Runaway Spouses – Naming and Shaming

1753 saw the arrival of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act. This was seen to be a way of banning clandestine marriages once and for all. Parental consent was required for any person wishing to marry below the age of consent, i.e. 21. The marriage had to be conducted in church during the day by a clergyman, banns had to be read or a license issued. Falsification or errors made could result in the marriage being nullified.

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Libary
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Libary

Those unable to afford to buy the license could risk going to a city parish where they would not be known and have the banns published by a clerk, who was perhaps a little less vigilant than in your local area and who might not check the validity of your residence.

If all else failed there was always the option to make the potentially long journey to Gretna Green where, due to a loophole in the law, you could marry with few questions asked, although the validity of such a marriage might be questionable.

Gretna Green, or, the red-hot marriage, c.1795. Lewis Walpole Library
Gretna Green, or, the red-hot marriage, c.1795. Lewis Walpole Library

So, you have found yourself married and now decided it’s not for you. Your wife is nagging you and the children are screaming, the baby is crying. How to escape this intolerable situation. As a woman, there was little choice. Very few mothers would walk away from their offspring and as a wife you were as good as owned by your husband, but for a man, if wealthy you could divorce your wife. If the financial means for divorce were lacking, then one further option was simply to run away.

Before and after marriage
Before and after marriage.

It was, however, a crime in the Georgian Era for men to abandon their wife and family, as by doing so the family would become reliant upon the parish to support them, so it was important to have these men apprehended and returned to the bosom of their family as soon as possible. The way to try and trace these men was by naming and shaming in the newspapers, complete with name, age, occupation and a brief physical description. How many of these men did return home is unknown, but clearly obtaining their safe return was not through lack of trying on the part of the authorities. Here is an example from the Kentish Gazette, October 1st, 1816

Run Away

And left his wife and family chargeable to the parish of Frindsbury, James Apsly, known by the name of ‘Jemmy Rags’, he is about five feet ten inches high, a native of Aylesford, dark complexion, scar on his left cheek and a mole on the tip of his nose. Whoever will give information where he may be found, to Mr Edward Ross, Overseer of Frindsbury, shall, on his apprehension, be rewarded for their trouble.

Women did run away from their husbands, the difference being that if the husband wished his wife to return he would most likely put an advertisement in the local paper, something like this one reported in the Chester Chronicle, September 27th, 1799, along with a comment by the newspaper itself

A man at Condover, near Shrewsbury, advertising his runaway wife, thus concludes:

he will not be answerable for any debts she may contract until she returns to him again, and make him some acknowledgement for her misconduct.

We are at a loss to know what sort of acknowledgement it should be that would entirely satisfy a man in such a situation!

A Nincompoop, or Henpecked Husband. © The Trustees of the British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum

And, from the Leeds Intelligencer July 17th, 1797:

A Runaway wife

Whereas Elizabeth, the wife of me, Eli Baron, of Hunslet, in the parish of Leeds, Pot Vender, has absconded without any cause or provocation of my part:

Notice is therefore hereby given,

That whoever harbours her after this notice will be prosecuted: – she is about fifty-three years of age, broad set and dark complexioned.

He will not be answerable for any debts she may hereafter contract.

As Witness of his hand                                                        Eli Baron

The interesting point to note about many of these appeals for the wife to return is that they appear in almost the same format each time, the man’s priority is not necessarily the safe return of his wife, but that people are publicly made aware that their spouse has left them and that they are therefore no longer financially responsible for them. The majority also seem to wish to share the fact that it was not their fault, that they had done nothing to provoke their wife to leave them.

Husband discovered in act of kissing a maid . Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
Husband discovered in an act of kissing a maid. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
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