The Village Wedding, Thomas Falcon Marshall

A complicated case of 18th century bigamy

Earlier this week we took a look at bigamy cases heard at the Old Bailey and next we have the case of Maria Edkins, one of the 5 who was found guilty of bigamy.

In the September of 1794, a young Welshwoman was convicted of bigamy. She went by a bewildering variety of names, and could be a Mary, a Maria or an Anne Maria, and might have originally borne the surname Jones although she could also have been a widowed Mrs Wettenhall or Whittenhall when her adventures began. Born around 1768, she had a dark complexion, dark brown hair and hazel eyes; she stood 5ft 3”.

In 1789 Maria (we’ll go with that name) was lodging with a Mrs Gibblet (you really couldn’t make this up!), posing as a widow with £20/year to live on, and using Maria Jones as her name. She was visited by a young music master named George Edkins of Hungerford Market, and a marriage swiftly followed.

11 Aug 1789 - Maria Jones George Adkins

The wedding took place in St James the Less Thorndike in Westminster on the 11th August 1789, after banns, in the presence of two witnesses, Samuel Bride and Jane Wilson. The marriage register does not record if Maria married as a spinster or not, and unless she reduced her age when she was subsequently charged with bigamy, she was only around eighteen or nineteen years of age. Almost four years later Mrs Maria Edkins was involved in a fracas when she was assaulted by a woman named Dorothy Booth who had tried to steal from her, and George was named as her husband in the records relating to that.

Around the same time as this assault, Maria reputedly met a man named William Jonathan Slark whilst walking in the street. An attachment followed, together with a marriage. Both parties gave a different version of the events leading up to the wedding: Maria said Slark was most insistent on marrying her, and got her drunk on the morning of the wedding and Slark countered with the information that Maria had threatened to remove into a convent if he did not make her his wife.

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library
Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

And so, at St James in Clerkenwell, the banns were read and another wedding took place, this time on the 6th April 1794, with the bride named as a spinster on the banns. If this was indeed Maria, she married under the name of Ann Maria Wettenhall, and the marriage was witnessed by John Garth and W[illia]m Chaplen or Chapel, the clerk and sexton of the church.

William Slark 1794

William Slark’s father was an eminent city merchant, and was horrified to find his son had married (Maria was described as a woman of ‘easy virtue’ at her trial). As we had differing accounts of the contraction of the marriage, we now have two different versions of the events leading up to the trial.

Either, William Slark’s father turned detective, investigated his new daughter-in-law’s former life and discovered the first marriage, or Slark set the whole thing up, and the Ann Maria Wettenhall who married William Slark was not the Mary Jones who had married George Edkins five years earlier. For Maria insisted that William Slark wanted to be released from his hasty marriage to marry a lady of fortune with £5,000, and he had advertised for a woman named Wilson, and then persuaded a woman to pretend to be the Jane Wilson who had witnessed Edkin’s marriage and to identify Maria Wettenhall/Slark as the bride from 1789. If Maria could be proved a bigamist, his marriage would be no marriage and he could freely marry his heiress.

Maria stoutly denied ever having married George Edkins: she said she had married a Mr Wettenhall (or Whittenhall) in Paris, and her first husband had been dead for between twelve and eighteen months when she met Slark. Unfortunately for Mary, witnesses were brought to disprove her testimony. Jane Wilson, now Jane Moore (she had married John Moore at St James Clerkenwell in May 1794, six weeks after William and Maria Slark’s marriage) took the stand (and denied conspiring with Slark for a cut of the £5,000 fortune of the unnamed young lady Maria said he wished to marry), Mrs Gibblet appeared and swore that Maria Slark was the young Mary Jones who had lodged with her and said that the new Mr and Mrs Edkins, together with Jane, had returned to her house after their wedding. Finally Edward Parry, a schoolmaster living in Down Street, Piccadilly, had been appointed to give Mary Jones away at her marriage to Edkins but she had been late and he had left the church before times, but he too swore that it was the same woman who stood in the dock charged with bigamy.

With all the evidence against her, Maria was found guilty of bigamy and sentenced to six months imprisonment in Newgate and fined a shilling. We should probably hold our hands up here and say we’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for Maria through our research into her life; while she was, on the balance of evidence, guilty as charged, she was certainly ‘a trier’.

A slightly later image of Newgate by George Shepherd
A slightly later image of Newgate by George Shepherd


Branded for Bigamy

Proceedings of the Old Bailey always make for interesting reading, so here are some statistics about the crime of bigamy.

Did you know that between 1750 and 1800 there were over one hundred cases for bigamy, of which 86 cases were against males, 55 of whom were found guilty, 31 not guilty or case dismissed? Interestingly, of the 55 men who were found guilty their sentences were as follows:

15 Branded

30 Sentenced to various periods in prison

7 were transported

2 were fined

and one had no sentence recorded.

There were 19 cases against women who had allegedly married a second time twice whilst still married to their first husband, we had no idea is was such a common occurrence.

However, looking at these 19 cases we have only found 5 that were found guilty, if not found guilty then their case was simply dismissed. Those who were found guilty were given the following punishment –

Sarah Baker (branded)

Catherine Martin (prison),

Jane Allen (branded),

Maria Edkins (sent to House of Correction)

and Lucy Ahier (prison).

So with that we thought we would take a quick look at one of the five women that were found guilty – Jane Allen.

This case took place on 29th June 1785 with William Garrow, who had only been called the the Bar just over a year before, acting for the defendant.

Mezzotint of Sir William Garrow, 1810, held in the Harvard Law Library
Mezzotint of Sir William Garrow, 1810, held in the Harvard Law Library

On the 1st December 1782 Robert Allen, a butcher, married Jane Watson at Wapping church, Tower Hamlets, nothing exciting or unusual about that you would think, a perfectly normal marriage.

Jane Watson first marriage 1782 - bigamy

The problem arose when only two years later Jane, at St. Martin’s in the Fields, Middlesex, on the 1st September 1784, claimed to be a spinster when she married for a second time, her second husband being one Charles Burton. The problem with her second marriage being that her husband Robert Allen was still very much alive, thereby making her a bigamist.

Jane Watson 2nd marriage 1784

The court heard that Jane had lived with Robert as his legal spouse and Robert produced witnesses who were able to corroborate this.

Jane’s defense was that during the time she was married to Robert that he treated her in a most brutal manner, and forced her to submit to prostitution to maintain him before he abandoned her. Unfortunately the court found Jane guilty of bigamy and her sentence was to be branded.

Anyone convicted of a crime and sentenced to branding would be branded on the thumb with the letter ‘M’ to denote a ‘malefactor’ or ‘evil-doer‘, also,  slightly confusingly, ‘M’ for murder, ‘T’ for theft, ‘F for felon. Branding took place in the courtroom at the end of the sessions in front of spectators with a hot iron. It is alleged that sometimes criminals convicted of petty theft, or who were able to bribe the goaler, had the branding iron applied when it was cold.

Normal practice was that the gaoler raised the person’s hand and showed it to the judge to denote that the mark had been made.  It became the rule that before a prisoner was tried he was required to raise his hand so that it could be seen whether he bore the brand mark and was therefore a previous offender.

Being nervous and cross examined by Mr Garrow, 1807.
Being nervous and cross examined by Mr Garrow, 1807 (British Museum)

Sources used:

Old Bailey Online

London Lives April 1793

London Lives  October 1793 – September 1794

London Lives June 1785

The Old Bailey. Microcosm of London.

A sordid tale of bigamy and attempted murder in Georgian London

On the 19th October 1739 Philip Blake, around 30 years of age and by trade a gardener, married Sarah Perkins at St Saviour’s Church in Southwark. The marriage lasted little more than two or three years before the couple parted, with Sarah accusing her husband of behaving badly towards her.

Many years later, on the 17th July 1762, Blake married again, notwithstanding his first wife still being alive. His wife by this second bigamous marriage was a widow, Phillis Ewen or Ewens of Brompton, Kensington, and the couple married in the church there.  Phillis, like Sarah before her, was ill used by her husband. She was eventually approached by a gentlewoman, a stranger to Phillis but someone who knew the history of her husband and knew how he treated his wife. This stranger gave Phillis the shocking news that she was no wife at all, that a first Mrs Blake was still living in Southwark. Phillis enlisted a friend, a Mr Nicholas Osbourn or Osborne, a gentleman and a neighbour of hers, to establish the truth of the matter. Osbourn straight away examined the parish registers of St. Saviour’s in Southwark on behalf of Phillis and, on finding out that everything the stranger had told her was true, Phillis brought a case against her supposed husband for bigamy.
Two images of Southwark via

The case was heard at London’s Old Bailey on the 24th February 1768. Philip Blake’s defence, that he did not know Sarah Perkins and that he was not the person that had married her was not believed and a guilty sentence was passed down by the judge. The punishment for bigamy was to be branded in the hand with a hot iron, and that sentence was duly carried out, marking Philip Blake as a bigamist to the end of his days.

Phillis Ewen went back to her home to rebuild her life. She lived on Brompton Lane, opposite the Bell public house in Kensington (probably the Bell and Horns which stood on the corner of Brompton Road and Brompton Lane) and kept a small market garden which was no doubt where Philip Blake, a gardener, had worked. Blake’s adult son, possibly from his marriage with Sarah Perkins, had lived with the couple and still lived with Phillis even after the departure of his father from the former marital home.

Late in April 1768 Phillis received a message from Blake; he begged that she would come to see him at his lodgings by Nibe’s pound near Oxford Road for he feared he was near death. Since the bigamy trial and being branded in his hand he had suffered a fall in which he had hurt his leg. The leg had turned black and bad. Blake pleaded with Phillis to allow him to return to her home, repenting of his previous life but Phillis would not be swayed. Blake then ominously told her that if she did not consent to take him back it would be the ‘utter ruin’ of them both.

A few days later, on the 2nd May 1768 and between 9 and 10 o’clock in the evening, a woman who lodged in Phillis Ewen’s Brompton Lane home went upstairs and opened a sash window to let in the cool evening air. She saw someone running across the garden and went to tell Phillis. It was Blake’s son, running to meet his father who was hidden amongst some gooseberry bushes at the end of the garden. Blake tried to gain entrance to the house, saying he had come to fetch some of his clothes which had been left at his former home. Phillis, perhaps feeling sorry for the state he was reduced to, let him in and he sat down and began to bemoan his fate. Phillis, by banishing him from her home and away from her garden, had deprived him of the means of making a living and for this he blamed her.

Phillis had had enough. She went to open the door to turn him out but, with her hand still on the door handle, heard the woman who lodged with her, scream and cry out, “Mr Blake, what are you going to do?” Phillis turned and saw Blake pulling a pistol from his pocket. A scuffle ensued in which Phillis, assisted by Blake’s son, struggled with her former husband, trying to take hold of the pistol. Blake fell down in the passage way, in the dark; Phillis was now truly afraid and begging him to spare her life, promising to do anything if he would.

Blake told Phillis, if she wanted to live, to come with him to the door to the garden where he would tell her what he wanted her to do. About three yards from the door he clasped his left arm around Phillis’ head, pulled her towards him and, holding the pistol in his right hand, shot her in the neck, intending to murder her. Phillis fell back into the arms of her female companion and Blake’s son while Blake himself ran away into an arbour from where a further gunshot was heard.

Elizabeth Freeman, another woman who had an apartment in the house, heard the cry of “murder” from downstairs. She ran to the scene of the commotion to find Phillis Ewen’s hair and cap on fire (from the charge contained in the pistol), blood running down her neck, convinced that she was dying and that the bullet was still lodged inside her. But Phillis had been lucky, the lead bullet had entered the back of her neck on the left-hand side and passed straight through; after the wounds had been dressed and stitched she was left with a scar on either side of her neck but no other lasting injury.

When men went to look for Blake in the arbour, thinking he had killed himself, they found no sign of his body. He was eventually found between four and five o’clock the next morning, in a stable, having slit his throat with his small gardener’s budding knife but still alive. He was carried to a hospital where his throat was stitched and, once he had recovered, he was taken to the New Prison at Clerkenwell to await his trial for the attempted murder of Phillis Ewen. When she heard that Blake was to be released from prison the woman who had witnessed the shooting, whose name is not mentioned in any of the reports on the trial, was in such a great terror that she left London, going into Essex rather than stand as a witness and face Blake once more. Phillis Ewen, however, was made of sterner stuff.

Phyllis - New Prison

On the 6th July 1768, Blake found himself for the second time that year in the dock of the Old Bailey. In his defence he said that he had asked Phillis, when she went to his lodgings, for some plants from the garden and for the return of some of his things left at her house; she, he claimed, refused to allow either. Blake also said he had made over three houses to Phillis, the Kensington one she lived in, another at Knightsbridge and one further at Hyde Park Corner; Phillis countered with the fact that these were her houses before she had married Blake and not his. A silver punch ladle was also a bone of contention; Blake said it was his, Phillis said it was bought with her own money.

Blake said he had taken the pistol with him to the Brompton Lane house because, if Phillis would not let him return, he intended to commit suicide. Finding Phillis inflexible he claimed he had pulled her towards him, not to kill her but, to buss or kiss her and claimed, that when Phillis pulled her head away, that the pistol went off accidentally.

After his defence, the record of his trial and conviction for bigamy just months earlier was read, and the verdict was passed down.


The sentence was Death.

He was held at Newgate until he was taken to the gallows at Tyburn on Wednesday 27th July 1768. Reports described him as a grave looking and elderly man, around 60 years of age. He was penitent, repented of his crimes and sins and reportedly admitted at his end to one further bigamous marriage.

Last Wednesday morning, Philip Blake, for shooting Phillis Ewen, was executed at Tyburn . . . Blake, the unfortunate convict, executed as above, for shooting at one of his wives, has left three widows behind him, he having acknowledged to a person who attended him, that he had been married to so many.

The Oxford Journal of 30th July 1768 reported that:

Yesterday Philip Blake was executed at Tyburn, for shooting in the neck Phillis Ewen, to whom he had been married, but was convicted of Bigamy for the same some time ago. He was an elderly man, by trade a Gardener. After he had shot Phillis Ewen, he cut his own throat, but the wound was sowed [sic] up, and he lived to suffer as above, at which time he had three wives living.

Phillis Ewen bore the scars of her assault for a further eleven years before dying, in 1779, at Purser’s Cross near Fulham. Her trip down the aisle with Philip Blake was to be her last; she took no further husband.


Westminster Journal and London Political Miscellany, 2nd July 1768

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 8th July 1768

Westminster Journal and London Political Miscellany, 30th July 1768