Gretna marriages – and a man with eight wives

Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage. Only sometimes, there is more than one horse!

Henry VIII is most famous for having six wives – but while adultery didn’t bother the Tudor king, he went to extreme lengths to ensure he only had one wife at a time. 

A man called William Wardle, in the mid-1800s, wasn’t so fussy. He was brought before the Gloucester assizes in April 1853, accused of bigamy, having married no fewer than eight wives in different parts of the country.

Seven of them were brought to Gloucester, to the delight of the curious public. However, the public were doomed to disappointment, as Wardle pled guilty, so there was no ‘juicy’ trial. Sentence was adjourned till May, when he was jailed for seven years.

One report did name six of the ‘harem’ and where Wardle married them: Ellen Wormsley, Manchester; Sarah Martin, Walsall; Elizabeth Perkins, Walsall; Matilda Graft, Birmingham; Mary King, Isle of Man; and Hannah King, Dymock, Gloucestershire. 

Irregular marriages – and bigamy

When Thomas Atkinson married Ann Reay at Addingham’s parish church in 1839, he had ‘just’ the one wife already. Mind, he was only 21.

The court case at Cumberland Assizes heard from Simon Beattie, who kept the toll bar at Sark, near Gretna, and explained how Gretna marriages worked. 

Beattie said that when a couple came before him, he’d ask each of they were single, and then if they agreed to live together as man and wife.

And apart from first agreeing with them how much they’d pay him, that was all there was to a Gretna marriage!

Atkinson had come before him the previous October, with a young woman named Agnes Rogers. He’d married them, and given them certificates, although that wasn’t necessary. If they went before witnesses, Scottish law ruled they were man and wife.

A Scottish advocate then told the court there were two forms of marriage in Scotland: regular ones, in front of a minister, and; irregular ones, when two persons agreed to live together, in the presence of witnesses.

No oath was necessary for it to be a legal marriage. A declaration at a tea party, for example – a man saying “this is my wife” – was all that was necessary, even if the pair had never met till that moment.

Other witnesses then gave evidence that Thomas Atkinson and Agnes Rogers had lived together as man and wife in Penrith. The churchwarden of Addingham gave evidence of the second marriage.

Atkinson was convicted of bigamy and jailed for six months, with hard labour. The name is too common to trace him, but if he was only 21 at his second marriage, it seems fair to guess the first was a youthful impulse, carried out when he was still 20 and under age for a church marriage in England without parental consent.

Gretna marriages and time to repent

In 1857, a cooling off period was introduced: couples had to live in Gretna for three weeks before they could marry. And in 1940, irregular marriages were stopped. However, civil marriages can now be carried out at approved venues and the ‘romance’ of Gretna means thousands choose to marry there every year.

1857 was also the year of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, which established marriage as a civil contract and introduced a civil court to handle divorce. This made it at least a little simpler and cheaper to divorce.

A life sentence

Cases of desertion also caused a stir. The authorities frowned on a man deserting his wife if she then become dependant, money-wise, on the parish. In August 1880, it was noted there had been 146 cases of wife desertion in the Burnley district in the previous six months.

The cases also made for a ‘good story’, such as that in 1872 of one Edward Morgan, arrested at Burnley, who’d run off from his wife and family with a girl of 16, reported to be pregnant. Edward was sentenced to three months in prison with hard labour. Other ‘popular’ accounts include a man who faked his own death, and one who left his wife and children to become a monk.

But it wasn’t always dastardly men! In 1859, William Brown, of Greenock, insisted it was his wife Mary who had deserted him. They’d been living unhappily together, she’d spent time in prison on a criminal charge, and was a drunkard. He agreed to support the wife and ‘her infant child’.

The sheriff’s words make it very clear: whatever her conduct, they were still legally and morally bound to each other. An unhappy marriage was truly a life sentence.

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