First, another plug for Secret Lives, another major conference from the inimitable Halsted Trust in collaboration with AGRA, the Society of Genealogists and the Guild of One Name Studies. This will be held at Hinckley, in Leicestershire (31 August–2 September 2018). It’s an opportunity not to be missed and Early Bird bookings are still available.
In my own research it’s Secrets and Lies that seem to be heading my way—or perhaps I’ve just got a bit smarter at anticipating them. Recently it was a succession of examples of marriages within the prohibited relationships, about which I have already posted.
More recently still, it’s been finding evidence of a bigamous marriage. One such marriage has a link with the grandfather of Walter Stanley Benson, one of the men on the Parish War Memorial in Ham, Surrey. Stanley was the grandson of Thomas Benson, a Potato Dealer, who lived for many years at Malt House Cottage, Ham Common. His records identified his father as Walter Benson.
Because Stanley’s service records are missing, only military documents relating to his death are available. They give Stanley’s first name as Frederick, and the match seemed open to question since there were Frederick Bensons of military age in Ham. Consequently the research was taken back to earlier generations in order to eliminate cousins, uncles and others with that name as candidates for this particular soldier. And that’s how the bigamy was discovered.
In the 1891 and 1881 Censuses, Walter’s parents, Thomas and Sarah Benson, appeared as ‘head’ (of the household) and ‘wife’ respectively, with their Benson children. In 1871 however, Sarah Fisher was the ‘housekeeper’, and some of the Benson children appeared as Fishers. Walter Benson was there as Walter Fisher—his birth registration was subsequently found as Walter Benson Fisher. In 1861, the census return showed that Thomas was ‘married’ and presided over a household which included five young Bensons aged from 15 down to 4, a housekeeper named Sarah Fisher, and two young Fishers, Emily (3) and Joseph (1 month).
Who was the wife missing in 1861 and 1871, and why could I not find a marriage for Thomas and Sarah between 1871 and 1881? I dug further.
About 15 years before Walter’s birth, Thomas Benson had arrived in Ham with his wife, Mary Ann Martin, and two children of that marriage. Mary Ann, the daughter of a wheelwright, Thomas Martin and his wife, Sarah, had been born in the parish of Ham on 9 February 1824 and baptised in Kingston the following month. She married Thomas Benson, then a butcher, in 1845 at St Mary’s, Sunbury, despite her birth in Ham, when he was 23 and she was 21. Thomas and Mary Ann moved to Ham, towards the end of the 1840s, with two children, another six being born in Ham. The last of these, Frederick James Benson, was born on 7 July 1856.
Mary Ann’s absence from the household in the 1861 census, where Thomas was clearly recorded as ‘Married’, did not, initially, seem particularly unusual. Perhaps she was visiting relatives? Perhaps Thomas had a housekeeper because his wife was incapacitated?
It is understandable that, following Mary Ann’s departure, and with an infant in the household, Thomas would have looked for domestic help. At some point—whether before or after Mary Ann’s departure is not clear—Thomas embarked on a relationship with Sarah, the daughter of an agricultural labourer, William Fisher who lived a few doors away in Ham Street. By the time Sarah’s son, Walter, was born in 1863, Sarah had already given birth to three children—Emily (3), Henry and Joseph. These births were all registered in Kingston under the surname Fisher.
As each Fisher child had a turn to create further civil records, the Fisher was quietly shed. In 1882 Emily Fisher married as Emily Benson, a full two years ahead of her parent’s eventual marriage. Any doubts about her parentage were further reduced by the identification of her father in the marriage register, as ‘Thomas Benson, Potato Dealer’.
Emily’s birth was registered in the first quarter of 1858 which means she was born between about mid-November of 1857 and 31 March 1858. If Thomas was Emily’s father, then his relationship with Sarah Fisher must have begun during the first half of 1857. This cannot have been much more than 9 months after the birth of Thomas’s last child by Mary Ann Martin, Frederick James Benson, who was born on 7 July 1856.
In time, the children christened as Benson Fisher swapped the two surnames round—marrying, for example, as Fisher Benson. Emily and Arthur, given simply the surname Fisher when registered, subsequently added Benson. Eventually, in 1885, only seven years before Sarah’s death, Thomas did marry his long-term long-suffering housekeeper.
In preparing my piece on Walter Stanley Benson, I decided to ‘kill off’ all seventeen of his father’s full and half siblings whom I had not married off, and/or killed off already. It’s basic family reconstitution, about which I can—and do, elsewhere—go on and on. My U3A groups have learnt to anticipate that I’m going to prod them to reconstitute their family groups—they’ve learnt it’s trouble taken that will pay back.
While following up Thomas’s other children, I duly found Mary Ann’s daughter, Mary Ann Benson, in the 1871 Census, in Hammersmith. She was there as ‘step-daughter’ in the household of George Hedger, a brewer, and his wife, Mary Ann Hedger. Mary Ann Hedger’s birthplace matched that of Mary Ann Martin, though not her age. Subsequently it became clear that she was at least eleven years older than her second husband, which might explain the fudging.
Indeed, at the time of the 1861 census over which I had puzzled, Mary Ann and George been ‘married’ for about six weeks. All Mary Ann’s surviving children by Thomas were living with their father in 1861, with their mothering needs, and those of her own children, presumably catered for by his “housekeeper”.
Please click on the image below to enlarge it.
The entry in the Hammersmith Marriage Register for Mary Ann’s bigamous marriage.
Notice that Mary Ann declared herself to be a spinster, and stated that her father was Thomas Benson, with “Dead” under the heading of occupation. Thomas Benson was her husband, not her father, and he was anything but dead. Perhaps she was thinking of her father, Thomas Martin, who was dead? If the latter, the problem here was, that having lied about her marital status, and perhaps having already become known in Hammersmith as Mary Ann Benson, she could not easily switch surnames for this public event. One small fib almost always leads to additional fibs in support of the story.
While Mary Ann Martin had given her age correctly in 1845, when she married Thomas, in 1861, the couple were simply declared to be of full age. Having found Thomas with his “housekeeper” in 1861, I’d been pretty quick to pass judgement on Thomas. Finding Mary Ann with George, casts a different light on this. Who bolted first?
Here are the ages provided for Mary Ann in various official records, with what I estimate was her ‘true’ age in square brackets. At Mary Ann’s baptism on 28 March 1824, her birthdate is given as 9 February 1824.
6 June 1841: 15 [17, but fair enough, ages were rounded down].
12 May 1845: 21 .
30 March 1851: 25 .
24 February 1861: Full .
7 April 1861: 24 .
2 April 1871: 40 .
1876: age at death, 45. .
This fudging of her age certainly made Mary Ann more difficult to find when I started this research some years ago. Did George Hedger know that he had been party to a bigamous marriage?
Mary Ann died in 1876, so why did it take so long for Thomas to marry Sarah? No, they weren’t married at the time of the 1881 Census. That didn’t happen for nearly ten years.
Isn’t it often true that you solve one mystery, and a whole new set of questions bubble up?
More on the Bensons
Frood, M.W., ‘Walter Stanley Benson’, https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2018/01/25/walter-stanley-benson-1891-1915/, accessed 30/1/2018.
Frood, M.W., ‘Challenges in matching a name on a War Memorial with the correct military record’, https://www.discoveryourfamilyhistory.com/family-history/unravelling-an-error-on-a-parish-war-memorial/, accessed 30/1/2018.
Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists: The Definitive Guide (Kenilworth, 2012) is what its title says. It’s also lucid and fascinating.
London Metropolitan Archives, Dl/DRO/BT Item, 062/039, Saint Mary, Sunbury On Thames: Surrey, Transcript of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1845 Jan-1845 Dec, 12 May 1845.
London Metropolitan Archives, P80/PET, Item 007, Saint Peter, Hammersmith, Register of marriages, 24 February 1861.