Q&A: Did my pregnant ancestor marry bigamously?

By Deputy Editor, 20 April 2015 - 9:45am

Professor Rebecca Probert helps Christine Lawrance unravel the mystery surrounding her ancestor Julie Ann Green who married twice within a year to different men

Marriage certificates for Julie Ann Green

The certificates showing Julie Ann Green's two marriages in 1844 and 1845

Q: My ancestor Julie Ann Green was married in 1845, but she was also married to someone else in 1844. I assumed her ‘first husband’ had died. When she married in 1845, she was seven months pregnant. On the marriage certificate she is described as a spinster. There was a gulf of difference between a seven-month pregnant widow and a seven-month pregnant spinster so I presume she would have described herself as a widow if she could have done. Could the ‘first marriage’ have been bigamous on the part of the man? I am trying to trace his original marriage, and wonder if he was discovered and prosecuted. I’d love to know what might have happened.

Christine Lawrance, by email

A: The first, and most straightforward, explanation is that Thomas Edward Sutcliffe and Thomas Joseph Packer were the same person. The signatures are close enough for this to be plausible. There are a number of examples in the reported case-law of men who assumed a false name when marrying for the first time and who then went through a second ceremony with the same woman when the falsehood was discovered. Nor was marrying in the wrong name always deliberate: perhaps Thomas discovered that he had been baptised in a different name, or that his father was not whom he had thought?

The second possibility is that the marriage of Thomas Edward Sutcliffe and Julie Green was invalid for some reason. But the range of factors that would invalidate a marriage was somewhat narrower than was popularly believed. By the 1840s, any technical defects – such as marrying under the age of 21 without parental consent or failing to have the banns called in the correct name – would only invalidate a marriage if both parties knew of the defect and wilfully went ahead.

A third possibility, of course, is that Julia’s first marriage was valid but broke down within a short period and that she was the one guilty of bigamy. She would not be the first female bigamist to claim to be a spinster.

If either had committed bigamy, they were potentially risking transportation to Australia. By the 1840s, however, this was reserved for the most serious cases of bigamy – those involving financial exploitation or multiple marriages, for example – and women were almost never transported.

If the first marriage had broken down on account of the adultery or desertion of the other spouse then a short period of imprisonment was the most likely outcome – assuming, of course, that it was discovered and prosecuted.


Rebecca Probert is a professor of Law at the University of Warwick and the author of Marriage Law for Genealogists




Hit a brick wall with your family history?

Send in your questions to WDYTYAquestions@immediate.co.uk. You can read more from our Q&A section in the latest issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, available to download here.

  • Category: | Q&A |
  • Tags: | Q&A |
Q&A: Have I uncovered a family secret on my grandfather's service record?
previous blog Article
Five great websites for researching your Gallipoli ancestors
next blog Article
Q&A: Have I uncovered a family secret on my grandfather's service record?
previous blog Article
Five great websites for researching your Gallipoli ancestors
next blog Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here