The pressures of society weighed heavily on our ancestors; in particular, the expectation that they should live good, God-fearing lives and that they should conform to the beliefs and values of the Anglican church, particularly when it came to matters concerning marriage and legitimacy.
Sometimes, those pressures must have seemed unbearable. And while the picture painted by the Christian Victorian patriarchy was usually one of immoral degenerates, refusing to conform, the truth of the matter is that, more often than not, it was the very rules imposed by an uncaring society which prevented our ancestors from ‘doing the decent thing’.
Family history research rarely makes me angry but the story of James and Frances Philpot really struck a nerve. It’s an example of a working-class couple just trying to get by, but failing – through no fault of their own – to live up to the standards expected of them, and being made to suffer as a result.
The story begins with the births of two girls in the early years of the 19th century. Mary and Frances, the daughters of William and Mary Ralf (or Ralph), were born in the Kent parish of St Mary, Little Chart on 27 September 1803 and 4 January 1806 respectively. The family later moved to Bekesbourne before settling in Pluckley sometime before 1820.
William was a native of Bedfordshire, while his wife, Mary came from Dartford, some 30 miles away, so neither were local to the area. The family were labourers; Mary stated on a later census return that she was ‘formerly a dairymaid’ and William appears in the returns for 1841 and 1851 as an agricultural labourer. There’s no suggestion that they were particularly poor – William is listed in the 1837 Tithe Commission records, occupying a cottage and garden in Rushbrook as well as a thin strip of pasture land measuring 3 acres – but life would probably have been a struggle for the Ralfs, at least by today’s standards.
On 24 April 1822, not long after the family arrived in Pluckley, Frances, the second daughter, married a man called Jonathan Dale. Jonathan had been born in Ospringe in 1803. They were married in the parish church of St Nicholas, Pluckley; Frances was just sixteen at the time, Jonathan about two and a half years older. Over the next seven years, four children were baptised at Pluckley; Sarah (1824), William (1826), Anne (1827) and James (1829). Anne died young.
The minister of Pluckley, who married Jonathan and Frances in 1822 and baptised their four children was the Reverend Cholmeley Edward John Dering. Cholmeley also happened to be the son of the major local landowner, Cholemely Edward Dering, the 6th Baronet of Surrenden Dering, and the man who owned the house and land on which the Ralfs lived.
Mary, meanwhile, had also married. The record of the marriage of James Philpot and Mary Ralf appears in the Pluckley parish registers on 13 October 1823. At least it should do but for reasons unknown the bride’s name is entered as ‘Frances’ instead of Mary. This must surely be a simple mistake – the ‘day book’ kept by the parish records the bride’s name (correctly) as Mary Ralf – and as both the bride and groom were unable to sign their names (and therefore, probably, illiterate) they weren’t able to spot the error.
James Philpot was a local man, the son of John and Susanna Philpot, and had been baptised at St Nicholas, Pluckley on 15 May 1802. He and Mary had just two children, John (baptised 1826) and James (1828). Then, the year after James was born, Mary died, aged just 26. She was buried in the churchyard at Pluckley on 27 December 1829; we can only imagine how difficult that Christmas must have been for the family.
James found himself widowed at the age of 27 and with two young (very young) children to look after. His mother and two sisters lived in the area but any care that they could provide would only be short-term. What James needed, and needed quickly, was a new wife. Given the hazards of child birth at the time, it was a situation that thousands of young men found themselves in, and the person they so often turned to was the sister of their late wife.
The practice of men and women marrying their sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law has a long and complex history. Marriages between a man and his deceased wife’s sister or his deceased brother’s wife, and between a woman and her deceased’s husband’s brother and her deceased sister’s husband, were forbidden as a result of the ‘Prohibited Degrees of Kindred’ listed in the ‘Table of Kindred and Affinity’ in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
The very commendable aim here was to prevent relationships between close blood relatives but the inclusion of certain relationships by marriage led to a degree of resistance, and many simply ignored the directive. The legal position was that marriages within the ‘Prohibited Degrees’ were voidable, as opposed to automatically void. In other words, such marriages could be declared invalid in a court of law if challenged but were otherwise valid.
The situation came to a head with the passing of the Marriage Act in 1835 under the terms of which these marriages were absolutely prohibited. At the same time, any marriages within the ‘Prohibited Degrees’ which had taken place prior to 1835 were retrospectively validated. It took a number of passionate campaigns over a period of more than 70 years before the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act was finally passed in 1907 removing the prohibition, and it was to take a further 14 years before the equivalent Act was passed enabling marriage between a man and his deceased brother’s widow.
So, when James Philpot married his deceased wife’s sister, Frances, on 29 October 1833, it appeared that there was no serious obstacle to the wedding taking place. James and Frances were married at the parish church of St Mary, Chatham. James was described as a widower and Frances ‘Dail’ as a widow.
But we have to ask why they would choose to travel some 20 miles from their home parish in order to get married. They were accompanied by a man called Joseph Else, a fellow-resident of Pluckley, who acted as one of the witnesses.
There would have been a great deal of effort involved in travelling that distance in the 1830s; it wasn’t something they would have done lightly, particularly when it involved taking a day off work (James and Frances were married on a Tuesday). So why did they decide to do this and, more importantly, why did the local parish authorities in Pluckley (apparently) fail to acknowledge the marriage?
The Pluckley parish registers tell only a small part of the story. Ten months before the marriage, on 9 December 1832, George Philpot, the son of Frances Dale of Pluckley, was baptised. Frances is described as a ‘Labourer’s Wife’ while young George was entered in the register as ‘B. B.’ [i.e. baseborn].
A further six children were born to James and Frances over the next eight years. No baptism has been found for Edward (born c.1834) but the entries in the Pluckley baptismal register for the other five tell an intriguing tale:
|Baptised||Name||Parents||Quality, Trade, or Profession||By whom the Ceremony was performed|
|15 Jun 1835||Joseph||Frances Dale||Labourer’s Wife||Cholmeley Edwd. Dering Rector|
|17 Jul 1836||Stephen||James & Frances Philpot||Labourer||C Boukhardt Offg. Minister|
|11 Jul 1838||Henry||James & Frances Philpot||Labourer||J Mossop|
|12 Jan 1840||Stephen||Frances Dale||Labourer’s Wife||Jn Wm Horsley Curate|
|21 Mar 1841||Jane||Frances Dale||Labourer’s Wife||Jn Wm Horsley Curate|
It’s interesting to note that the three children born after the introduction of civil registration in July 1837 were registered under the name Philpot, showing the mother’s maiden surname as Ralf/Ralph.
The first Stephen died young. He was buried on 23 July 1837 by the rector, Cholmeley Edward Dering. The entry in the register reads ‘Stephen Dale’.
It’s difficult to say exactly what was happening here but it seems that certain clergymen (the Reverend Cholmeley Dering in particular) were not about to allow James and Frances to baptise their children legitimately, while others took a more liberal view – or perhaps simply believed James and Frances when they told them that they were legally married.
But were they? Well, no. A little more digging reveals that the 1833 marriage was anything but valid, for the simple reason that Frances’s husband, Jonathan Dale, was still alive. And this provides the answer to most of our questions. It explains why James and Frances travelled half way across Kent to get married. The Reverend Cholmeley Derring definitely wouldn’t have agreed to marry them and most of their friends and neighbours would have known that Jonathan was still alive. And when Cholmeley Dering and his curate John William Horsley baptised James and Frances’s children under the surname Dale and recorded Frances as a ‘labourer’s wife’ the labourer in question was Jonathan, not James.
So, if Jonathan was still alive, where was he? The answer is that he was on the other side of the world, in the penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
As early as 1820, Jonathan Dale was in trouble with the law. He was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour at the July Quarter Sessions in Canterbury for stealing a whip. Marriage to Frances appears to have had a good influence on Jonathan as he doesn’t appear in the criminal records again until 1828 when he was sentenced to 7 days’ imprisonment for poaching. He was acquitted of burglary at the Kent Assizes in the summer of 1829 but he was back in court again just six months later on a similar charge. And this time he was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation.
After sentencing he was transferred from Maidstone Gaol to the Prison Hulk Retribution and then, on 23 June 1830, he began a four month journey to Van Diemen’s Land on board the Southworth.
Jonathan was assigned to work with a man named George Marshall. His convict record lists a number of instances of ‘disorderly conduct’ and neglect of duty for which he received 25 lashes in September 1832 and 50 more in November the same year. Nevertheless, he was granted a Conditional Pardon in January 1842 and a ‘Free Certificate’ in 1845.
Jonathan seems to have spent the rest of his life in Tasmania. He died on 1 February 1866, in Liverpool Street, Hobart where he had been working as a general dealer.
Meanwhile, back in England, James, Frances and the eight surviving children were living in the Thorne district of Pluckley at the time of the 1841 census. James was a 40-year old agricultural labourer and no occupations were given for any of the others. A closer look reveals another four people listed at the same address but in a separate household. Sarah, William and James Dale, Frances’s three surviving children from her relationship with Jonathan Dale and a 15-year old called Louisa Day, probably working as a servant.
In December 1841, just nine months after their youngest daughter Jane had been baptised (once again, the church authorities refused to recognise their marriage and insisted on her being given the name Dale) James and Frances left Pluckley for ever, travelling across the Atlantic to settle in America.
We can’t know exactly what drove them to leave their homes; to leave the only life they knew and start over again in the USA. Was it the constant reminders that their ‘marriage’ was invalid and that they were living ‘in sin’? Was the refusal to baptise Jane as their legitimate child the last straw?
What did Cholmeley and his kind expect James and Frances to do? They had lived together for at least 10 years. And they’d even tried to ‘do the decent thing’ by going through a formal marriage ceremony. The only thing stopping them from getting legally married was that Frances was married to a man who lived on the other side of the world – a man who she was never likely to see again – and their separation, let’s face it, was hardly something that she had chosen. Of course Jonathan knew the risks involved in his criminal activities but it’s not unreasonable to assume that he was driven to commit the crime through a lifetime of poverty and hardship.
James and Frances needed each other and they were able to provide for each other. Apart from anything else, their mutually beneficial relationship ensured that neither they nor their combined eleven children would become a burden on the poor law authorities, and therefore the rate payers. But Victorian society was too rigid and would rather routinely victimise them and treat them – and thousands of other couples in the same situation – as an underclass. Life for our working class ancestors was, surely, hard enough without this…
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 10 April 2021
Recommended reading: Marriage Law for Genealogists: the Definitive Guide by Rebecca Probert (2nd edition, 2016)