As many of you know, I normally research bigamy in Scotland. Reports from other countries sometimes catch my attention, however, and this one from 1867 in southern England was a very curious tale.
On 23 October 1867 a young woman named Mary Wheeler found herself before the Winchester City Magistrates to answer a complaint that she had broken two panes of glass in a house in the town on the previous Saturday night. The person who had complained about her, local builder Alfred Wheeler, didn’t turn up for the case and it was dismissed by the magistrates. Mary’s defence, though, was a strange story.
She stated that she was, in fact, married to Alfred Wheeler in December 1860 and showed the marriage certificate for the ceremony in St Thomas’, Lambeth when her name was Mary May and they were both living at 13 St Ann’s Street. Mary lived with Alfred for five years “as his wife” in London, Southampton and Winchester, and they had six or seven children (the reports varied), one being born before the marriage, and the youngest being 17 months old in October 1867. She said that there was another woman living in the house who also went as his wife.
A short time before her court appearance, Alfred had persuaded Mary to marry his own son, William Herbert Wheeler, aged 19 (Mary was then about 24), which she did on 3rd December 1865 at St Bartholomew Hyde, Winchester, even though she was pregnant with her first husband’s child.
Mary lived with William Herbert for a couple of months and then moved to Kentish Town where Alfred gave her an allowance of 8 shillings a week to keep herself and the last child. She moved nearer to Waterloo Station to look after some of Alfred’s furniture after he got into financial difficulties, but this meant spending 7s. of her weekly allowance on rent - not good for Mary and eventually Alfred came and took the furniture away and Mary moved into one room at 5s a week. On the previous Saturday, as the reports say, Mary “came down to see her husband William but her husband Alfred would not permit her to do so.” Alfred shook her off and she threw a stone at him, breaking the window.
Mary asked the magistrates what she should do now - they unfortunately had no advice for her as “the only course that seem open to her was to throw herself on the parish as Alfred Wheeler’s wife, but of course it would be an awkward affair if she proved he had committed a bigamous marriage.” Other newspaper reports said that the magistrates “recommended the woman to prosecute Alfred Wheeler for bigamy but told her that her own conduct was very culpable.”
But was Mary’s story true?
Unlikely as it seems, there is evidence that it was.
Alfred Wheeler married Mary May on 16 December 1861 (rather than 1860 as reported) at St Thomas’, Lambeth when both gave their residence as 13 Ann’s Street and Alfred was described as a builder. Mary’s father was Henry May, a carpenter.
However, in the census earlier the same year, Mary was living with her parents, Henry and Elizabeth May in St Pancras, while her sister, Alice, was a domestic servant with Alfred and Jane Wheeler in Winchester. Mary must have known that Alfred was living with another woman shortly before the time of their marriage, even if she might have believed that they weren’t actually married.
Looking for a William Herbert Wheeler aged 19 in 1867 (and so born in about 1848) shows a child of this name baptised in Winchester on 27 April 1849 to parents Alfred and Jane. Jane’s maiden name was Summerbee and she had married Alfred Wheeler on 1 February 1846, also in Winchester.
William Herbert Wheeler married Mary May between October and December 1865 in Winchester. A female child (unnamed in the civil birth index) was born between April and June 1866 in St Pancras - the “last child” referred to in the newspaper reports.
What happened after Mary’s court case?
Newspapers don’t report what happened to Alfred, Mary, Jane and William Herbert after this court appearance. The births of a number of Wheeler children with a mother’s maiden name of May are recorded in London between 1868 and 1874, although of course it’s not clear whether Alfred or William Herbert might have been the father! However, when the youngest of these, Walter William Wheeler, married in 1899 he gave his father’s name as Alfred Wheeler, builder, suggesting that Mary and Alfred might have continued to have children together long after her court appearance.
Alfred and Jane also continued to live together (at least according to the census): in 1871 in Twickenham, in 1881 in Hammersmith, in 1891 in Hornsey, with Alfred a widower living in Tunbridge Wells in 1901.
Mary was also living in London: in 1871 and 1881 in Battersea and 1891 in Hammersmith.
The story gets more complicated…
By 1881 William Herbert Wheeler was living with his wife Caroline in Hammersmith. They’d married in 1875 In Hammersmith with banns being read in St Peters Church there in October 1874 and December 1874. By 1891 the couple, plus their son Cecil, were living with William’s parents in Hornsey.
But of course, if Mary’s 1861 marriage to Alfred was bigamous, then she was legally single when she married William Herbert in 1865. This should mean that her marriage with William Herbert was a valid marriage, and suggests that in fact William Herbert’s marriage to Caroline Evans was itself bigamous.
However, William Herbert and Caroline married again on 22 July 1894 in Herne Hill, when William’s marital status was given as “widower”. William Herbert and Caroline may have heard of Mary’s death and decided to legally formalise their union.
Even the most ordinary families can have an extraordinary story to tell. Without Mary's court appearance, or if she had simply accepted that the case was dismissed without providing an explanation, the unusual history of the family would never have come to light.
Hampshire Advertiser. 26 October 1867. p. 3 / Glasgow Herald. 25 October 1867. p. 5. / and many other newspapers across the UK.
Baptisms (PR) England. Winchester. WHEELER, William Herbert. Family Search GS Film number 1041220
Marriages (PR) England. Winchester. St Maurice. Family Search GS Film number 1041221. WHEELER/SUMMORBEE.
London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Thomas, Lambeth, Register of marriages, P85/TMS, Item 010. 16 December 1861. WHEELER/MAY
Marriages (CR) England. Winchester. Q4 1865. Vol 2c. p. 206. WHEELER/MAY
Births (CR) England. St Pancras. Q2 1866. Vol. 1b. p. 147. WHEELER, female child
London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Andrew, Earlsfield, Register of marriages, P95/AND1, Item 017. 1 October 1899. WHEELER/JAINE
Marriages (CR) England. Brentford, Middlesex. Q1 1875. Vol 3a p. 63. WHEELER/EVANS
London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Peter, Hammersmith, Register of banns of marriage, P80/PET, Item 023. 18 October 1874. WHEELER/EVANS
London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Peter, Hammersmith, Register of banns of marriage, P80/PET, Item 023. 20 December 1874. WHEELER/EVANS
London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Paul, Herne Hill, Register of marriages, P73/PAU1, Item 006. 22 July 1894. WHEELER/EVANS