Saturday, 18 July 2009

Sex and the Scottish Ancestor

When I first began researching my Scottish ancestors and discovered that my great-grandfather, Hector McNeil (1886-1954), was born just one month after his parents married I was a bit surprised. Surely a hint of scandal here? Something that got the neighbours gossiping? I mean that just wasn’t the done thing back then, was it?

Further research revealed that not only did Hector follow this particular family tradition, his first child being born six months after he married, but that both Hector’s father and grandfather lived with and had children by women to whom they were not married.

Expanding my research to other family lines I discovered similar stories: a couple who married five months after the birth of their first child; a woman who had two children, probably by the same man, but never married.

Were my ancestors turning out to be the most immoral in Scotland or was there something else going on here? Was it just that my preconceptions were wrong?

As a teenager, I think I had the vague idea that pre-marital sex was ‘invented’ in the 1960s. Even then, as my mum was keen to point out, the ‘sexual revolution’ didn’t affect everyone, with many people continuing to live with their parents until they married and ‘baby’ arriving a respectable one year after the wedding.

Of course as a keen viewer of costume dramas I did know about illegitimacy. Some innocent young girl taken advantage of, usually by an employer, is thrown out and disowned by her family when her pregnancy is discovered. She usually comes to a sticky end and should the child survive the ‘shame’ of illegitimacy follows him or her throughout life.

No doubt such situations did happen, but in my family the majority of illegitimate children appear to have been born to parents in long-term relationships.

As I’ve researched more and more families I’ve discovered that mine are hardly unique. There do appear to have been some regional differences though and, as these particular ancestors of mine were all involved in coalmining, I suspected that sex before (or outside) marriage was particularly common in Scotland’s mining communities.

However, this week I’ve been researching two families from the north of Scotland, one from a fishing community, the other from an area that was largely agricultural, and I’ve been finding much the same thing.

This has got me thinking about the issue again. Firstly, was the apparently high rate of pre-marital sex in Scotland (or ante-nuptial fornication as it is often described in Kirk Session records) related to the law that legitimised children upon the subsequent marriage of their parents? (This applied only when both parents were free to marry, i.e. not married to someone else, at the time of the child’s birth.)

It is difficult to know how aware people were of this law but it may explain why some parents were content to wait until after the arrival of their child to get married, rather than rush to tie the knot before the birth. Legitimacy was generally only important with regards to inheritance and as most working-class Scots had little to pass on to their children the legal situation was perhaps of less importance than the attitudes of their neighbours.

The law doesn’t always seem to have been universally applied either, as I found recently. I came across a child who was born to parents who married a few days later but waited until after their marriage before registering the birth. The registrar, however, considered the birth to be illegitimate (the word is included on the birth record) although the date and place of the parents’ marriage was recorded, as is usual on Scottish birth certificates.

It has been suggested that pre-marital pregnancy was seen as an insurance against infertility, particularly in agricultural communities where a farm worker was expected to provide family labour. Personally though, I think the most convincing argument is simply that in some communities sex was an accepted part of the courtship process, just as it is for many people today.

But what I’ve really been thinking about is why all this pre-marital sex should come as such a surprise to me. Why did I think that the youth of great-granny’s day were so very different from my own generation? Was there a particular time when what was once common behaviour began to be seen as something to be ashamed of and to be hidden from later generations? Has there be a deliberate attempt to rewrite history?

If so, I’m sure our ancestors weren’t expecting all us genealogists to come snooping around uncovering their secrets!

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.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Who's that Girl?

When my maternal grandmother’s house was cleared after she died this photograph was found among her papers. There are no names, date or other details recorded on it, not even the name of the photographer. My mum could not remember having seen the photo before but thought that the baby bore some resemblance to my aunt at a similar age and was probably my grandmother.

Due to family circumstances my grandmother, ‘Nannie’ to me and my sister, had few possessions dating from her childhood or even from the early years of her own children, but somehow this photograph had survived the ups and downs of her eighty-two years.

When I began researching her family, building on records collected by my mum some years earlier, one of the tasks I set myself was to identify the people in this photo and the approximate date it was taken.

Having traced records of my great-grandparents and their family I now believe this photograph was taken before Nannie was born and is of her parents Hector McNeil (1886-1954) and Agnes Gray McNeil née Frickleton (1892-1923) with their three oldest surviving children: Andrew Frickleton McNeil born 1911, James ‘Jimmy’ McNeil born 1913 and Agnes Gray Frickleton McNeil born 1915.

I suspect the photograph may date from the family’s move from the mining village of Standburn near Falkirk in Stirlingshire, where these children were born, to the City of Glasgow where their next child, Hector, was born in 1917, and so was probably taken about 1916.

What I don’t know is the identity of the girl standing at the back of the photo. She was obviously considered important enough to be included in a family portrait but somehow she seems a little apart from the rest of the group, not quite one of the family. Although the photo is a little unclear it appears that Hector has his arm slightly in front of her, rather than around her protectively as with his son.

It’s rather difficult to judge how old she might be, but certainly quite a few years older than the other children and, I think, probably too old to be Agnes’ daughter.

Agnes was the eldest of ten children, eight of whom were girls, and so my guess is that this girl is one of Agnes’ little sisters. Agnes might have been glad to have an extra pair of hands to help take care of her growing family and the girls’ parents might well have been grateful to have one less mouth to feed.

I’ve been lucky enough to find out quite a lot about the Frickleton sisters. Firstly through the detailed information on various Freckleton/Frackleton/Frickleton families at that alerted me to the fact that Agnes was the only one of the sisters to remain in Scotland, the rest (and one brother) all emigrated. Then through records of their emigration and later lives available online at and And finally through the great kindness of a former client who asked ‘if there’s ever anything I can look up for you in Canada’ (probably not imagining that there was!) and found me several newspaper notices and an extract from a book relating to the two sisters who emigrated to Canada and their families.

I realise I will probably never know for certain who the girl in this photograph is, and, that as far as researching my family history goes, this isn’t one of the greatest unanswered questions. But for some reason I’d really like to put a name to this face, so if anyone out there thinks she looks familiar I would love to hear from you!