Bigamy, film of 1927, credit Wikipedia

by Bill Hartley

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Matrimonial Causes Act, the first Act to establish equal rights in divorce for men and women. In contrast, the first Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 allowed a man to obtain a divorce by proving adultery. A woman had to prove aggravating circumstances such as cruelty or, significantly, bigamy. For some people the best way to escape a bad marriage was to disappear and start again.

The annual ‘Calendars’ (records of trials) in Liverpool, Chester and North Wales for 1923 show that the authorities prosecuted offences of a varied nature. For example, in January of that year Thomas Moore appeared in court in Liverpool charged with stealing some hen’s eggs and was sentenced to six strokes of the birch. Other cases involved theft of a nose bag (presumably belonging to a horse) and the theft of a dog collar. The Calendars also provide a rich source for trades long extinct, such as loomer and rope splicer. One accused hailing from an inner city address in Liverpool, was described as a ‘cow keeper’. Presumably he was involved in that long vanished enterprise, the urban dairy. Sounding like someone out of a novel by Sax Rohmer, Kok Lunn a ship’s cook with a previous conviction for ‘possession of a prepared opium pipe’, was fined £10 for keeping a house for the purposes of betting. Dang Con an assistant shopkeeper was prosecuted for being the occupier of premises ‘allowing same to be used for opium smoking’. He was fined £5 at the Liverpool Quarter Sessions.

Amongst this catalogue of crimes ranging from the mundane to the peculiar, bigamy occurred quite regularly. Although the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act was and remains the means for prosecuting acts of violence, bigamy was also included and designated as a ‘class one’ offence punishable by up to seven years in prison. Prosecutions for bigamy peaked during the First World War and after that went into a gradual decline. Cases attracted press attention and sometimes moral outrage. An article covering a case of bigamy in a 1910 edition of the Nottingham Evening Post was alarmingly headlined, ‘The Crime That Must Be Stopped’, though no advice was offered as to how this might be achieved.  Despite changes in the law, divorce was still difficult and expensive to obtain with both parties needing to be in agreement. For the poorer classes, it was often easier to simply disappear and make a fresh start elsewhere. Illegal remarriage was a way of regaining respectability. For vicars and registrars it was impossible to check that the information people gave on official documents was correct, because each district kept its own separate register of births, marriages and deaths.

David J Cox, in an article entitled ‘Trying to get a Good One’ which appeared in the Plymouth Law and Criminal Justice Review (2012), notes that the offence has received little attention from criminologists. His article relies on figures extrapolated from the annual Judicial Statistics which began to appear in 1850. He notes that figures remained low (below 150 cases a year) and peaked in 1915 when 211 individuals, 157 men and 94 women, were convicted. There were two further peaks immediately after both world wars.

In January 1923 at the County Hall in Caernarvon, Mair Jones a ‘married woman’ who was committed from Bangor, pleaded guilty to a charge of bigamy. The case was tried by Sir Rigby Swift and rather bizarrely the order of the court was that she be discharged into the custody of her father. Mrs Jones was aged 32. At the same assizes Frank Joseph was also convicted of bigamy and this time Sir Rigby saw fit to pass a sentence of twelve months. Cox mentions in his article that in the case of female defendants a submissive demeanour in the dock could help ensure a lighter sentence. Certainly Sir Rigby seems to have been especially lenient when dealing with this female defendant. Overall though, considering the maximum penalty available, sentences recorded in the 1923 Calendar were generally light.

Examples of such sentences can again be found in January of that year at Chester Castle. Charles McAllister a boot salesman pleaded guilty to bigamy and received three months imprisonment. Charles West a brick maker from Preston also pleaded guilty before the same judge and received six months. In March, Frederick Duxbury a butcher also appeared charged with bigamy. A clue to what he might have been up to or perhaps who had an incentive to pursue him, is revealed in his previous convictions; on two occasions he was brought before a court charged with failing to pay maintenance. He received six months hard labour. This addition to the sentence appears to have been a sign of judicial displeasure. In contrast, William Lette appeared at the same sessions and received only four months. John Eccles a labourer appeared at the Assize court in Liverpool in June of that year and received nine months. Most defendants had no previous convictions. Those that did tended to receive similar sentences unless their record showed some element of domestic neglect, such as a failure to pay maintenance.

At the same court a female defendant Helen Fletcher, a ‘married woman’ aged 35, escaped with merely a binding over. Her co-accused Frederick Wilbraham, a labourer, charged with aiding and abetting the commission of bigamy was also bound over. At Chester Assizes in July James Stewart a clerk pleaded guilty to bigamy and received six months. William Roberts a ‘motor driver’ also received six months for the offence but with hard labour. His co accused, Nellie Pritchard a 21 year old domestic servant, was unfortunate enough to have hard labour added to her sentence too, the only example of a female receiving such a  punishment.. Perhaps this was an early example of inclusion and equality.

Bertrand Piper a tailor aged 39 also appeared at Chester Castle. Justice finally caught up with him when he was prosecuted for a charge of bigamy which had been laid in 1914. Following a guilty plea he received 12 months with hard labour. At St George’s Hall in Liverpool another couple, Mary Jones a married woman aged 38, pleaded guilty and received 10 months imprisonment as did her co accused Harry Hardacre a 52 year old railway porter, for aiding and abetting. At the same assizes George Lambert, described as a ‘Showman’, received the heaviest sentence recorded in that year of 15 months, although he did have previous convictions for unlawful possession of mutton and receiving tea.  

Historically, convictions for bigamy have been low compared to other offences. There were increases notably in the war years with the inevitable disruptions to family life. It is possible then that these effects were subsequently still being felt, given the number of cases recorded over a wide geographical area in 1923. Although no judicial guidelines existed at the time, the relatively short sentences reflect the overall trend shown in Cox’s article. Judges were prepared to exercise considerable discretion and bring extenuating circumstances to the attention of the jury. As Cox says, ‘whilst the judicial rhetoric was often harsh, the sentences were relatively lenient’.

William Hartley is a Social Historian

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