Who Do You Think You Are?

Were my Jennings ancestors legally married?

- Peter Jennings

QMy great grandfathe­r George William Jennings married Ann Morrow in 1872. They had seven children together. All this time Fanny, Ann’s sister, was part of the family. When Ann died in 1887, Fanny presumably continued to care for the young children. In 1896, George and Fanny married (pictured).

However, I thought that the legislatio­n permitting marriage to a wife’s sister wasn’t changed until 1907. Was it legal, or a marriage of convenienc­e with a blind eye to the law?

AWhen George married Fanny in 1896, their marriage would have been void as she was the sister of his late wife. Whether this was a matter of people turning a blind eye to a union that many thought shouldhld bbe legal is impossible to say. But the fact that their wedding – and many others prohibited by law – still went ahead illustrate­s how easy it was to avoid detection.

Getting married in a register office, as they did, was one way to ensure a degree of privacy. Either George or Fanny would have had to give notice to the superinten­dent registrar of Brentford Registrati­on District. There was little chance of him being acquainted with their circumstan­ces, because his district had a population in excess of 130,000 at the time.

Nor was there much chance of anyone discoverin­g the intended wedding and making a formal objection. Marriage notices were displayed in the superinten­dent registrar’s office for 21 days, but the likelihood of them being seen by anyone whoh kknew the couple was slimslim. And weddings in register offices tended to be celebrated with less fanfare. We know from contempora­ry accounts that couples were more likely to wear everyday clothes than when marrying in church. If acquaintan­ces had seen George and Fanny walking to Brentford Register Office, they would not have assumed from their appearance that they were going to get married.

The fact that so many couples were similarly flouting the law was one reason why campaigner­s were pressing for change. Within little more than a decade, George and Fanny would have found themselves lawfully married. The 1907 Act that allowed marriages between a man and the sister of his deceased wife also retrospect­ively validated any such existing marriages. Rebecca Probert

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