I don’t read a lot of fiction. I don’t need to, because some of the real stories I have come across in documents held in The National Archives are just as exciting and dramatic as any novel.
HO 45/7900 Registration of births, etc: Fraudulent abstraction of a leaf from the registers for St Pancras Parish: baptism of Elizabeth Laura Keeling
A catalogue search for ‘fraud’ turned up an item of Home Office correspondence entitled ‘Registration of births, etc: Fraudulent abstraction of a leaf from the registers for St Pancras Parish: baptism of Elizabeth Laura Keeling’ dated 1866-1867 HO 45/7900. I thought there must be an interesting story behind this incident, so I ordered the file, which turned out to be a long letter of complaint to the Home Secretary from Mr Prickett of Bridlington. He gave a lengthy account of how Captain George Boynton had come to marry Mr Prickett’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann, very much against her parents’ wishes.
George Hebblethwaite Lutton Boynton was one of the youngest of the 13 children of Sir Henry, the 9th Baronet Boynton, and his wife Mary. This was a wealthy family, but since George had three older brothers he was not going to inherit the title, the money or the family home, Burton Agnes Hall. He must have decided at an early age that his best chance of making money would be to marry it. This is exactly what he did, having found himself a young heiress, Elizabeth Laura Keeling. Her father died in 1832 when she was a baby, leaving his substantial fortune to her, his only child. Not only that, he left it to her outright; under the law at that time a married woman had no separate legal existence from her husband, so that if she Elizabeth Laura married, all of her property would now belong to her husband. She was only 17 when she and George were married by licence at St George Hanover Square.
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Petition for decree of nullity of marriage 1863
In 1861 a marriage took place between Henry Wells and Martha Cottam, both of ‘full age’ and after the calling of the banns on three successive Sundays. There was nothing to distinguish this wedding from countless others, but the story that unfolded afterwards was very unusual indeed. Sadly, the marriage was not a success, and in 1863 Mrs Wells petitioned for a divorce on the grounds of her husband’s adultery and cruelty. She alleged that he had not only committed adultery but had given her a venereal disease. He was also violent, having held a loaded gun to her head, and on another occasion hit her on the head with a lobster!
After she filed her petition, and her husband made a reluctant response, no further papers were added to the file. A petitioner might drop a case for all kinds of reasons, perhaps lack of funds, or some kind of out-of-court settlement. Neither was the case here. Instead, a completely new suit was filed a few weeks later, from William Henry Wells against ‘Martha Cottam, falsely called Martha Wells’. William Henry Wells was not her husband, he was her father-in-law, and the petition was not for a divorce, but for a decree of nullity. His contention was that his son, George Henry Wells, was aged only 18 at the time of the marriage, and therefore a minor, unable to marry without his father’s consent, so the marriage had not been valid in the first place. Furthermore, the banns had been called and the marriage performed using only the groom’s middle name, Henry, in a deliberate attempt to avoid detection by his father.