Tag Archives: Jane Isabella Watts

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).

“Family life in South Australia Fifty-Three years ago (Dating from October 1837)” by Jane Isabella Watts (1824-1894)

My Directed Study involves investigating the living conditions for 19th century staff at the Old Adelaide Gaol. By comparing primary and secondary sources we can construct an understanding of the average daily life in Adelaide during the mid to late 19th century.

As any fellow student of cultural heritage will understand, it is very easy to get carried away in second hand bookshops, particularly those with a section on Adelaide’s colonial history. When I saw the small red hardcover titled “Family life in South Australia Fifty-Three years ago (Dating from October 1837)” I simply added it to my growing stack of purchases and took it home without much thought. It wasn’t until months later that I realised I had purchased a primary source gold mine.


“Family life in South Australia Fifty-Three years ago” with a few of my favourite pages marked.

Encouraged by her husband of seven years, Alfred (Consul for Sweden), Jane Isabella Watts began writing the book in 1851 (aged 25) after a doctor (one of the best available in Adelaide at the time) so incompetently treated her severely sprained ankle that she never fully recovered. To “banish the miserable present from her mind” she decided to “write an account of the arrival of her family in the ship Hartley (see the passenger list here), and try to record the many droll adventures they met with while on Kangaroo Island,” and, in later years, Adelaide.

B7966 - ca. 1865 Mr. Mrs. Alfred Watts. Jane Isabella Watts was the author of Family Life in South Australia. Alfred Watts was Consul for Sweden

Mr. & Mrs. Alfred Watts. Ca. 1865. Image courtesy of SLSA B 7966

Terrible luck for Watts, yes, but we are the lucky ones who get to share in her stories, so vividly written that you could almost be aboard the “floating lunatic asylum” with 13 year old Watts in 1837, as her fellow hungry voyagers attempted to make a ”three-decker sea pie” from albatross meat; seated at a Kingscote dining table “with the Governor himself – Captain (afterwards Sir John) Hindmarsh” in 1838, curiously observing his glass eye; or a guest at the 1841 Drawing-Room Queen’s birthday celebration at Government House, attended also by “a number of natives, in new blankets, bestowed upon them by a paternal Government.”

Not published until 1890 by W. K. Thomas & Co., Watts (then aged 66) dedicated the book to her relatives, with the explicit request that they “kindly not allow this book to go out of their possession, or to be read by strangers during her lifetime.” She states that “these incidents in their daily lives, though not particularly interesting, are just recorded to show the young relatives of the writer, for whom this narrative is specially intended, that all was by no means couleur [sic] de rose with [their] family in those early days.” However it is these everyday incidents which give us the best insight into life in those times and, written as they are with such vibrant description, we can only be grateful that Watts had the time and inclination to record this history for future generations to enjoy.

B5190 - Mrs. Alfred Watts ca. 1875

Mrs. Alfred Watts ca. 1875. Image courtesy of SLSA B 5190

In future blogs I intend to reflect on some of my favourites amongst Watts’ stories. Gossip, politics, fashion, decorating, architecture, tent life, town planning, cooking, picnics, parklands and Indigenous encounters – this book has it all. Stay tuned!