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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 12.

Week 12 – Joined together.

In week 8 I wrote about a couple who were apparently unable to marry because of the social norms of the day, but this week I look at the other side of the coin and two people who wanted to be free from their respective marriages.

First some brief historical context. Until 1857, divorce in England and Wales was extremely rare, requiring an individual Act of Parliament in each case, which effectively restricted it to the very rich and influential. The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 made divorce theoretically possible for the wider public, but only in cases of adultery, and in addition a woman had to prove a supplementary aggravating factor (such as rape or desertion) on the part of her husband. Only a few hundred divorces were granted on this basis each year and it wasn’t until 1937 that other grounds for divorce such as cruelty, desertion or insanity were entered into law.

In practice, this meant that when a marriage broke down the couple had the choice between separating and remaining celibate or forming an irregular union with a new partner. Some new couples chose to move to a different town where they were unknown and could therefore pretend to be married, while others took the risk of marrying bigamously: I have examples of both in my extended family, and a distant cousin I discovered recently is someone who found himself in this situation.

Joseph William Lamb was born in Broseley, Shropshire in 1830 and married Emma Jenks in 1851. She was a widow, about ten years older than Joseph, and had a daughter from her first marriage. The couple lived in Madeley, where Joseph worked as an engine fitter, and had six children together. However, by the time their youngest son was born in March 1864, Joseph was already involved romantically with a married woman from nearby Shifnal.

Sarah Jane George was born in Penzance in about 1836 and moved to Shropshire with her family as a child. She married John Thomas Bladen in Wellington in 1853 and had four children with him between then and 1862, two of whom died in infancy. He was about ten years older than Sarah and worked as a groom.

I don’t know how Joseph and Sarah met, or why they turned their backs on their respective marriages, but by the end of 1864 they were living in Jarrow, over 200 miles away, with the first of six children they would have together. Sarah brought her daughter (and possibly her son) with her, while Joseph and Emma’s children remained with their mother. Joseph and Sarah never married, although by 1871 she was using his surname. They were never legally free to marry: John Bladen died in 1888, but Emma was still alive when Sarah died in 1897, and apparently neither Emma nor John (the “wronged” parties in the eyes of the law) attempted to divorce their errant spouse.

Strangely, a similar situation arose in the next generation with Joseph and Sarah’s youngest child. Ruth Lamb was born in South Bank, Yorkshire in 1875 and married Ernest George Weaver in Middlesbrough in 1893 aged just 18. They had two daughters in quick succession, but after the birth of the second in 1895 Ruth seems to disappear into thin air, and so far, I have been unable to find a census, death or other record for her. In 1901 her daughters were living with Ernest’s mother and unmarried brother, and one was still there in 1911. I can’t find Ernest on the 1901 census, but in 1910 he married Eliza Mayall Robinson in Oldham, having already had a daughter with her in Sheffield in 1902.

This is a fairly recent discovery, so I need to look into it further, but unless Ruth’s death has been omitted from the GRO index, I speculate that this might be a sad case of long-term hospitalisation or institutionalisation. Patients of various institutions were sometimes recorded on census with simply their initials and often with incomplete or inaccurate details of age and birthplace. If the marriage had ended acrimoniously, it’s relatively unlikely that Ernest’s family would have taken in the children, and sadly the older daughter was a patient in a Birmingham “Institute for Mental Defectives” in 1939, which might possibly indicate a genetic tendency to mental health problems. As mentioned above, this would not have been grounds for divorce at the time, so unless Ruth’s death is missing or recorded with a wildly inaccurate age at death on the GRO index, Ernest’s second marriage may have been technically invalid.

I have to say that if my speculative scenario is anywhere close to reality, I have a lot more sympathy for Ernest than for another of my distant cousins who married a widow, only to run off with his step-daughter – but that is another story!

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