Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved: the family historian’s guide to marital breakdown, separation, widowhood and remarriage: from 1600 to the 1970s.  In it, she sets out the law, including changes over this period, in five chapters: Divorced, Separated, Bigamist, Bereaved and Remarriage to the Same Person.  The rules are illustrated with actual cases and contemporary newspaper stories, as well as question and answer sections.

It’s as well to start with the law on divorce, since it was the inaccessibility of that for most people that forced many to resort to the alternative, non-legal options.  In England and Wales, the Reformation hadn’t changed the central tenet that marriage, once validly entered into, was indissoluble except by death.  However, from the 1660s, wealthy men were able to secure private Acts of Parliament allowing them, on the grounds of adultery of the wife, to consider the marriage at an end, and to remarry as if their erstwhile spouse were ‘naturally dead’.  Even at the time it didn’t go unnoticed that the rich could effectively buy their right to the freedom to remarry, while the poor faced serious criminal charges and severe punishment if they did the same.

It wasn’t until 1858 that the possibility of divorce was opened up to all.  Even so, the court and legal costs, travel expenses to London to the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, and the travel and accommodation expenses of all witnesses if the petition was contested, would clearly put this remedy out of reach for the vast majority of people.  And even then, prior to 1937 the only ground on which a man could divorce his wife was adultery; while until 1923 a woman could bring an action for divorce only on the grounds of adultery combined with an aggravating factor, being: incest, bigamy, cruelty, desertion, rape, sodomy or bestiality.

Little surprise, then, that so many of us come across ancestors who seem to have remarried without having divorced the original spouse.  Of course they are easier for us to spot in the censuses than before 1841.  We find them ‘married’ with a new spouse, although we can clearly see their original spouse, still very much alive, a few streets away, ‘widowed’, ‘unmarried’ or perhaps also ‘married’ to someone new. Whatever the circumstances, any such marriage is bigamous, and in earlier times the punishment would have been death, transportation, imprisonment or branding.  In the absence of a divorce / private Act of Parliament dissolving the former marriage, the only airtight ground for remarriage was the confirmed death of the original spouse.  However, by the early 19th century the courts developed a presumption that a spouse who had not been heard of for seven years could be presumed dead.  This, then, is the origin of the much-misunderstood ‘seven-year rule’.  However, even then, there was an expectation that the remaining spouse genuinely believed their husband/wife to be dead, and had made efforts to find them.  Simply living apart for seven years did not qualify.  And even after an absence of many, many years, if the absent spouse turned up alive, the marriage would once more be valid, any interim marriage void, and any offspring of that second marriage retrospectively illegitimised.

Alongside situations like this there are of course cases of bigamy where the perpetrator’s behaviour is blatantly criminal – bigamy with intent to defraud the new spouse out of her inheritance; ‘spontaneous’ bigamy (speeded up by obtaining a licence) designed purely so that the perpetrator could have his wicked way, with the full intention of leaving her the next day…  In time, the courts would come to distinguish between those acting with such criminal intent and those who simply didn’t understand, or who at the very least were just trying to move on with their lives after a failed union.  The latter would still be found guilty, the second marriage still void, but the actual punishment much reduced.

Rebecca Probert cites letters in newspaper advice columns requesting guidance on whether remarriage in certain situations would be legal.  There’s no doubt that people didn’t understand the law; or if they did, they saw little to respect in a system so absurd that different rules regarding the sanctity of marriage applied to the haves and the have-nots.  Gradually, this came to be understood even by the courts, and after World War I the law started to move towards the divorce provisions we have today.  (Incidentally, if you watched the final episode of A House Through Time series 2 (Newcastle), the expert who talked to David Olusoga about the post-WW1 bigamy and divorce situation was Rebecca Probert.  Perfect timing! 😊)

It definitely helps to understand the context when we come across questionable behaviour by our ancestors.  It’s easy to have this mental picture of a bigamist as the person in the driving seat – the one who decides to marry twice (or more), stringing all other parties along and leaving havoc in their wake.  But this book introduces us to those who married bigamously because they were the ones who had been deserted, when finding a new partner was their own best chance at survival.  Take as an example a woman whose husband has deserted her and her young children.  With little chance of being able to support her family long-term, she has the choice of relying on the charity of the parish Guardians – which may lead to admission to the workhouse or at the very least having the children taken away and sent as ‘parish apprentices’ to the northern textile mills (see previous post about Robert Blincoe); or marrying again.  And yet in marrying again – probably the preferred option from the persepctive of the local parish Guardians – she would be committing bigamy.

Although I started this book wanting to understand more about the law surrounding bigamy, it has helped several other puzzles fall into place.  In particular, I’ve made my peace with my natural 2xG grandmother whose divorce petition was… not absolutely truthful.

This is an easy and enjoyable book, to read through once to get the overview, and then to keep on your bookshelf to consult when you need the detail, as new ancestral marital situations come to light.

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