Degrees of affinity in marriage law

At one of the primary schools I attended, the Book of Common Prayer was in use, and during school assemblies, I would  page through the book, absorbing the forms and language of the Anglican rituals.  There was much to intrigue me and to arouse my curiosity.  What could ‘the churching of women’ possibly be? It was thus that I became aware of the ‘table of kindred and affinity’ which specified the types of relationships for which marriage was prohibited.   The prohibited relationships included close blood relatives (kindred) and people who were already related as in-laws (affinity).

Recently, when exploring aspects of marriage law, I touched upon the question of prohibited relationships with one of my family history groups. “Who,” I asked them, “could a man not marry?”  It’s a long list so I added I would be happy with a minimum of ten responses.  Once someone had tentatively ventured a prohibition that hadn’t automatically occurred to them (“a man could not marry his grandmother”), getting to ten became more achievable.

One of the relationships which I have long known is no longer prohibited, is the marriage of a man to his widow’s sister. My great aunt, Gertie, married the widower of her sister, Kate in 1947, three years after Kate’s death, and only a few months before he  died.  Such a marriage was no longer the ‘annual blister’ and had been valid in England and Wales, since 1907, though, I understand, even after that act, the clergy retained the right to refuse to marry a couple whose relationship was within that degree of affinity.  Gertie, the youngest of five sisters, had been part of their household for decades, her mother having died shortly after Gertie’s thirteenth birthday.

Earlier this week, I began putting together the background of Frederick Joseph Edmund Carter, a young Home Guard, who, while on duty, drowned in 1942 at Teddington Lock. As I worked on this, I came across the marriage, in church, in 1903, of a man to his deceased brother’s wife.

That marriage took place four years before the eventual passing of the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act (1907). Tolerance regarding the marriage of a widower to his deceased wife’s sister had been growing throughout Victoria’s reign but even so it was not until some years after the Queen’s death that an act was passed to allow such a marriage.  The case ‘for’ was helped by the Biblical account of Jacob’s marriage, first to Leah and then to her sister, Rachel.

The repeated calls for the law to be changed were even echoed in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe:

He shall prick that annual blister
Marriage with Deceased Wife’s sister.

The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act was not accompanied by the passing of a similar act enabling a man to marry his brother’s widow. It was not until 1921 that such a marriage became lawful with the passing of the Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act so the marriage of this couple took place 18 years before the act which would have removed the prohibition on that marriage.

When, in 1903, William James Neighbour,  (1875–1936) married Jane Ann East (1864–1953), the widow of his brother, John Thomas (1861–1897)   their marriage could well have been challenged and they ran the risk of a third party bringing an action to have the marriage annulled.  Jane married John in the Church of St Thomas, Bethnal Green, not far from her native parish of Shoreditch, in 1883.  He died in Chelsea in 1897.

William had married his first wife, Minnie Eliza Harper, in Christ Church, Chelsea, in 1895.  They had one child, Lilian, who died aged 1, in 1898, also in Chelsea.  Minnie’s death was registered in Chelsea in the last quarter of 1900.  The 1901 census, taken on 31 March, has Minnie’s widower in the household of his sister-in-law, Jane, and her children at 31 Caversham Street, an address which had previously been the home of John and William’s parents and where the brothers had grown up.

When John Thomas died, his widow was expecting their youngest child, Violet, and would have needed support to raise her young family. What could be more natural than that William would return to his parents’ old home after the death of his wife in 1900.  Indeed William and Minnie, who had been living nearby in Manor Street, at the time of the birth of their daughter, might have moved to Caversham Street, to be with Jane and her children after the death of her husband.

Just over two years later, William and Jane were married in the Parish Church of St Mark, Old Street.  The bride and groom gave their address as 8 Huntingdon Street.  Within a few years the couple had returned to Chelsea, where the youngest of their two children was born, and where the couple lived until at least 1934 when they last appeared on the Electoral Roll for Kensington and Chelsea.  By the time of William’s death, in April 1936, the family was living at 137 Tudor Drive, Ham.

The validity of the marriage does not appear to have been challenged before such a marriage became legal, so, under marriage law, can confidently be regarded as valid.

Note for descendants of Joseph Neighbour and his wife Elizabeth East

In resolving some of the anomalies discovered in attempting to match Frederick Carter to the couple living at 137 Tudor Drive, I was able to find out a little more about the descendants of Joseph Neighbour (1830–1896) and his wife Elizabeth East (1830–1894) than appears on some online family trees.  If you are a relative, I will certainly share this information with you, should you wish to have it.