I suspect that many family historians who run into a ‘brick wall’ when trying to pin down an ancestor do the same thing as I do and try to ‘sneak up’ on them by looking at other people with the same surname in the same area at the same time, in the hope of being able to connect to the right family. Doing this for one of my GGGGG Grandmothers, Jane Storrow/Starrow, meant that my research wandered off at a tangent and I started investigating the marriages of a man whose gravestone lists four successive wives.
Although the man in question lived in what was then Westmorland (now Cumbria) rather than in Somerset or Dorset, some of the things I learned while researching him may prove useful to others. His name was John Storrow and he was born in 1793 in Appleby. John was a carpenter who, between 1822 and 1834, lost three young wives in quick succession – at least two of them died in or just after childbirth. On the family gravestone at St Lawrence’s Church, Appleby, John’s fourth wife, who outlived him, is named as Agnes but it took me quite a while to track down their marriage and eventually I found it recorded in the Carlisle Journal for 8 May 1841 ‘At Gretna, on Monday, the 3rd instant, Mr. John Storrow, of Appleby, to Miss Nancy Dodd’. Nancy is often a nickname for Agnes or Ann and John’s wife Agnes was called both ‘Nancy’ and ‘Ann’ in census returns, so I am sure this is the right marriage. This final marriage, to Agnes/Nancy, lasted for 34 years until his death in 1875. Agnes died in 1884.
The clue to the reason for John’s fourth marriage being celebrated in Gretna is Agnes’ surname – Dodd, which is that same as that of John’s third wife, Dorothy. Both were, in fact, daughters of Henry and Nancy Dodd of Crosby Ravensworth in Westmorland, so when John married Agnes, he was marrying the sister of his dead wife. I knew that at one time such a marriage was not allowed but was very uncertain as to whether or not it was actually illegal, and if it was illegal in England, was the same true in Scotland, leading to marriages, like this one, at Gretna? Was a Scottish marriage then regarded as being ‘legal’ in England, even though it couldn’t have been celebrated there, or was a Gretna marriage just a way of ‘saving face’ for the bride and groom? In this particular case, were John and Agnes/Nancy ever married at all?
To try to find the answers to my questions, I bought what turned out to be an invaluable book, from the SDFHS bookshop; Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists; the definitive guide. From this I discovered that the legal status in England of a marriage between a man and his dead wife’s sister depended on when it had taken place, rather than where. Marriage with a sibling of a previous spouse was regarded by the Church of England as being within the ‘prohibited degrees’ of marriage, even though the two individuals concerned shared no ancestors. At the time of John and Agnes’s marriage in 1841, the law had just been tightened up. Before 31 August 1835 such a marriage would have been voidable; any marriages within the prohibited degrees were absolutely void. The difference was that a voidable marriage would actually be regarded as valid unless a court had annulled it, and could not be challenged after the death of either party. A void marriage, by contrast, was regarded by the law as never having had existed.
If either John or Agnes had asked their local vicars to perform the ceremony then they would have been turned away, since both vicars would have been aware of the relationship between the couple. Gretna was the first place over the border where couples could be married without question, hence their journey north, but was the Scottish marriage then valid when they returned home to England? Once again Professor Probert’s book provided the answer that a marriage undertaken in another country still ‘remained governed by English law, which forbade a man from marrying the sister of his late wife’. It wasn’t until the passing in 1907 of the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act that such a marriage became valid. So, although Agnes is described as being John’s wife on census returns and on the gravestone, their marriage was, in fact, invalid under English law.
I haven’t yet managed to connect my Jane Storrow to John, though I am fairly sure they must be related and I remain hopeful of one day tracking down their connection, but my researches into marriage law became even more relevant to me during the past year or so as I have been tracing the story of my grandfather, Walter Park. He was born in 1873 in Broughton-in-Furness (then in Lancashire, now in Cumbria) and on the 1901 census claimed to be married to Eleanor and they had two daughters, but it seems that Walter and Eleanor (Walker) were never actually married and, after the birth of their sixth child in 1907, Walter deserted his family, moved to Wigan, and married Sophia Martindale, using the name William Jackson. When he married my grandmother in 1922, he described himself as a ‘widower’ but Sophia did in fact outlive him so the four ‘marriages’ he entered into between 1914 and 1922 were all bigamous. In 1918 he was sentenced to four years’ hard labour for the first two bigamous marriages but this did not deter him, on his release, from marrying twice more, and being tried again in 1934 for the last two bigamous marriages. When marrying he used two false names – William Jackson and William Johnson – in addition to his real name of Walter Park. He also served in World War One, and was sent to prison, as William Jackson.
The first question I asked myself when I began to unravel all the details of his story was whether or not his first marriage to Sophia was legal, since he had married her as William Jackson, not as Walter Park, and, again Professor Probert’s book provided the answer – marriage is between two people, regardless of the names they give, and it is only in exceptional circumstances that giving a false name will invalidate the marriage. I do wonder though if he believed that marrying under a false name wouldn’t ‘count’? If not, why, since he and Eleanor hadn’t been married, didn’t he marry Sophia using his real name, and I have tried to find an earlier marriage for him as Walter Park ‘just in case’ that was the reason for his adoption of a false name when he married Sophia, but I haven’t found such a marriage and suspect that if there had been one, he would have mentioned it at one of his trials, if only to discredit Sophia, from whom he had parted acrimoniously in 1914.
I also wondered at the severity of the sentence he was given in 1918 – four years’ hard labour, served at Dartmoor, seemed excessive for a bigamy conviction, but Professor Probert’s most recent book Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved? describes the sentences for convictions of bigamy at various times. In the seventeenth century it was a felony punishable by death and in the eighteenth century most convicted bigamists were branded as well as imprisoned. From 1779 a fine could be substituted but from 1795 bigamists could be transported until 1861 when the maximum penalty became seven years ‘penal servitude’ so perhaps my grandfather got off lightly – and if he’d been sent to Australia instead of Dartmoor, I might never have been born!
It is hard for us in this interconnected online world, where one has to prove one’s identity at all times, to imagine how any one man could have ‘got away’ with marrying so many women under several different names, but in the first half of the twentieth century it was much easier for someone like my grandfather, who was regularly moving from one town to another in search of work, to meet and propose to women who knew nothing of his background, apart from what he would have told them, and that included using false names. Like John Storrow and Agnes Dodd who went all the way to Gretna to marry, if people moved away from their home town or village, no-one would have had the information to query any statement to the local vicar that they were free to marry.
This led to one more question, where I couldn’t find the answer in either of Professor Probert’s books – when did it become necessary to prove identity when marrying? I e-mailed her at the University of Warwick and she very kindly answered:
“It is actually only in recent years that it has actually been necessary to produce proof of age and address – the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced this requirement in an attempt to stamp out sham marriages. Even now, there is no requirement to produce documentary evidence (save that relating to nationality) when getting married after banns or licence in the Church of England. So I suspect that there have been a lot of undetected bigamists over the years!”
During our e-mail exchange Professor Probert offered to give a talk to SDFHS members and we have now arranged this for Saturday 17 July. Full details of the event and how to book a place can be found here and places can also be booked at our online shop.
Both of Professor Probert’s books can be purchased from the SDFHS bookshop and I would strongly recommend them to family historians as they contain a wealth of information about marriage law and practice, illustrated with actual examples, and dispel many of the ‘myths’ often promulgated in genealogical articles and books.