One wife too many …!

September 29, 20209:24 amLeave a Comment
Image of Edith Wood c1910

My grandmother, c1910

Whenever I want to cause a stir at cocktail parties I like to announce that my grandmother was a bigamist. This is a little unfair of me as it was not intentional. Grandma had assumed that when the War Office told her that her first husband (the two had separated some years previously when he emigrated to Australia) was missing in action, she was free to marry again, which she did to my grandfather in 1916. Cue husband number one appearing back on the scene. Sadly her first husband was seriously injured and died shortly afterwards, when she quickly re-married just in time for my aunt to make her appearance on the scene.

Now you may think that my grandmother was perhaps not the most sparkly star in the ancestral firmament but in her defence, she was no different to many women who had been brought up at the time to blindly trust both in Authorities and in men in general.

From my research experience it would seem that bigamy was pretty rife in the UK before they relaxed the divorce laws by varying degrees in the 20th century. It would be difficult to check if someone was a multiple offender and most of the bigamy cases seem to have been brought before the authorities by chance rather than any dedicated detective work.

Image of Birmingham Gaol c.1920

Birmingham Gaol c.1920. By Unknown – Taken from a postcard in – the Glenn Christodoulou Collection, PD-US,

Take the case of Edmund Lewis, who while in prison in a Birmingham gaol in 1882 had the misfortune to be visited by his two wives on the same day.  It would seem that Edmund married his second wife, a Liverpool barmaid named Jane, whilst his first wife, Catherine was alive and well and presumably living in Cardiff where they married in 1865.  Despite feigning madness (he ate vast quantities of soap to produce foaming at the mouth and only gave up his ‘shamming’ after being subjected to “repeated galvanic shocks” to cure his affliction) he was sent to trail at Warwickshire Assizes. Although he wrote a pleading letter to his second wife imploring her not to prosecute, and reminding her of a visit which they paid to the Liverpool Assizes, and how wretched the prisoners looked, he appeared on 11 February 1892 and received 12 months[1].

And Edmund wasn’t the only one with a certain amount of chutzpah. I loved this example reported in the Norfolk News of 19 March 1870:

Experienced Bigamy: A curious bigamy case has been tried at Maidstone. Mr Richard Foster of the ripe age of 70, was indicted for having married one lady of the name of Jane Smith in 1842, and with espousing another Smith, a Mary Anne in 1869, whilst Jane was still alive. The veteran bigamist confessed the soft impeachment. But he argued that his marriage to Jane in 1842 was illegal because he had been married once before, in 1828, to Maria Frazer. Now this lady was alive in 1842, so that the marriage with Jane was void, but she was not alive in 1869, and therefore the marriage with Mary Ann was good. The jury acquitted him. The judge, however, pointed out that if he did not commit bigamy in 1869, he did, on his own confession, err in 1842. He must, therefore, exchange the frying-pan for the fire, and remain in custody.

Whilst it appears to have been far more common for men to have had multiple wives rather than women multiple husbands, it did occasionally happen.  Many newspapers around the UK picked up the story of Eliza Hathaway/Bradley, perhaps for the curious and frankly bizarre stories she told to the authorities.

Silhouette of a wedding coupleIn 1881 Eliza married Thomas Bradley at the parish church, Kidderminster, and she described herself on the marriage certificate as being a widow. This was despite her husband Edwin Hathaway, who she had married in the Primitive Methodist Chapel, Brierley Hill in 1870, being alive and well and living barely 10 miles away. The 1871 census shows the couple living in Stourbridge and they have a 5 month old daughter named Louisa[1]. Edwin was over twice her age and a widower himself so perhaps Eliza tired of the marriage and sought out someone a little more exciting and nearer her age.  Ten years later the 1881 census shows Eliza and Thomas Bradley living with Eliza’s daughter Sophia [Louisa?] Hathaway aged 10.

However, her sins caught up with her.  The Worcestershire Chronicle of 20 May 1882 tells of her being caught out but also reports on her ‘story’.

It states that shortly after her marriage, Eliza left her husband to seek her own fortune and went on to marry Thomas Bradley, after which her story starts to get a little involved. She stated that she had visited the Salvation Hall, became a zealous soldier, and “harangued meetings”. Her passion attracted the attention of the commanding officers of the Army and she was promoted to a captain. Her husband, Bradley, did not agree with her making visits to the hall and eventually she left him and was sent on behalf of the Salvation Army to open a campaign at Hafferton [probably Nafferton] in Yorkshire. Her success was so great that she was employed to open another campaign at Goole. At the latter place her “exhortations were also highly successful”, perhaps so successful that the work became too hard and she returned to her friends at Stourbridge.

So far so good – or was it?

In the same newspaper, the following statement was given:

The Daily Chronicle is asked to state that Eliza Hathaway, arrested at Stourbridge on a charge of bigamy at Kidderminster, never was a member let alone a “captain” of the Army, and that the Army has never held a service at either Haffleton (sic), Nafferton or Goole in Yorkshire where she was id to have conducted very successful campaigns in connection with the Army.

It would appear that Eliza was something of a fantasist and perhaps even displayed some mental health issues.  Certainly the judge was fairly lenient with her sentence, committing her to only 14 days in the common gaol on 5th July 1882[1].

Image of a broken heartSo, was bigamy a sort of ‘poor man’s divorce’?  I’m inclined to think it was. In my grandmother’s case, her first marriage had basically fallen apart and her desire to remarry had rather eclipsed any thoughts of ensuring she was free to do so. Eliza was young, possibly a bit flighty and regretted her marriage to a man old enough to be her father. Edmund Lewis and Richard Foster may be classed as ‘cads and rotters’ but perhaps they were simply lively young men who made wrong decisions.  True, it was a man’s world in that a deserted woman had a much tougher time of it than a deserted man and you could argue that Edmund and Richmond were not particularly honourable in their behaviour – but then again, neither was Eliza and my grandmother was uncommonly foolish and easily persuaded.

Newspapers are a great source for finding cases of bigamy and court records are another useful resource. We hold both these resources for Surrey here at the History Centre and they make fascinating reading.

I’m sure that there are dozens of cases of bigamy in the last 200 years or so that have never been discovered (or at least, not at the time!) and I wonder just how many second marriages or relationships were simply an alternative to a divorce. What do you think?

Keep safe and well and Happy Researching!

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[1] Worcestershire Chronicle 11 February 1882[2] 1871 Census: TNA Reference RG10; Piece: 3022; Folio: 56; Page: 12.

[3] England and Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892.  TNA Ref HO 27; Piece 193; Page 218.

Written by Jane Lewis - Modified by ESP Admin

4 thoughts on “One wife too many …!”

  1. Ruth Mathewson says:

    I was researching in the Paisley Poor Law records and found a fulsome entry for my 3xGGF John Armstrong, itinerant Irish hawker, wife Margaret and the weans. He had apparently already claimed “on the parish” for his first wife and family according to the careful annotations of the parish clerk including a cross reference to an early case! Sure enough, there was a whole page of pure genealogical gold for the first family … living a few doors away with first wife Magdalene very much still alive! John claimed that the first wife had died “although no-one had seen her dead” and that he had married Margaret in Ireland. So, I duly thought I’d bagged my bigamist for my family tree. However, John and Margaret actually got married in Scotland mere weeks after Magdalene actually died some years later. Like you say, divorce was pretty much unattainable for most people and just like today, marriages broke down and couples led different lives. But I have to admire his pure gallus cheek for coming back to Paisley with another woman and living in the next street!

    1. Jane Lewis says:

      Just goes to show that we should be wary of making assumptions before checking the facts. However, I agree with you that it shows a pretty good example of Celtic Chutzpah!

  2. John Court says:

    I have one case of bigamy in my own family and as the bigamous relatives were living a few streets apart it would be miraculous if the fact wasn’t generally known. The jilted wife’s death certificate has her under her maiden but also known as ‘married name’. It gets a little more complicated in that the second wife was the sister of the first wife which I thought was illegal at the time;

    Whilst researching other families I have come across people parting within a couple of years of marriage. The husband had then gone off to another town and has another wife with no sign of a marriage. The wife had stayed in her birth town an remarried as a spinster. People in those far off days were pragmatic if nothing else and with very little in the way of fact checking being available easy to get away with.

    There is a law, still enacted, which enables a spouse/relative to be declared dead by a court of law if there has been no sign of the spouse/relative for seven years. Here we may look at recent events (canoe man) but old stories and plays where the has been no sign of the spouse an insurance claim is made or, in the case of stories and plays, the sailor comes back home to find his wife remarried.

    1. Jane Lewis says:

      Hi John and thank you so much for this valuable contribution. I think you’re absolutely right and of course, if a couple pitch up in a town calling themselves ‘Mr & Mrs’, no-one is going to check the marriage registers, are they? It would be a Herculean research project to see how many couples were, in fact, ‘common law’ but it would be interesting; as you say, our ancestors were nothing if not pragmatic.

      As far as literature goes, my grandmother (the same one who was a bigamist!) was particularly found of Tennyson and used to read the poem Enoch Arden to us when we were children, which is a wonderful Victorian Melodrama on the same subject, injected with as much pathos as possible (

      Thank you for your contribution and good luck with the research.


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