1861: Marrying your dead brother’s wife – sinner or saviour?

When Richard James, a hard working haulier died unexpectedly, his wife and children were plunged into abject poverty, facing starvation and death in the isolated rural town of Bishop’s Castle.

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British Library

When younger brother Edward heard that his sister-in-law and her children were facing utter devastation he had to act – but in trying to do the right thing he ended up on the wrong side of the law and facing a lengthy brutal prison sentence.

Richard had married Jane Roberts in 1843, in her home county Montgomeryshire. He was 36 at the time, 10 years older than her.  they went to live in the Shropshire town of Bishop’s Castle. Edward, who was 21 at the time, was living with his mother Mary and working as a farm labourer at nearby Hopesay where he was born.

By 1851 Richard and Jane had had 3 children. One girl and 3 boys:

Francis James – 6
Jeremiah James – 4
Thomas James – 2
Richard James – 6 months

Edward however had made his way to Shrewsbury where he was working as a bricklayer.

Over the next few years Richard and Jane had more children, until tragedy struck.

Richard James, the head of the family and only breadwinner of the household died.  I don’t know exactly why or when, but it happened at some point in the 1850s – and it left the family facing utter catastrophe; they needed someone to come to their aid, and fast, before they were hit by homelessness, starvation and death .

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Edward heard about what had happened, and the fate that was awaiting his family. He moved to Bishops Castle, moved in, and helped raise the children as if they were his own. Love blossomed between him and Jane but it was a forbidden love in the eyes of the law.

So what landed him in trouble?

In those days a brother-in-law or sister-in-law was seen as closely related as a blood relative in the eyes of God – something that wouldn’t change for many years (find out how and why later).

The story of what happened is revealed by delving into the British newspaper archives.

At the end of March 1861 Edward appeared in court in Shrewsbury on a very serious charge.

The Clare Journal, and Ennis Advertiser takes up the story  – Monday 01 April 1861

Edward James surrendered at the Shrewsbury Assizes, before Mr. Justice Blackburn, to take his trial upon a charge that, on the 19th of January, 1861, he made a certain false notice of marriage, before the registrar of marriages at Shrewsbury, for the purpose of procuring his marriage with one Jane James, who was his brother’s widow.

It goes on to tell the story of the lengths Edward went to to marry Jane.

The prisoner’s brother, [David] James, some years ago married a woman named Jane Roberts, but he died a few years ago, leaving his wife a widow with seven children, residing at Bishop’s Castle, in Shropshire. After the husband’s death the defendant went to live with his brother’s widow, and assisted in managing the farm, and early in 1859 he applied to the Rev. Mr. Rowland, the Vicar of Bishop’s Castle, to marry him and the widow. The clergyman refused to do this, and told the prisoner it would unlawful, and, to satisfy him upon this score, pointed out to him the table of prohibited degrees in the Book of Common Prayer.

The prisoner then applied to the registrar of Bishop’s Castle, but he, knowing the circumstances, also refused, and told the prisoner the marriage would be void.

After being turned away a second time, but still determined, he tried again, this time heading out of the town and bending the truth…

The prisoner then applied to the registrar at Shrewsbury, and on the 19th of January, 1861, gave a notice of his intended marriage, in which he described his intended as a “widow,” but with her maiden name of “Jane Roberts,” and falsely stated that she had lived seven days in Roushill, Shrewsbury, and that he himself had lived in the same place for 14 days.

The authorities found out about his plan and he was summoned to court. Bang to rights he was advised to plead guilty. Although a criminal in the eyes of the law he had much sympathy from his community and the judge.

The prisoner, by the advice his counsel, pleaded guilty. Mr. Sergeant Pigott, on the part of the prosecution, intimated that there was no wish to press for punishment. All that was wished for was that the law should be made known and vindicated. Mr. Best said he had great many witnesses to the defendant’s good character, and that a memorial in his favour had been signed by nine-tenths the inhabitants of Bishop’s Castle.

So in view of the support and sympathy for Edward, who’d saved the family from destitution, it was decided he should be given a “light sentence” – although by today’s standards you might raise an eyebrow.

The Clare Journal, and Ennis Advertiser takes up the story  – Monday 01 April 1861

Why was he so desperate to defy the law and marry Jane?

Let’s take a look at the 1861 census taken on the 7th April.

Jane is still there with a greatly expanded family and a visitor.


Jane James –  Wife – Married Female 45 1816 Farmers Wife


1. Frances James  – Daughter Unmarried Female 16 – b.1845 Farmers Daughter Shropshire,
2. Jeremiah James – Son aged 14 – b.1847 Farmers Son Shropshire
3. Thomas James – Son aged 12 – b.1849 Scholar
4. Richard James – Son aged 10 – b.1851 Scholar
5. William James – Son aged 8 – b.1853 Scholar
6. Jane James – Daughter aged 5 – b.1856 Infant
7. Sarah A James – Daughter aged 1  – b.1860 Infant

And a visitor..

8. Euan (or Evan) Roberts  -Visitor Unmarried Male aged 51 b.1810 Farmer

There’s no sign of Edward as he’s in prison and presumably the visitor is a relative  of Jane James (nee Roberts) who’s helping out in Edward’s absence.

Now remember that the newspaper article, published in 1861, said that Edward first attempted to marry Jane in 1859, and that he’d come to look after his brother’s seven children?


This must mean that Richard had died before this date – and yet the 1861 census shows the 7th child was born about 1860 meaning Sarah A James was most likely Edward’s daughter.

And indeed a search in the 1871 census shows this to be the case.


So it wasn’t just Edward’s love for Jane that proved to be the motivation to get married, but the love for that of his daughter too. Having a ‘bastard child’ was heavily frowned upon in Victorian times and remained so for many more years. Presumably he wanted the best for her and didn’t want her her growing up with that awful stigma.

A child born outside marriage, or ‘out of wedlock’, was regarded as ‘illegitimate’, without full legal status, and this was a serious stigma until the mid-20th century. It was recognised in the 19th century that illegitimate children were half as likely to survive compared to children with married parents. They and their mothers were victims of discrimination.

Ruth Richardson writing for the British Library

But when did the law change on marrying in-laws?

People had been marrying their in-laws for years following the death of a spouse.

But a law from 1533 meant these marriages could declared null and void on the basis that it was deemed incestuous according to the bible; “Genesis 2 states that husband and wife “became one flesh,” therefore your wife’s sister was really your own sister” (Arika Okrent)

This changed slightly in 1835 when a new bill was introduced saying any of these marriages that had already happened could no longer be declared void. This was done to protect children who could technically be declared illegitimate during their parents lifetime. The bill was introduced by the English Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst.

(Nancy F. Anderson)

But as for after this date – the law strengthened its previous position making any marriage of this type absolutely void.

List of forbidden marriages in an 1860’s bible.

This was a period when many mothers would die in childbirth and there was an argument to say that if she had a younger unmarried sister it made sense for her to take the place of her older sister and help out with the family.11161533555_95f12428a4_o

So in 1842 a new bill was introduced to make it legal that you could marry your dead wife’s sister. That too proved controversial with fears it would encourage in-laws to lust after each other while spouses were still alive! It wasn’t until 1907 that finally changed when the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Bill was introduced making it legal to marry your dead wife’s sister..

But hang on!

That would would mean Edward James would still not have been able to marry his dead brother’s wife Jane. But why? This bizarre oversight was explained 1921 when a new bill to correct the inequality was introduced..

Lord Newton proposed the Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Bill and said this in the house of Lords;

The first comment which, I think, any impartial person would make upon the proposal is to ask why this anomaly was not dealt with in 1907 when the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Bill was passed. I am not in the secrets of the promoters of that Bill. I had nothing to do with it, beyond voting for it, when it came here, and I do not know what their motives were, but I presume that they were animated by the usual view that it is desirable to overweight a Bill as little as possible, and to obtain one thing at a time.

So why was it only now, in 1921, that he decided to propose the Bill. As with many other laws and social changes at that time – it was brought about by the First World War..

I will further admit that in 1907 there was very little demand for the Bill, and that that may possibly have had something to do with the omission. But circumstances have now changed, and, as in many other respects, they have changed in consequence of the war. When the war took place many men, when they were called up, left their wives and families in the charge of their brothers. Some of these men were killed, and in many instances an affection developed between the brother in-law and the widow, and many marriages of this kind have taken place I believe that there are a number of cases in connection with the Ministry of Pensions Which are awaiting decision as the result of this Bill. I wish to make it plain that I am not basing the case for this Bill upon the number of people who want it. I am basing it simply and solely upon logic and common sense

Historic Hansard

So what ultimately happened the Edward and Jane?

Well they’re still there in the 1881 census with much of the family in a cottage next door and grandchildren running around.Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 20.13.13

Edward, Jane, William and their daughter Sarah are still there.

But move ahead another decade to the 1891 census and the James family have grown massively.

But no sign of Edward or Jane. And much like Richard James, who died in the 1850s, there appears to be no record of their deaths (although I’m still searching).

There’s also no sign their daughter Sarah A James in the 1891 census and I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her either (again, still searching).

But I do know what happened to at least one of the children, the second child of Richard and Jane – Jeremiah . He married in Jane Syass in 1873 and went on to have 6 children, dying in 1924 according to one source on Ancestry (grandmanonahowsmon)


But what’s more exciting is that if you check all the following censuses up to 1911, there are descendants of the James family who are still at The Fields.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1911-james.jpg

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1911-james-this-one.jpg

A brief search reveals others have moved away, and some went to London.

The means there’s an exciting and very strong chance that there will be direct descendants of the family, still alive, that Edward James came to the rescue of and saved more 160 years ago – and possibly descendants of Edward himself if we can find out what happened to his daughter Sarah.

Without Edward they probably wouldn’t be around today – but you can bet they know nothing of the story, and of the forbidden love between him and Jane!

The search to find the descendants is on…watch this space.

The church where Edward and Jane had hoped to get married in Bishops Castle.


Sources links.





  1. I was most interested to read your article 1861 – Marrying your dead brother’s wife. The Richard who died unexpectedly was my great-great grandfather. My grandmother was Lucy Maria, the daughter of Jeremiah James. There is an extensive Family Tree of the James family in Vol X of the 4th Series of the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society in Shropshire Archives. I have visited The Field on two or three occasions and I think that the family left there in the mid 1900s. I attended the funeral there of one of Jeremiah’s daughters, Frances, in the 1950s when her sister Laura, was living in Woodbine Terrace, the lane below Field Lane. Another daughter, Edith, married a Mr. Campbell and moved to Canada. I met her g/daughter in Victoria, Vancouver Island in 1997

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking to connect Peter James Everall ( 20th January 2020 ) regarding James of Fields ,Bishops castle


    • Delwyn,
      I haven’t looked at this website since I wrote the note in January. Not sure how but your message came up in my e-mails last week. Are you connected to the family of James of The Field?

      Liked by 1 person

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