My grand­mother’s census en­tries are con­fus­ing. Can you shed some light on her two mar­riages?

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - QUESTIONS & ANSWERS -

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

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