Sunday, 12 July 2009

Marriage With Deceased Wife's Sister

In England & Wales a widowed man was prohibited from marrying the sister of his deceased wife until 1907. It’s a subject that gets mentioned in the columns of family history magazines from time to time and, despite the law, there’s plenty of evidence that such marriages did happen. There usually seems to have been some secrecy involved, the couple married where they were not known, and it was not difficult to escape detection.

I’ve an example of a man who married two sisters in my own family tree. However in this case there seems to have been little effort made to disguise the fact and I’ve often wondered how the couple got away with such blatant law breaking.

In 1882 my great-great-grandfather Albert Barker married Ellen Culpan. Ellen died in 1892, leaving Albert with three young children to bring up alone, and in 1894 he married her older sister, Jane Culpan.

I have copies of both marriage certificates and they are remarkably similar documents, right down to the fact that both brides gave the same address. Both weddings took place at King Cross Wesleyan Chapel in the District of Halifax, Yorkshire. The marriages were not performed by the same minister but both certificates include the name of Walter Common, Registrar.

At this date when a marriage took place in a nonconformist place of worship, a civil Marriage Registrar had to be present when the couple exchanged their vows. My interpretation would be that Walter Common not only registered both marriages but also actually attended them.

Witnesses to the first marriage were John Barker (most likely Albert’s older brother) and Jane Culpan (who would become Albert’s second wife). John Barker was also a witness at the second wedding but obviously Jane could not be a witness at her own marriage and so another sister, Hannah Culpan, performed the role.

Nearly twelve years had elapsed between the two marriages during which time Walter Common must have attended hundreds of weddings so we can perhaps understand why he was apparently unaware that the law was being flouted in front of his very eyes. I can’t help wondering though if he didn’t experience a certain feeling of déjà vu, seeing so many of the same people assembled at the same place. I have identified Walter, recorded as a Building Society Secretary & Registrar of Marriages, in both the 1881 and 1891 Censuses and so I am sure it was the same person. In 1891 he was aged 73 so well into his 70s by the time of the second marriage.

The second marriage appears to have taken place with the support of both the Barker and Culpan families. Although I do not know that Albert Barker regularly attended the King Cross Wesleyan Chapel, the fact that both marriages took place there suggests a fairly long association and makes me wonder if fellow members of the congregation, even maybe the minister himself, knew Albert’s wives were sisters. Did everyone simply turn a blind eye?

There was certainly support for the idea of allowing widowers to marry their deceased wives’ sisters. In fact the issue was raised so often in parliament that in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Iolanthe the Queen of the Fairies sings, “He shall prick that annual blister, Marriage with deceased wife’s sister”. The 1907 Marriage Act removed wife’s sister from the list of prohibited marriages but, confusingly, it was not until 1921 that a man could marry his deceased brother’s widow.

The fact that Ellen and Jane were sisters was passed down through the family but it was fascinating to see the marriage certificates and to discover more of the details. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has a similar story in their own family and to learn of the circumstances surrounding the marriages.


  1. Virginia did not have similar laws. In 1881 my 3xgreat-grandfather Joseph Shipe had a son Joseph (my 2xgreat-grandfather) with Emma Long, who apparently died that same year, because in Dec 1881, Joseph married her sister Josephine!

  2. I'm not sure any of the American colonies and later states had such laws. In New England, we find many instances of men marrying their deceased brother's wives. It occurred so often that it seems to have been elevated to the status of a solemn duty! I have instances of that in my own family.

    And in pre-Civil War Alabama, my husband's great-grandfather's first wife died, probably in childbirth, and great-grandpa Dan'l married his deceased wife's sister.

  3. I don't have a personal story but I am researching the legal history of the marriage to a deceased wife's sister debate. It was made illegal in England in 1835 and there was 60 + years of debate in and out of parliament for its legalisation. I am very interested if anyone has actual evidence of the circumstances surrounding real marriages of this kind, particularly in England and Australia. See my blog -

  4. Kate in Devon7 May 2010 at 16:40

    I have a similar story. My husband's great grandmother married a young collier called Marchant in 1913 at the Register Office Pontypridd. She was already pregnant and had three daughters with him. He went off to war and was killed in 1918. By 1919, she was pregnant and marrying his older brother, after which she had a further 8 children. Her second marriage took place in the Wesleyan Chapel Porth, although they both lived in Trealaw, some distance away. This marriage would have been illegal at this date. Both families appear to have been Welsh Chapel and baptist or methodist prior to their migration to Wales from Oxfordshire and Somerset. Coincidentally, two sisters of these two brothers also married the same man. The first died in 1908, leaving her husband with a young son and he married the second sister in 1910; this marriage was legal by this date.

    Everyone in the small village where they continued to live would have known them very well so the practice must have been accepted to an extent. I have wondered if there was any tradition of this in their communities in Wales or in their religion.

    I would love to hear from anyone with any theories.