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