In the course of researching my family history, I came across evidence that one of my Victorian ancestors may have been a bigamist. Joseph Boden, a dentist from Derbyshire, married my Yorkshire-born great-great-aunt Elizabeth Robb at the church of St Martin-in- the-Fields, Westminster, in 1841. However, just three years earlier Joseph had married a young woman named Georgiana Westbrook at St Pancras parish church. What’s more, it appeared that Georgiana was still alive, and married to Joseph, when he married Elizabeth.
This discovery would have been enough on its own to capture the imagination of any family history researcher. But then I came across a twist that made the story even more irresistible. For it appears that, less than a year after her marriage to Joseph, my great-great-aunt Elizabeth also took a second spouse: a music teacher by the name of Edmund Vineer.
‘Trial for Bigamy’ by Eyre Crowe A.R.A. (1897)
How are we to explain this strange series of events? Were Joseph and Elizabeth really both bigamists? And if so, how did each of them keep their cheating a secret from the other? Or did they take on other partners by mutual agreement, in some kind of Victorian anticipation of a modern open marriage? Alternatively, perhaps I’m missing something obvious, and there’s a simpler explanation for these intriguing events.
I was keen to explore the mystery further, and to try to understand what really happened. It provided me with an excuse to immerse myself imaginatively in a milieu – Victorian London – that I’ve always found fascinating. My ancestors’ story did in fact seem like something out of a Victorian novel or melodrama. Even the names of the protagonists – Joseph Woolley Boden, Edmund Vineer, the sisters Georgiana and Cordelia Westbrook – had a decidedly Dickensian or Thackerayan ring. As an added bonus, the story included cameo appearances by some key contemporary figures and overlapped with important social and political movements and events.
I also thought that this strange tale might be of wider interest, perhaps throwing light on the nature of family life and marital relationships in early Victorian England. So I created this blog to provide a place where I could post updates on my investigation as it progresses. I hope you’ll find the story as fascinating as I do.