One of the more unusual crimes to reach the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey was bigamy. I say ‘unusual’ because amongst all the violence, theft and fraud it appears to represent a more ‘civil’ offence (legally speaking). Like divorce, or breach of promise, we might have expected it to be dealt with by the civil courts rather than the criminal. But unusual also, because it was rare.
Bigamy was contained within the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 (14 and 15 Vict. c.100) which stated:
Whosoever, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife, whether the second marriage shall have taken place in England or Ireland or elsewhere, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for any term not exceeding seven years.
In 1878 Walter Horace Bartlet, a 22 year-old carpenter living in Friern Park, North London, appeared at Hampstead Police court charged with that offence. Both his wives were in court to witness the hearing but Emma Bartlett (his first and only legal spouse) was not permitted to give evidence under the terms of the legislation on bigamy.
Bartlet’s sister was also present, having been subpoenaed by the police, and she told the court that her brother had married Emma ( neé Hughes) at Handsworth Old Church in Birmingham in May 1878. Walter had left the midlands and come to London for work and had found digs in Finchley where he met Emily Young. Emily was a domestic servant who lived with her mother in North Finchley.
The pair had courted ‘for three or four months’ before Walter popped the question. He never once told Emily he was already married and on the 7 December the couple were wed at St John the Baptist’s church, Hoxton. Poor Emily was informed on her wedding night that her husband was already married and it was her that got in touch with Emma in Birmingham.
In court the women stood side by side in solidarity, both having been wronged by a man that had deceived them. Mrs Emma Bartlett signed the charge sheet and the magistrate formally committed the young carpenter to take his trial at the Old Bailey. On the 13 January Walter pleaded guilty as charged and was sent to prison for twelve months.
The law has changed little since 1861: it is still an offence that carries a prison sentence (although there is now an allowable defence for the person that genuinely believed their former spouse was dead). In 2008 Roderick Sangster (a former Church if Scotland minister) was sent to prison for three years for marrying one woman while still being married to another. He probably didn’t help his case by skipping bail and going on the run, he also ran up large debts in his wife’s name, forging her name on a loan agreement.
As with the Victorian case it was Sangster’s wives that were the victims here, which perhaps help explain why this offence is dealt with alongside others which leave someone hurt, emotionally, physically or financially.
[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 29 December, 1878]
Bigamy was rare but for other articles in which it features see:
Is it better to plead guilty to bigamy than risk prison for debt?
The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)