Unlawful Marriages and Illegitimate Children

By Amy Batchelor

Are you the product of an illegitimate marriage? You could be, especially if your ancestors were married in Adelaide in the month of May, 1842. In her book, Family Life in South Australia Fifty-Three Years Ago, Jane Isabella Watts (1890:139) writes “the glorious uncertainty of the law and the careless, slipshod way in which Acts of Parliament are constructed were seldom, perhaps, more strikingly displayed than in the drawing up of the new Marriage Act.”

The new Marriage Act passed in council on 22nd March 1842. It called for due notice of marriages, the issuing of licenses and certificates, and the registration of all marriages. Ministers of religion now had to be registered and any marriages performed by unregistered Ministers were deemed invalid.

Ministers notice

Ceremonies could be conducted according to the particular religion, however each party now by law had to say to each other: “I call upon these persons here present to witness that I, (name), do take thee, (name), to be my lawful wedded wife (or husband).”

For a “brief outline of some of the Act’s leading and most important provisions” see this article from the Southern Australian, 29 March 1842. While the new Act legalised all marriages in the colony prior to the 30th April, it didn’t come into force until 1st June 1842. Unfortunately, no provisions were made for marriages in the month of May.

At the time of their marriage, Jane’s husband Alfred questioned the legality of the new Marriage Act “but his objections were overruled” and their ceremony went ahead on Wednesday 18th May, 1842.

Marriage notice

Several years later a well-known doctor, who had “also entered the matrimonial state” in May 1842, “discovered the mistake that had been made… and that in consequence thereof, his marriage… was void and his children illegitimate.” While the doctor was understandably “excessively concerned”, Watts didn’t seem upset at all: “in reality the blunder gave (us) no concern… and may probably have formed the ground work of a sly jest between (us) now and then, but that was all” (Watts 1890:140).

By using a variety of online databases I was able to identify twelve marriages that took place in Adelaide during May 1842 (table 1).

table 1

Do you recognise any ancestors on this list? Well, fear not. The Marriages Amendment Act of 1852 placed all weddings under Government supervision and contained a clause “which effectually and forever set at rest all doubts as to (the) legality” (Watts 1890:140) of any marriages performed in May 1842.

Not that any of this mattered of course, because, as Watts (1890:140) says, “no legal flaws had power to disturb their peace of mind, for ‘those whom God has joined together, no man can put asunder.’ A union that is based on mutual love and esteem… can never be snapped in twain.”

(For the latest statistics on divorces in Australia visit the Australian Bureau of Statistics here).

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