A 19th Century Scandal: D.I.V.O.R.C.E

Updated: 27 November 2013 – with a photo of Fanny!

Two of my gg-grandfathers were not living with their respective gg-grandmother when they predeceased their wives (see the other in ‘Bigamy’).  I like to think it’s because the wives wanted to be happy.  This is the story of Fanny Keeling and William Webb Venn (jnr).

Divorce has been relatively prevalent in my family.  My parents’ generation are at 100%+ (it is possibly to get divorced more than once!).  However there is the perception that divorce is a relatively modern phenomenon – that it either didn’t happen or was hidden as an “annulment”.  But it did.

When I was living in London, I worked for a while in Drury Lane.  This was really close to St Catherine’s House and Somerset House where, at the time, lots of genealogical records were held.  At lunchtime I would go and look up dead people.  I did a stint collecting wills of those whose death dates I knew.  They threw up some very interesting personal details – the existence of family portraits and other heirlooms, which daughter married The Wrong Man and the names of siblings, husbands, wives and grandchildren.

My gg-grandfather William Webb Venn (jnr) died intestate and so there is a Letter of Administration for his estate.  I wasn’t expecting much, but the copying charges (then) were so cheap I got it anyway.  And boy, did it spring a surprise:

The marriage of the said intestate with Fanny Venn having been dissolved by Decree Absolute dated the 16thNovember 1869 and the said intestate never having married again.

Divorced!!  I wanted to know more.  In 1869 to get divorced was quite a serious matter.  I also knew that WWV was quite wealthy, so I went down to my local library in Wimbledon to see if I could find out more (this was before the internet!).  The reference library had the indexes to the Times Newspaper and more importantly the newspaper itself on microfiche.  Quite quickly I ascertained that they did report on marriages (yay!) and the index was done quarterly (oh).  But I quickly found the item I was looking for.

I’m quoting the whole Times article here.  It’s not very long and, to be frank, I couldn’t summarise it any better myself.

The Times May 10, 1869, page 11

Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, May 8


Mr Searle appeared for the petitioner

The parties were married in January, 1858, and lived together at Tottenham and afterwards at Lee until June 1868.  In that month Mrs Venn suddenly left her home, and shortly afterwards she was traced to Dublin, where she was living in lodgings with the co-respondent.  It was proved that Mr Ebbs had been the medical attendant of Mr. and Mrs. Venn, and had visited their house as a friend.  Mrs. Venn has since gone to Australia with Mr. Ebbs.  Mr. Venn met them at the docks as they were about to embark and gave Mr. Ebbs a sound thrashing. – Decree nisi with costs.

Well, I thought, perhaps I have some more half-cousins in Australia.  So I got on GenForum and posted a few queries under Ebbs and Australia.  A while later I got a response from a retired schoolteacher in New Jersey and we compared details.  She turned out to be the great-niece of Mr Ebbs and so she was able to fill in many of the blanks.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

William Webb Venn (1838 – 1896) was the oldest (and only surviving) son of William Webb Venn snr (1810 – 1894) and Jane Wilson (c1811 – 1884).  He had six younger sisters – one of whom married The Wrong Man (from WWV snr’s will) and another who married Rev. William Graham Keeling c.1835 – 1905).  The Rev. William had a little sister called Fanny (1837 – 1915) – their parents were John Keeling (jnr) (1796 – 1884) and Maria Howard (1800-1880).

So how were the Venn’s and Keeling’s connected?  They were not related unlike many other of my intermarried branches.  However, in the 1861 census, WWV snr and John Keeling were living a couple of houses apart in White Hart Lane, Tottenham and continued to do so for a number of decades after.  So Fanny was ‘the girl next door’.

WWV and Fanny married in 1858.  He was 19 and she was 20.  Nine months and one day later, they became the parents to Florence Marion.  Two other known children followed:

Thomas Eustace b 1860

Ethel Mary b 1865

When the cracks first started is open to (much) speculation, but the death of Ethel Mary in early 1867 may have been the catalyst for the events summarized in the Times report.  By November 1869 they were divorced.

William’s life after the divorce

WWV never remarried.  In the 1871 Census he lists himself as ‘unmarried’ so the divorce was obviously still smarting!  By 1881, he seems to have gotten over it a bit and lists himself as ‘divorced’.  His surviving children stayed with him until their respective marriages in their mid/late twenties.

By profession, WWV was a notary public and worked for the firm started by his grandfather John Venn – John Venn and Sons.  He seems to have had a career overseeing financial instruments such as bonds for the London Rothschilds.  There are a number of advertisements in the Times and other London newspapers for the Imperial Brazilian Sinking Fund which to modern eyes look a bit dodgy but were probably as sound as anything today (and yes, there was an Emperor of Brazil back then).  He also notarised the 1889 Obock-Perim Cable – part of the Altantic Cable Network.

Fanny’s life after the divorce

Fanny’s life was much more interesting!  For a long time I thought she’d stayed in the UK or Ireland, until I found her in the 1901 England Census.  Her subsequent children had been born in New Zealand!  So she and Mr Ebbs had gotten on that boat.

Initially they lived in Oamaru, Otago.  Dr William Frederick Ebbs (L.R.C.S.L, L.R.C.P.E, L.M. Dublin and Edinburgh) as Mr Ebbs was more properly known started advertising his services there in January 1869 (see the North Otago Times on Papers Past).  Dr Ebbs was an active member of the local Lodge and the Jockey Club and spent quality time committing people to the local asylum!

Where Fanny was at this point is unknown, but probably not far away, probably being his “wife”.   They married on 3 September 1869 – down the coast in Dunedin at the Registry Office.  So a quiet wedding, possibly because she was pregnant?  She may have known about the divorce from her family in London.  But most interestingly, they married at least two months before her divorce was final!  So it was only a little bit bigamous!

Oamaru is on the coast between Christchurch and Dunedin in the South Island.  Today it’s a thriving provincial town with amazing Victorian architecture.  In 1881 it was the seventh biggest town in NZ!  Grain, wool, frozen meat and its port were contributors to it’s ongoing success.  But in 1869, there was the added bonus of GOLD.

Which might explain why after 2 years, in April 1871, they moved north to Wanganui in the North Island (now known as Whanganui).  There’s not much flattering written about gold rush towns!  However, Wanganui was not necessarily a better place.  Dodgy land deals in the 1840’s by the New Zealand Company had led to fighting with the local Maori tribes.  Wanganui had been a garrison town (complete with stockade) since 1847.  This had continued on and off until as recently as 1869.

Fanny and Ebbs had two children Charles Frederick (b. 1870 in Oamaru) and Alice Emily (b. 1872, likely in Wanganui).  There is a third child alluded to in the 1911 census (which lists children born and those still alive) who must have died as a baby.  It’s unlikely she saw her first two surviving children ever again.

According to ads for Ebb’s medical practice, they lived on Victoria Avenue “opposite the English Church”.  It seems all the churches were on Victoria Avenue at that point.  Victoria Avenue is still the main street today but there are no churches anymore.

Two years after arriving in Wanganui, in April 1873, the family returned to the United Kingdom on the Zealandia.  According to the ad for the auction of their personal effects, this was only to be for a few months.  Which is why you’d sell everything up?

They returned to Ireland and lived in Co Waterford.  On the death of his youngest brother in 1876, Ebbs inherited some of the family estate – Leabeg at Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow.  Ebbs died there in 1880 aged only 44.  Perhaps he was ill and wanted to return home.  Or perhaps NZ was not as restful (or civilised) as he’d hoped?!

In December 1885, Fanny and their children left Ireland for Preston, Lancashire.  There they stayed with Ebb’s sister and brother-in-law Elizabeth Martha Ebbs Sibthorp and the Rev Henry James Myler Sibthorp.  There she met her third husband.

Fanny married William Henry Phillips in 1886 in nearby Ashton-on-Ribble .  They had no children, but he had a daughter from a previous marriage. According to the 1901 Census, WH Phillips was a “licensed lay reader” and they were living in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire!  So his job obviously involved some travel.  William (no. 3) died before 1911.

Fanny died in 1915 and is buried in Somerset.

A Photo!

Christ Church Choir c1872 - a photo of Fanny and Ebbs
Wanganui Library (11th Jun 2013). Christ Church choir. In Website Wanganui Library. Retrieved 2nd Dec 2013 10:45, from http://www.wanganuilibrary.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/48

Wanganui Library has put online its digital archives.  In the Harding and Denton Photograph Collection is a photo of the Christ Church choir taken around 1872.  In the back row, third from the left is Dr Ebbs.  In the front row, fourth from the right is Fanny.  You can zoom in on the Wanganui Library website version.  There are also lots of photos of Wanganui from that time including photos of Victoria Avenue.

Some Pop Psychology

This is where I make assumptions about what might have happened!  Some of it is reading between the lines, some based on the societal values at the time.

They married young.  Not that unusual for the time.  But the attitudes of the State towards wives reflected the values of the society of the time.  It wasn’t until the enactment of the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 that women had any rights to their property once they married (which had the interesting effect of increasing the divorce rate!).  Women themselves were viewed as their husband’s property.  Husbands could divorce their wives for adultery under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 but wives could not so easily divorce their husbands.

This could be said to be reflected in WWV’s actions described in the Times report.  How he persuaded (coerced?) Fanny to return from Dublin the first time she and Ebbs ran away is unknown.  Whatever his methods, his actions on their return to London obviously did nothing to keep Fanny with him.  To see Australia/New Zealand as the only option to get away showed some desperation on her part.

So why divorce?  It was a long and expensive process.  WWV was only 31 and so could easily remarry and have more children.  And his wife had skipped the country.  She wouldn’t be so easy to “retrieve” this time.  What else could he do?

Wikipedia has more on Victorian women.

A Sad Postscript

While recently looking through the database for the National Archives, I searched for Venn in their divorce records.  WWV and Fanny’s came up.  Unfortunately, so did a listing for their son William Eustace.  His wife Mabel Smith divorced him in 1900 after 15 years of marriage.  There were no children from that marriage.  He had run off with Mary Christian Bell (only 18 years his junior!).  According to his wife’s divorce affidavit, WE and Mary had a child in 1899 (although I’ve found records to indicate he sadly died the same year) while he was still married to her.  After the divorce WE made an honest woman of Mary by marrying her in late 1901 and they had at least two more children.

It does make you wonder what his childhood with his divorced father was like?  I’m not entirely sure that his sister was that happy in her marriage to Thomas Hughes Hewitt (see Where did the money go?).  I hope as the child of divorced parents I do a little better.

The (possibly) final word from her father

I have recently acquired Fanny’s father’s will.  John Keeling died in August 1884.  His will, written in May 1880, gives a small insight into his reaction to all this.

Firstly, he bequeaths a thousand pounds each to his grandchildren, Eustace and Florence.  He doesn’t mention who the parents are of any of the bequests he makes to his grandchildren!

Then he directs “my trustees to hold the sum of three thousand pounds new three per cent annuities upon trust to pay the income thereof to my daughter Fanny the wife of Frederick Ebbs Esquire for her separate and inalienable use for life. And after her death upon trust for Charles Ebbs and Alice Ebbs (her children) and any other future born child or children of my said daughter if they respectively shall attain the age of twenty one years or die under that age leaving issue and in equal shares if more than one”.

The bulk of his estate is split between her three older siblings – Herbert Howard Keeling, Marion-Howard Mrs Francis and the Rev. William Graham Keeling.  They would have received around £10,000 each – worth between £853k and £12.1 million according to Measuring Worth.

Fanny’s bequest is the same as the one to her brother Thomas Howard Keeling and similar to the one left to her brother John Stanley Keeling.  These were obviously the naughty children.  Not sure what their scandals were.  John Stanley had a bit of shotgun wedding and was in the military (not sure which came first!).  Thomas Howard is living on the Channel Islands with no occupation in the 1881 census, so you can draw your own conclusions on that!

Fanny’s income of about £90/year was worth between £7-109k.  It was probably a help to her during the years between her father’s death and husband number 3.  Alice would have ultimately inherited all of her grandfather’s bequest as her brother Charles predeceased their mother in 1908 leaving no heirs.


7 thoughts on “A 19th Century Scandal: D.I.V.O.R.C.E

  1. MM

    Herbert Howard Keeling 1829-93, was an Ironmaster of the famous King and Queen Ironworks Rotherhithe, and the nephew of Thomas Howard 1796-1872 also an Ironmaster of the same

      1. MM

        I am not a descendent. I live in Rotherhithe, the King and Queen Ironworks of Rotherhithe was of high repute for its products by no less than Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his peers. I have an interest in the history of the works and the owners including Thomas Howard d 1872 and Herbert Howard Keeling.

        Do you have any knowledge of the Works which may of interest?

        1. Sorry, this isn’t a branch I’ve done much research on yet, so I can’t add anything. Do you have anything on the first Thomas Howard (1736-1824)? I believe he had some involvement in the works.


    1. Hi Chris,
      Yes I do – from Ancestry. And the ones for their son William Eustace. They make for very interesting reading!

      Are you related?

      Best wishes,

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