A 19th Century Scandal: Bigamy?

Updated 14 February 2013

Two of my gg-grandfathers were not living with their respective gg-grandmother when they predeceased their wives (see the other in D.I.V.O.R.C.E).  I like to think it’s because the wives wanted to be happy.  This is the story of the Rose Anne Maria Buxton and James Ebenezer Nicholls.

I’ve already mentioned that the discovery of my Gran’s family’s Bible got me first interested in my family tree.  It also hides one of the best family scandals.  Have a look and see if you can spot it.

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 started out collecting certificates.

The ones for the Nicholls family were relatively easy as I had the Bible to give me names dates and places.  I started with my first English ancestor – my Gran’s father Alfred James Nicholls.  Filling in the form, for some reason, I put his father’s name Alfred in the section on the back.  When I turned up to collect the certificate, the response was “no, the details didn’t match”.  I was sure I had the right entry so I asked to get it anyway.

A few more days later I turned up again to get the certificate.  Imagine my shock when I discovered that Alfred James’ father was not Alfred, but James Ebenezer.  The name was familiar and the first thing I did when I got home that evening was pull out my family tree.  James Ebenezer was there – the younger brother of Alfred!  I should add that the mother was who I was expecting – Rose Anne Maria Buxton (please note there are a number of spelling variations on her name – the e’s and a’s are interchanged depending on the source – this is my variation).

The next day I went and looked at the marriage indexes.  The index reference in 1869 for James matched the one for Rose.  I ordered the certificate and it indeed confirmed that James and Rose had married on 7 June 1859 in Woolich, Kent.

I was perplexed.  What was going on?  There wasn’t really any chance of James being mistaken for Alfred – it wasn’t one of his middle names.  Unless something nefarious like identity fraud was involved.  It’s not that difficult today, and it was even easier back then!

The mystery had to stay on the back burner until I was in Christchurch in early 2000.  There, at the Canterbury Museum, I found some further information which had been submitted by my half cousin Ruth Gardner.  Further research has fleshed out the story a little, but only hints at what really happened.

Alfred was born to John Nicholls and Elizabeth Ludwell in Bermondsey, London in 1841.  Two sisters later, James Ebenezer was born in 1850.  Rose was born a few months before James in late 1849 in Middleton, Norfolk to Robert Buxton and Frances Maw.

Between 1853-57, Rose moves with her family to Woolwich in Kent.  Her father was a shipwright, so it was probably for work at the docks there.

In 1862, Alfred immigrated to Victoria, Australia where he was a teacher.  He is not known to have married there.

Back in London, in 1869 James and Rose married.  They proceeded to have three children – John Robert (1871 – 1917), Louisa Elizabeth (1873 – 1930) and Alfred James (1874 – 1949).  In October 1875, they arrived in Sydney, Australia on the Samuel Plimsoll as Assisted Immigrants.

Then it gets a bit sketchy.  The next fact we had for certain was that in November 1877, Rose gave birth to her fourth child, Ethel.  The father was Alfred and they were living in Akaroa, New Zealand.

What happened?????

The melodramatic gene kicked in (got it from my Aunt – no relation to this scandal).  Had James died, leaving Rose destitute with the only person she knew in the southern hemisphere Alfred?  Had James run off?  Had Rose and Alfred killed him?  Did he consent to his brother running off with his wife?  Or did they just disappear into the night?

James and his family had made it pretty quickly from NSW to Victoria.  There obviously weren’t any constraints on Assisted Immigrants to stay near their destination.  Perhaps they always intended to join Alfred in Victoria and the Samuel Plimsoll was the first ship out.

An amazingly detailed research piece on Alfred’s teaching career in Victoria describes him in October 1876 as having “serious domestic complications” and “leaving the country” (which the researcher thought surely meant district!).

Further research by my Melbourne cousins has filled in some of the blanks.  And the answer appears to be in Tasmania.

Tasmanian Archives have digitized their “ED2 – Applications for Teaching Positions and Associated Correspondence”.  Among the records is an application by Alfred to teach in Tasmania.  It’s dated 21 October, 1876 and his address is given as Hobart Town.  Page 3 of the records is a letter from Alfred giving further details, but as is noted on Page 2, none after 1871.

The remaining pages do not paint the best picture of Alfred (and Rose).  Page 4 is a letter from the Secretary of the Board of Education in Victoria alleging that Alfred left his last school there having embezzled some of the school’s funds.

And then there are the letters from James.

While it’s exciting to see his handwriting, the circumstances that produced it are very sad:

Northern Dairy
Madeline Street
Carlton
Melbourne
November 16 1876

“Dear Sir,

I have just received a letter from the Education Department Melbourne to tell me that my brother Mr Alfred Nicholls has applied to your Board for employment.  I wish to inform you that he is not a fit person to instruct the young while he is leading the life he is, he has run away from the Dimboola State School 1372, he left it on the 12th of Oct/76 came down to Melbourne and took away my wife and three children.  They have robbed me of all they could lay hands on.  If you will be kind enough to comply with my request that is not to give him employment & if you have to dismiss him as my wife has a home to come to which she will be obliged to if he can not get employment.  They are of course living as man and wife.  This is not the first woman he has served like this for he was living with one for seven years and then left her in Sydney and now he has trapped I being a new chum only being out from home one year.

I think he ought to be kicked out of Hobart Town.  This statement is quite true.

I remain Sir
Your Obed Servt,
James Nicholls

To the Secretary
NB If you now his address please to send it to me. JN”

A second letter from James dated 29 November 1876 thanks the Tasmanian Secretary of the Education Dept for not employing his brother.

The next trace of Alfred (and therefore Rose and the children) is in Dunedin, New Zealand.

I’ve always been intrigued by their NZ dates.  There is a news item in the local Otago Daily Times 17 Jan 1877 saying he has been appointed to Mataura Bridge School and another in the Press, Christchurch has him appointed at Akaroa on Dec 22 1876.  (I am assuming there is only Alfred Nicholls which is supported by another article on Feb 20 1877 which has another person being appointed master at Mataura Bridge).  They possibly took the first job that came along – in a nice, rural, isolated spot!

Anyway, Rose and Alfred spent the rest of their lives together in Akaroa and later Christchurch, New Zealand.  The family bible lists 9 children, but only 6 were Alfred’s.  Alfred was father to his brother’s children too.  Their story – according to their daughter Aldyth’s birth certificate, is that they married on James and Rose’s wedding date but in Melbourne.  As they never married, strictly speaking there was no bigamy.

For more on Alfred and Rose, see my cousin Ruth’s blog.

So what happened to James?

We only have hints into what exactly happened between Rose, James and Alfred in 1875-6.  James died in 1924, outliving his brother by 7 years and predeceasing his wife by one.  He was still in Victoria and still legally married to Rose (there is no record of a divorce in Victoria).  [Thanks to the Helpful People on GenForum!]

According to his death certificate (which was completed by Walter Ernest Jensen his “authorised agent” who was present at his death), he had a wife he married in London, two sons and a daughter – details unknown – Rose and his children by her.  So he had never remarried (which would have been bigamous) nor had he had any further children.  I always wonder if he knew where his family went after Tasmania…?

James is buried in Fawkner Memorial Park in the same plot as Charles Edward Jensen who had died in 1919.  Charles was only 45 years old at his death, the son of Carl Jensen and Charlotte Blythe.  From the electoral roll I have found that James was living with Charles’ mother Charlotte and brother James Arthur from at least 1919. Both James’ were tanners.

Further research in Victoria by my Melbourne cousins has found that James had a long relationship with the Jensen family.  A number of their children had the middle name Nicholls and two sons were called Alfred.  As my cousin points out “it would seem James had no hang-ups about the name Alfred” !!!

I only have dates and places for James, so I have no idea what sort of a man he was.  He may have been the innocent party or the guilty one.  It is unlikely we will ever know – unless the Jensen family have passed down a story about him????

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8 thoughts on “A 19th Century Scandal: Bigamy?

  1. Rob McNaughton

    We wondered what happened!! any now we have an idea why. We knew James had ‘dropped’ off the ends of the earth but to where?

  2. Shirley Jensen

    Walter Ernest Jensen is my fraternal grandfather, who was a funeral director. Sorry no stories about James, or anyone else, were passed down to us, as there was a falling out between Walter Earnest and his wife and sons.

    1. Hi Shirley,
      Families are funny like that! Thanks for getting in touch! It’s much appreciated by James’ family that he found a family to take care of him!

      Best wishes,
      Sarah

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