Multiple Wives and a Newsworthy Scandal

Multiple Wives and a Newsworthy Scandal

This post has been written based on the Week 28 and week 29 prompts of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 weeks series.  The prompts for these weeks were Multiple and Newsworthy.  James Davidson fits the bill perfectly.   Read on to find out how.

I first encountered James on the 1901 census.  He was a 41-year-old tailor living in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, with his much younger wife, Elizabeth and their children, Wallace (14), James (12), Maggie (10), Dorothy (9), Tom (6), Donald (5), Olga (3), Mildred (2) and 6 month old Nellie.  I can remember the excitement clearly now.  His oldest boy, Wallace, had taken a bit of pinning down and had already caused me a few problems.  I rather hoped that James would be less of a challenge.  I was VERY sorely mistaken.  James has taken me more years to untangle than all the other relatives in my tree, combined… Well except for two (Evan Evans & William Williams – but perhaps they present a far more obvious problem).

Tracing the census back another decade, to 1891, I felt the confusion rising.  James was living in Bilston, Staffordshire, with his 30-year-old wife, Kate, and their two children, Wallace H (4) and Stuart J (2).  Kate couldn’t have been Elizabeth because they were different ages and different birthplaces.  There was no marriage for James and Elizabeth… but I found the marriage for James and Kate.

The Leicester Marriage

On 25th October 1885, James Davidson married Catherine Eliza Pagett Bown at St Matthew’s Parish Church, Leicester.  James was a 28-year-old bachelor, the son of James Davidson, a station agent.  Kate was a 24-year-old spinster, and the daughter of respectable Henry Pagett Bown,  a Leicester Bell Hanger with familial ties to the Pagett family of Rothley.

The question was, where did Kate go for her not to be on the 1901 census? 

A family rumour

As I furiously googled his name, I came across a Rootschat discussion about the very same James Davidson.  Descendants of James had heard the story that James had brought four children with him from Scotland when his wife went ‘doolally’.  Despite my rational historian brain taking it with a pinch of salt, I felt there must be some truth in there somewhere. 10 years after starting I haven’t found anything to do with the ‘doolally’ bit.

I started searching the newspaper archives and hit gold.

The Trial of the Bigamist

On Saturday, 30th June 1894, James Davidson was sentenced to two weeks of hard labour after being found guilty of bigamy.   As reported in several newspapers at the time, he had admitted to having “feloniously married at Leicester in October 1885”.  

Further reports from earlier in the year detail some of the evidence given at the trial and it makes for uncomfortable reading (and has most definitely caused a stir amongst living descendants). 

James deserted his first wife, Charlotte Joss, “about a dozen years ago after she had borne him four children, one of whom was now dead” 1.  This confirmed that there had indeed been a wife and four children in Scotland, but what happened to Kate?

An unhappy marriage

The trial that took place heard evidence from Kate herself.  She detailed how she met James at her home in Chatham Street, Leicester, their subsequent marriage, and the inheritance from her father that set James up in business as a tailor.  She also denied knowing of a wife still living in Scotland until after their separation in July 1893.  Kate provides a picture of a man who, while treating his children well, showed little respect towards the woman who bore them 2.

Broad Street, Bilston (Source)

Another piece, this time in The Dundee Courier, details what we would now describe as emotional abuse… “He often used to come home drunk, and while in this state he used to say that if she was not satisfied with him, he could bring another woman home who had more right there than she (witness) had.”  Kate lost access to her four children in line with the separation agreement drawn up by James himself  (Sensational Charge of Bigamy, as appeared in The Dundee Courier, Friday 23rd March 1894)).

A week after this, it was confirmed that the marriage in Scotland was indeed legal and correct, and James Davidson had indeed committed bigamy.

The Serial Bigamist

Thanks to the vast number of snippets in various newspapers, I was able to piece together a timeline for James and turned to Scotland’s People to find out information about his first family.

Thanks to SP’s fabulous records, I soon found the marriage of James and Charlotte Joss, the birth of their four children, Walter, James, Isabella and Charlotte, and the death of Walter.   The marriage certificate pointed me towards the early life of James, which in itself is a whole tangled web of mystery. 

Kate has never reappeared, and I’ve almost given up on the idea of locating her… I was, however, able to follow James and his partner, Elizabeth Deane, to Newport, Monmouthshire. 

James and Elizabeth had 12 children together and raised the four borne to him by Kate.  To my knowledge, he never had contact with the three surviving children with Charlotte.  He died in 1941 in Newport, but only after marrying Elizabeth in 1934, and committing bigamy for the second time.

This is a fraction of James’ story, I could write an entire book on him… he’s been a wonderful character to research.

  1. Peterhead Man Charged with Bigamy at Leicester, as appeared in the Aberdeen Evening Express, Friday 23rd March 1894[]
  2. Alleged Bigamy By A Wolverhampton Tradesman, as appeared in The Birmingham Daily Post, Friday 23rd March 1894[]