Jane G’s story

Jane had lost not only her husband when he ran off with a barmaid, but also her own identity when her husband’s lover claimed her name on the 1851 census in a vain attempt at respectability. She later brought one of the first civil divorce cases against him, after a new act was passed in 1857 enabling women to do so for the first time.

You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing had happened between Jane and her husband Charles, since she seemingly appears alongside him and their children in West Ham in 1851. However, the actual Jane filed for divorce from Charles in 1858, and says in her paperwork that he’d left her in 1841 – which makes the woman with him in 1851 his lover Elizabeth, and not Jane at all. So Jane actually appears on that census twice – once fake, and once with information she’d given the enumerator herself.

Fovant, in Wiltshire

Jane was born in Fovant in around 1806, and had married Charles Shore in 1828 in Stockton – where she’d moved to during her childhood. Stockton lies close to the River Wylve in Wiltshire, between Warminster and Salisbury, while Fovant sits further south. Both were small rural communities. She is likely the daughter of James Goodfellow, a carpenter who died while she was still quite young, and Rhoda, nee Matthews. Her father’s death seems to have put the family – Rhoda and Jane’s siblings Hester, James, John, Mary, Elizabeth and Martha – close to the poverty line, as her mother subsequently gives her occupation as a pauper on early census returns.

Stockton, in 1910

Moving over to Stockton and subsequently marrying Charles must have seemed a bit of a step up for Jane. Charles came from Heytesbury, also relatively close by, and his father was a mason. They lived at Stockton for eight years after their marriage, while Charles worked as a farm labourer, and then moved to Trowbridge for him to run a carrying business between that town and Salisbury, and to subsequently run a pub. Much of this detail comes from Jane’s divorce petition, submitted in 1858, which fills in a great deal of the back story.

The likely pub premises, as they’re where Jane was living on the 1841 census, was the Brewery Tap on Back Street in Trowbridge, now long-since defunct, and probably serving Ushers ales, as the brewery was nearby. In all likelihood, though Charles would have been the landlord and held the licence on paper, it would probably have been Jane that did the day-to-day running of the pub. This situation was relatively common among landlords and landladies of pubs at the time.

The probable location of Jane’s pub, from the OS map taken in 1884.

The 1841 census, taken around a month after Charles deserted Jane, finds her still in the pub premises, with a new barmaid and a five-year-old girl, also called Jane though bearing Jane’s maiden surname. Jane states in her divorce petition that she’d had no children with Charles, so it’s likely that the younger Jane was a niece, the daughter of one of her many siblings, who partially fulfilled a child role in the couple. It’s relatively common to find niblings being brought up by their aunts – sometimes due to economic necessity, as that would be one less mouth for the parents to feed, but also sometimes passed over to childless couples, perhaps as a kindness in a society where motherhood was seen as a perfect state for women.

Trowbridge, around the time Jane lived there.

When the 1851 census was taken, Jane had given up the pub and had moved to Bath with her niece, where she was making a living as a nurse. This would not have been a nurse in a hospital during this era, but more someone who went into people’s houses to care for them if they were sick, or incapacitated after childbirth or an accident. It would have not been the most lucrative profession, but would have given her enough to live on. She more often worked as a monthly nurse. This was someone who cared for a woman in the final stages of pregnancy and through the birth, and lived in different households for a month at a time. She also probably did some of the chores of the household while the woman was lying in.

No photo exists of Jane, but this civil war era American nurse would have dressed very similarly to her when she was working as a nurse. Uniforms would not have been worn.

In contrast, Fake Jane, aka Elizabeth, was living with Jane’s husband Charles and two children in West Ham, where Charles was working as an engine driver on the railway. In addition to their own two children, Elizabeth had also taken in a nursechild, which meant that she’d probably lost a baby in the preceding year, but had taken in another child who needed her breastmilk. The reason for the deception of Elizabeth using Jane’s name on the official document was probably to do with respectability, as she was posing as his wife to all intents and purposes, but they perhaps feared some retribution on a legal document, as the census was. Therefore, she used the name Jane rather than Elizabeth. It’s probable that Jane never knew of this deception.

The real census entry for Jane in 1851.
The fraudulent entry for Jane in 1851.

Jane’s plea for divorce, filed on 8th November 1858, was only the second divorce case from Wiltshire under the new 1857 act, (the first was Amelia Willett, in February 1858), and was a straight plea for the marriage to end.

There was a major overhaul in divorce law in parliament in 1857. This was partly brought about by the campaigning of Caroline Norton, who (finally) received a blue plaque for her efforts in 2021. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 brought divorce into the civil courts, and out of the realms of the church. It also meant that for the first time women could bring divorce proceedings, or seek ways out of the legal trappings of a marriage, which is what more what Caroline Norton wanted. And this enabled Jane to seek recompense for what had happened to her.

Under the Act, which came into force on 1 January 1858, men could achieve a divorce by just proving their wife had had an affair. Women had to prove their husband’s adultery, in addition to something else he’d done wrong: either extreme cruelty, desertion, bigamy or incest. Marriages were also ended by nullity – in most cases a previous marriage which had been “forgotten” to be declared, but occasionally impotence. The Divorce and Matrimonial Court didn’t just hear the ends of marriages either – either party could apply for a judicial separation, which mean that they were still legally married, but didn’t have to live together. This was often used by women who couldn’t prove adultery but wanted to avoid flying fists. Either party could also petition the court under the act for restoration of conjugal rights, therefore forcing their partner to live with them again.

Women could also apply to protect any independent earnings they’d made since their husband’s desertion, and the first of the two earliest Wiltshire cases was one of these, filed by Amelia Willett (née Philpott) of Market Lavington in late February 1858.

Jane’s story, from the case files, was a straight plea for the marriage to end on the grounds of adultery and desertion. She says that he ran off with the bar maid Elizabeth Doughty and went to live in Vauxhall, where she passed as his wife. He hadn’t contributed anything to Jane’s upkeep since. She had discovered that they’d lived under the surname Grant, and they’d run an eating house together, but had subsequently moved to Portsmouth.

The case, which was uncontested by Charles, was sent for trial in December, and the minutes were filed in May 1859. There is no definite sign of the verdict, either in the file or the newspapers, but it’s likely that Jane could have won. She may also have run out of money to remain in London and pursue the claim – divorce could be expensive, particularly before the verdict, as the claimant would have had to have funded the proceedings themselves before any costs were awarded in judgement.

Like many people in her position, she had moved to London to be closer to the courts while the legal proceedings were heard. She lived at Bloomsbury, in lodgings on Southampton Street, while the trial was being heard, but afterwards returned to Wiltshire. The time the legal proceedings took – other divorce papers have lawyer’s lackeys sent to hunt down the defendants, to get their answers to the divorce petitions. It may be, if Charles and Elizabeth called themselves Grant, that they were unable to be found. The case was ordered by the judge to be heard via oral testimony in court in 1859, and then there is no further record.

Bloomsbury in London, from the Illustrated London News of 1850

Whatever happened, Jane returned to her previous nursing life afterwards. The 1861 census has her caring for the rector’s wife in Dunkerton, Somerset, a bit south of Bath, who had a month old baby. Ten years later, the 1871 census has her visiting a friend on Conigre in Trowbridge, round the corner from her former pub, though she was still working as a nurse.

After that she disappears from view, and probably was mis-recorded in her death record as she would most likely have been living in someone else’s house when death occurred and they would not have had her full details to bury her properly. Someone bearing her name was buried in Bishop’s Lavington, now West Lavington, in 1884, but this would appear to be someone else who had lived there for years and not the Jane we are looking for.

Charles and Elizabeth never seem to have married, however, which could also indicate that Jane’s petition failed. Elizabeth Doughty might have pretended to be Jane on the 1851 census, but used her own name afterwards. She and Charles had at least five daughters together, and moved to Portsmouth where Charles still worked as a railway engine driver. He later ran a horse drawn taxi cab around Portsmouth, but he appears to have stayed faithful to Elizabeth for the rest of his life. He died in Portsea Island in 1881.

The humble professions of Charles and Jane should hopefully help to dispel the idea that divorce in this period was a preserve of the rich. They certainly weren’t. Jane would have saved enough money from her work to afford the legal fees, while waiting for the legislation to be put in place for her divorce case to be heard. Pauper cases were also heard, although they were rarer.

Without the information given in the legal files, a very different picture of this couple could have emerged. We would have had no way of discerning what had caused the split, and could have thought Jane had gone to Vauxhall with Charles, since Elizabeth used her name. Her divorce case gives her back her truth and her history.

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