My grandmother’s census entries are confusing. Can you shed some light on her two marriages?
QOn my grandmother’s family tree, Julia Hobbis married Albert Gossage in 1876 in the district of Kings Norton, Worcestershire. They had two children, Alice (b1879) and Walter (b1880). Albert died in 1885 and the following year Julia married Alfred Gossage, Albert’s brother. They had a son, Arthur, in 1888.
The 1891 census shows the couple married with all three children at home. However, both the 1901 and 1911 censuses show Julia as the head of the family, a widow, and Alfred as her brother-in-law living at the same address! Alfred is ‘married’ in 1901 but ‘single’ in 1911! Alfred died in 1914, leaving a small sum of money to Julia in his will. Why the misleading details in the 1901 and 1911 censuses? Paul Newhall, by email
AWhile the prohibition on marrying one’s deceased wife’s sister is well knownn, it is not always appreciated that the same prohibition applied to a marriage with a deceased husband’s brother (as well as to the parents, children, nephews, nieces, uncles or aunts of a deceased spouse).
So, at the time it was entered into, the marriage between Julia and Alfred would have been void, and their child illegitimate.
The reason that the ban on marriage to a deceased wife’s sister is more well known is not only because it was the one most often flouted but also because campaigners fought hard to remove it: efforts were made to change the law throughout the 19th century, and reform finally came in 1907. It was perhaps the publicity given to the legalisation of marrying a deceased wife’s sister that made Julia and Alfred realise that their own marriage was not valid – this might explain the changes in the way they described themselves in successive censuses.
Of course, there was nothing to stop Alfred from leaving a legacy to Julia. The courts had to grapple with a number of similar cases where men left assets to a ‘wife’ who in the eyes of the law was no wife at all. In such cases, judges tended to take the view that this was not a problem as long as it was clear who was meant by ‘wife’.
It was not until 1921 that the prohibition on marrying a deceased husband’s brother was removed, with the increase in young women widowed as a result of the First World War having been the impetus for this change. Had Alfred and Julia both been alive and still together at this time, their marriage would have been validated retrospectively.
Despite Alfred’s death, Julia could perhaps take some comfort in knowing that such marriages were finally seen as legitimate. Rebecca Probert