John and Emma Tompkins 1890
Marrying the sister of a deceased wife was illegal in Victorian England.
” …under the Marriage Act of 1835, which had the support of the established Anglican church, it was prohibited for a widower to marry his wife’s sister on the grounds of a passage in Leviticus, which suggested that such a relationship was incestuous (the same biblical extract Henry VIII had used to cast doubt on his marriage to Catherine of Aragon). If husband and wife were made one flesh upon marriage, then sleeping with your sister-in-law was incestuous, or so the reasoning went.” HISTORY MATTERS: If This Be Error
But it is more common than people realise. I have seen vociferous arguments on Facebook where people don’t seem able to get their head around the fact that the person they are looking at may have been a second wife “because it was her sister” and “they wouldn’t do anything illegal”. Given the large families of the times when the first wife died, it made sense to call on the help of a maiden or widowed aunt.
John Tompkins, my great x 2 grandfather, married his dead wife’s sister, Emma, in September 1873, 18 months after the death of his first wife, Sarah. Emma was also a widow with one stepdaughter and Sarah had died at the age of 42 leaving 9 children aged between 2 and 17 years old, one of their 10 children having died, so maybe it was a marriage of convenience, but it makes sense. Emma was no stranger to the family – she was with them in 1861 before her marriage to John Gillett in 1864. Emma’s first husband died in December 1871, a month before Sarah, leaving Emma to bring up the daughter of John’s first marriage. So raising the 10 children together seemed eminently sensible and marrying and then moving away from the area would still the gossiping tongues.
My grandmother, the daughter of John’s son from his first wife and his ward, the step daughter of his second wife and also the wife of John’s grandson from a daughter of the first marriage, used to tell us that John and Emma had gone abroad to get married. More wealthy people may well have done so, but actually they married in London and it looks as though one of Emma’s maternal uncles, Thomas Smith, a grocer in Paddington, may have been a witness. Their marriage was announced in several local newspapers in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire where their families will have been known. Whether it is of importance, I don’t know, but Sarah and Emma’s mother had died the previous June.
Births, Deaths, Marriages and Obituaries
Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, England), Saturday, September 27, 1873; Issue 6287.
Sept 18, at St. Saviour’s Church, Paddington by the Rev. McNeil Mansfield M.A., Mr. John Tompkins, Town Farm, Ivinghoe, to Emma Gillett, sixth daughter of the late George Godfree Esq., Great Rissington, Gloucestershire. No cards.
John had been a tenant farmer in Horsendon, Buckinghamshire for several years where his children were born and by 1871 he was at Town Farm in Ivinghoe where Sarah his first wife died. Following their marriage, they moved to Aveley Hall in Essex. Coincidence or to avoid the gossip? Who knows. As a tenant farmer, John was in a position to be able to move away from the area he was known, he just needed to find another tenancy, which he did in Essex. They didn’t move away immediately – the auction of the stock and equipment took place in 1876, so presumably they finished the tenancy in Ivinghoe first.
John and his second wife Emma went on to have 5 children, the first 2 were registered in Leighton Buzzard where Ivinghoe falls, in 1874 and 1876, the third in Orsett (Aveley) in 1877. Sadly the three boys all died – two of them from diptheria within 24 hours of each other, the other as an infant. One of the daughters, Kate, married and the other daughter, Alice Florence (Floss), remained single.
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
I was lucky to be able to spend time with Kate’s son, John Manning, when I happened to choose to live near him on our return to the UK. He shared my interest in family history and could talk for hours about his memories. He had created a family tree for my grandmother for her 100th birthday which I much enjoyed expanding and sourcing. We persuaded him to write his memories down as his own father had done and we transcribed it for him. Sadly he died very soon after we had given him the final draft but I am pleased that he was able to see it (he used to hide it under a cushion so that his children wouldn’t see it until it was finished). Some extracts follow:
My mother’s family name was Tompkins. Mother was born at Ivinghoe or Tring, Bucks. Mother was the twelfth child; there were fifteen children altogether, ten born at Horsendon Farm. My grandfather’s first wife Sarah died at the age of forty two! My grandfather then married his wife’s sister named Emma; then there were five more children making a total of fifteen! After my mother [Kate] was born, the family moved to Aveley Hall, Essex. For a short time they lived at Rainham Lodge, Essex as the Hall was not vacant.
Of the second family only my mother and Aunt Floss survived, there were three boys who all died of diphtheria. They were all buried in the family grave at St Michael’s Aveley. There is now little trace of their grave, but my children where it is.
Also as I grew older, I was allowed to visit my aunt Floss who had a flat quite near. (John was at boarding school at Lindisfarne College in Westcliff-on-Sea) ….. Aunt Floss was very strict with all us children but she loved us all and had a great influence on our lives. She influenced my parents in that she made them realise that young ladies could not sit helping out at home, hoping they would one day get married. Times were hard and she insisted that they were all trained to be able to go out into the world and earn their own livings.
If the local Essex “society” knew of the “illegal” marriage or not, it didn’t seem to have affected their status in the community. John was involved in many aspects of local politics and was well known in the county as I found out when I came across the funeral announcements recently.
Emma was called as a witness at the Old Bailey – BOWEN ENDACOTT. Deception: perjury. 24th October 1887. This gives an interesting glance at her life.
Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act (28th August) 1907 (7 Edw.7 c.47) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, allowing a man to marry his dead wife’s sister, which had previously been forbidden. This prohibition had derived from a doctrine of canon law whereby those who were connected by marriage were regarded as being related to each other in a way which made marriage between them improper. Wikipedia
John died early in the year of the passing of the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act (28th August) 1907, on the 4th January. He and Emma were married for nearly twice as long as he was married to Sarah – I wonder if they might have remarried when the act was passed.
Essex County Chronicle Friday, January 11th 1907
We regret to announce the death of Mr John Tompkins of Aveley Hall, Aveley, in his 76th year. The deceased gentleman had for 20 years been a member of the Orsett District Council and Board of Guardians, and was held in great esteem in the wide area of the Orsett Union, where his picturesque figure ws well-known. He was greatly interested in agriculture and much respected by his farming friends in the county, He was also a foremost and generous patron of anything connected with Aveley. For some years past it has only been with difficulty that he could attend to his public duties, owing to increasing infirmity. His illness became more acute during the present winter, and the end came at length, peacefully, on Friday last.
The funeral took place on Tuesday afternoon in Aveley churchyard, the officiating ministers being the Rev. W.E. Spencer, Rector of Aveley, and the Rev. A.H.W. Seally, Vicar of Grays. A preliminary service was held in the Church which was filled to the doors. The coffin, of oak with brass fittings, was conveyed from Aveley Hall on one of the farm wagons to the Church, which almost adjoins the Hall. The coffin bore the inscription “John Tompkins born 1832, died 2907.” It was covered with beautiful flowers, many wreaths having been sent from his wide circle of frineds. The chief mourners were Mr. E.O. Tompkins, Mr. A.E. Tompkins and Mr. J.S. Tompkins, sons; Mr Arthur Miles, Mr. T.T. de Fraine, and Mr. Henry Miles, sons-in-law. Among those who also attended to pay a last token of respect were Mr. W.S. Eve, chairman, and several members of the Orsett Guardians, Mr. C.B. Russell, and Mr. R.A. Manning.
A more detailed account appeared the next day in the Grays & Tilbury Gazette, and Southend Telegraph 12 January 1907.
We regret to record the death of Mr John Tompkins, which took place at his residence, Aveley Hall, on Friday last week. Deceased having been in failing health for some time past. He was 75 years of age. The late Mr. Tompkins was one of the most highly esteemed residents of the district and was beloved by a wide circle of friends. He took a great interest in the public life of the district, and associated himself with all the movements calculated to benefit his parish. He was formerly a County Councillor, but his chief work was, perhaps, more particularly in connection with the Orsett Board of Guardians on which body he served for 19 years; only resigning his seat in March of last year. In both the work of the Guardians and the Rural District Council he took the greatest pleasure, and, until prevented by the infirmities of age, he was seldom absent from the Board Room, where he invariably occupied his own corner near to the Vice Chairman. He was of a very kindly nature and always carefully guarded the interests of the poor of the parish which he represented. When his resignation was forwarded to the Orsett authorities, a step which he took only through a sense of his ability to continue to properly discharge the duties of his office, it was received with no mere formal resolution of regret, but with mnay sincere expressions from those who had for years been associated with him. Although no longer a member of the Board, Mr. Tompkins did not forget the inmates at Christmas, and his name figures in the list of those who forwarded gifts for the festivities.
took place at Aveley on Tuesday afternoon. The officiating clergy were the Rev. W.E. Spencer of Aveley, and the Rev. A.H.W. Seally of Grays. The whole village was in mourning, blinds being drawn at almost all the private residences, whilst many of the business houses were closed. The body was conveyed to the church in the deceased’s own wagon, drawn by one of his horses, the men from the farm acting as bearers. The chief mourners were Mr. Osborne Tompkins, Mr. A.E. Tompkins, and Mr. J,S. Tompkins (sons); Mr. Arthur Miles, Mr. T.T. de Fraine, and Mr. Henry Miles (sons-in-law); Mr W.G. Boocock; and Mr G.R. Parrott. The hymn sung in the church was “Now the labourer’s task is o’er”, and at the close of the service the organist, Mrs Skeer, sympathetically played the “Dead March.”
The body was enclosed in a polished oak coffin with brass furniture, the breast-plate bearing the inscription:-
Died 4th January, 1907
Aged 75 years.
The grave was lined with ivy and evergreen. There was large number of friends in the church and at the graveside, amongst them being Dr. Dunlop, Messrs. Champion B. Russell, J.P., G.F. Curtis J.P., W.S. Eve, C. Joslin, R.A. Manning, J. Poupart, T.A. Carron, J. Woollings, J. Blows, G. Smith, H. Smith, Russell Smith, E. Brown, W. Kelly, A. Parker, J. Cox, J. Elliott etc.
The floral tributes formed a magnificent collection. They comprised the following:-
In loving memory of our dear one, from his wife, Katie and Floss; in loving memory, from Cissie, Nellie and Tom; with deep sympathy and sorrow, from Bertie, Dorothy and Frances; Mrs. Robert Tompkins, Louie and Florie; in fond and loving memory: from Tom and Katie, with love and sincere sympathy: in loving memory of our dear Grandpa, from Harry, Ethel and Will; from Mary and Theresa, in loving memory; with deep sympathy from George and Emily; from little Connie, to dear Grandpa; in loving memory, from Osborn, Suie and children; in loving memory, from Joe, Louise and children; from his grandchildren, Queenie, Dottie and Leigh; with deepest sympathy, from Herbert Manning: with Mr and Mrs Poupart and family’s sincere sympathy; with Mr and Mrs George Smith’s sympathy; from Mr and Mrs Woollings and family, with sincere sympathy; from the Rev. and Mrs W.E. Spencer, with affectionate regards and much sympathy; from Mr and Mrs Boocock, with kind love and sympathy; with deep regret and sympathy,, from Mr and Mrs William Eve and family; from Cox and Palmer, with deepest sympathy and respect; in loving and happy memory of our old friend, from Mr and Mrs Clement Joslin and family; with sincere sympathy, from G.R. Parrott, Oxford; Dr and Mrs Dunlop’s deep sympathy; with sympathy and condolences from the employees fo Aveley Hall.
The Chairman of the Orsett Rural District Council, Mr Blair H.L. Williams, J.P., and the Clerk, Mr J Beck, were unavoidably prevented from attending owing to important business in town, and we regret that several of the other members were also prevented from attending owing to illness.
Emma survived John by just 3 years and died at Cranham Lodge, Aveley in 1910. She was also buried in Aveley Churchyard.
Findmypast – British Newspapers
Anne D. Wallace, “On the Deceased Wife’s Sister Controversy, 1835-1907”