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.


The Other John Key

As it’s  election year here in New Zealand, I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of the other John Key – my 3rd great grand uncle.  This is a story of research and proof that there’s nothing new under the sun!  No similarity to persons living is intended!!  And as far as I’m aware, there is no relationship between either JK.

Fairly early on in my family research I discovered that the uncle of my gg-grandmother Mary Sophia Key had been a Lord Mayor of London – Sir John Key, Bt; brother of my ggg-grandfather Jonathan Muckleston Key.  It helped immensely that he was a ‘Bt’ as the Key family lineage was to be found in various Baronetcy books.  My research into Sir John was limited to these and biographies such as the one found on www.london-city-history.org.uk :

Key, Sir John (1794-1858)

wholesale stationer and reformer was one of the lasts links to City radicalism. Born 16 August, the eldest son of John Key of Denmark Hill, he joined his fathers business in 1818. Originally located at 30 Abchurch Lane as John Key and Sons they moved finally to 97 and 103 Newgate Street. He married Charlotte Green and they had one son and three daughters.

No stranger to the City’s streets, he became an Alderman for Langbourn ward in 1823 and for Bridge Street Without in 1851. He formally retired just two years later, by which time he could look back to an illustrious career in City politics. In 1824 he was Sheriff for London and Middlesex, Master of the Stationers’ Company and in 1830 and 1831, Lord Mayor. Famously, during his second Mayoralty, he advised William 1V and Queen Adelaide not to attend the opening of the new London Bridge fearing violence against the Duke of Wellington and for this decision became the target of popular satire. He went on to be presented with a Baronet at the end of his term of office by the King and was elected to parliament to represent the City between 1832 and 1833, when he finally accepted the Chilton Hundreds. Demonstrating his reformist credentials, he supported the abolition of slavery, the repeal of part of the assessed taxes, abrogation of the Corn Laws, the adoption of triennial parliaments and the vote by ballot. Earlier he had expressed enthusiasm for the extension of the franchise. His most arduous test came, however, when he fought Benjamin Scott for the post of City Chamberlain in 1853. In a bitterly contested election, Key finally won through polling 6,095 and beating his rival by just 275 votes. When he died after suffering for some days with gout on 15 July 1858, Scott succeeded him to that prized office.

A fairly straight-forward life really.  Nothing particularly interesting in it at all – another politician uncle (there are others in my tree).

Thus I moved onto more perplexing things – where had the Muckleston come from in my ggg-grandfather’s name?  It wasn’t a maternal surname and no one else had it in their name.  So I kept searching for him wherever I went.

One day in the National Library in Wellington, I went searching for him in the Times newspaper archive.  The search came up with an article with the enticing title of “First Report from the Select Committee on the Stationery Contract”.  Stationery was the Key family business.  The date – August 26 1833.

The fourth paragraph of the article states that the facts of the allegations are “so notorious that your committee deemed it unnecessary to examine witnesses to that point”.  What….?!!  Fortunately, being a newspaper, they kindly gave a full run down of the allegations which culminated in Sir John “accepting” the Chilton Hundreds after only 2 years as an MP.

So what is the Chilton Hundreds?  Its full title is Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham.  From my research, I like to think of it as “the naughty seat”, although it’s not really a seat.  In Britain, while you can resign your seat, you can’t resign from Parliament.  Instead you are appointed to an “office of profit under The Crown” which disqualifies you from sitting as an MP.  This dates from 1624 when MP’s were often elected “against their will” (see Wikipedia for more information).  The last MP to “accept” the Chilton Hundreds was Eric Illsley who resigned before he was due to be sentenced for dishonestly claiming parliamentary expenses.  Other recent incumbents include Tony Blair and John Profumo.  (okay, I have picked the more scandalous ones – ill health and appointments to more interesting jobs have also been the reason for “accepting”).

So what did Sir John Key, Bt do to end up in the “naughty seat”?  The Select Committee were looking at two things:

  • The contract entered into in June 1832 between the Government Stationery office and Jonathan Muckleston Key, and,
  • The appointment of Mr Kingsmill Grove Key to the situation of the storekeeper of the Stationery office.

Sir John had given the Government stationery contract to his brother Jonathan.  Jonathan had turned up to sign on the dotted line, but that was the limit of his involvement.  Sir John provided the bills and wrote all the required correspondence.  Therefore Jonathan was considered the “nominal contractor” and Sir John the real one.

Further research online found the Hansard for August 5 1833 (see Google Books).  Sir Robert Peel (creator of the ‘Peelers’ – the first Police) states:

That Act contained provisions declaring, that no man entering into any contract for the supply of articles for the public use should have a seat in Parliament, and that no man in Parliament should enter into any such contract, and retain his seat; and it further declared, that “in every such contract, agreement, or commission, shall be inserted the condition that no Member of the House of Commons shall be admitted to have directly or indirectly, any share in the gains, profits, or benefits arising there from.”


But not content with that, when the position became vacant, Sir John’s son Kingsmill Grove King Key was appointed the storekeeper of the Stationery office.  The storekeeper’s job was to inspect the incoming stationery supplies and ensure they were of appropriate quality.  Sir John told Charles Wood, the secretary to the Treasury who made the appointment that his son was “of age”.

Kingsmill is described to the Select Committee as “a youth of 18 or 19 years of age, not legally competent to give the necessary bonds of security, or qualified to perform the official duties of a situation requiring a knowledge of the that stationery business, only to be obtained by experience.

Oops again!

So how did this all come to a head?  Reports relating to the goings on in Parliament on 5 August 1833 can be found in the Hansard and The Parliamentary Review And Family Magazine (PRFM) (again on Google Books).  PRFM reports that, unlike the important matters of the day, the Sir John Key case “drew crowds of anxiously curious and enquiring members to the House at an early hour”.  Nothing like having one of your local MP’s getting in trouble to attract a crowd!

Hansard reports that Sir Henry Hardinge (MP for Launceston) presented to Parliament a petition by other stationers “twenty-six or twenty-seven in number”.  This petition made the allegations above.   However, from PRFM it would appear that Sir John had already “accepted” Chilton Hundreds and “and a salary, we believe, of ten shillings a-year, or some such magnificent sum”.  It goes on to say “Sir John has, by vacating his seat, tacitly admitted that he values the profits of a Stationery Contractor more highly than the honour of being one of the Representatives of the first City in the world, and a Senator of the Land”.

Sir Henry got his select committee, but PRFM implies that by letting Sir John accept the Chilton Hundreds he got away with it.

Fraser’s magazine for Town and Country (also on Google Books) of September 1833 provides another interesting insight.  “Don” Key (as they refer to Sir John) “was desirous of procuring for his hopeful heir the benefits of the Stationers’ Company, as a freeman of that very rich corporation”.  Stating that his son was 21, the Stationers’ Company checked Sir John’s marriage certificate and came to the conclusion that “Eighteen years and three months, therefore, was the full age of the boy, unless Oh! the Don Key!”  Already annoyed by the contracts going to his brother, the Stationers’ Company had dobbed Sir John in by petitioning Parliament.

All this scandal doesn’t seem to have affected Sir John much (when was Teflon invented?).  Despite Fraser’s suggesting “that the city, if it have any sense of honour left, should strip him of his aldermanic gown and chains”, as detailed in his biography above he continued to hold offices in the City of London until his death in 1858.

His son Kingsmill lived to inherit the Barontcy which died out with his grandson Sir Kingsmill James Key in 1932.  You can read more about the Grove family (Sir John’s gt-uncle), Sir John and his son Kingsmill on the Thornbury House website.

Jonathan (1806-1888) had apparently “retired” from the family business by 1832 (aged 26!).  In the 1861 census his occupation is “Commissioner of the Lieutenant of the City of London for Taxes”.  And I did eventually find the origins of the Muckleston – it came from his godfather and (rich) family friend Joseph Muckleston.

And thanks to one of John Key’s descendents, we have a political caricature of Sir John, Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington.  I don’t think it’s a true likeness of Sir John 😉