Bigamy and elopement on the Passenger Lists

July 16, 2007 customer Catherine Major emailed us recently with a fascinating story that she uncovered whilst viewing the new decade of our Passenger Lists.

According to a family story, Robert Bruce ran away with his mistress, a ‘Mrs Harding’, to start a new life, leaving behind his wife and their 1 year old son. On searching our new decade, sure enough, Robert Bruce and his mistress could be seen travelling to Australia aboard the Berrima in July 1922.

What is most interesting about this story is the fact that the couple wanted to conceal the fact that they were travelling together, and the means by which they did so. The pair are not listed together on the Passenger List, having bought their tickets separately – he had ticket 249, she 238. Bruce can be seen four rows below Harding.

Robert Bruce and Maud Harding

The 1920s decade includes the traveller’s last address in the UK but rather than stating their correct ones, in Ripon, North Yorkshire, the couple give different Hotels in London’s Euston Square.

Catherine Major believes that the pair married upon their arrival in Adelaide, in what would have been a bigamous union.

Whilst this may seem a rather dramatic course of action to take, elopement and even bigamy weren’t as uncommon as one might imagine. Divorce in the UK at the time was rare; the only cause for which a divorce might be issued until 1936 was adultery and even that had a number of caveats procluding reciprocal adultery, connivance and collusion from allowing a legal end to the marriage. 

As such, the majority of unhappy marriages remained legally binding despite neither party wishing them to do so. In this climate married people, particularly men, often extricated themselves through extreme means.

It is also worth noting that as the address and personal information stated on the lists are as supplied by the passengers themselves, they must be viewed with a degree of caution.

It was not only a moribund marriage that caused people to take to the seas in search of a new life. There are two known examples of elopement on the Titanic.

Henry Morley, from Worcestershire, was eloping with Kate Phillips – Morley died in the sinking. They can be seen travelling as Mr and Mrs Marshall:

Henry Morley and Kate Phillips

Also on board were an Irish couple, Denis Lennon and Mary Mullin, who intended to disobey their families wishes and marry in America. They apparently presented themselves as brother and sister when travelling but their true relationship can be seen here.


Perhaps it was too loud for her

July 5, 2007

An interesting point to note when searching the Passenger Lists is that they were usually filled in a day or two before the actual departure date, based on ticket sales, and kept at the offices of the shipping company before being sent on to the Board of Trade. 

An illustration of this may be found in the new decade of the Passenger Lists; specifically the list for the Bendigo on 13 October 1927. Passengers detailed on this list can also be found on the Balranald, which sailed on 31 October 1927: seemingly impossible as both ships were bound for Australia.

The explanation is, in fact, a simple one. The Bendigo didn’t sail as scheduled and its passengers were transferred to the Balranald, presumably the company’s next available ship for Australia.

 bendigo detailsbendigo details

 overwritten detailsoverwritten details

The passengers transferred therefore appear on both lists, accompanied on the Balranald by anyone who bought a ticket after 13 October.

Whilst we don’t know why the Bendigo didn’t sail on 13 October, it could have been for any number of reasons such as mechanical failure, inclement weather or even industrial action (it was a coal strike in 1912 which caused many passengers to be bumped off cancelled sailings and to be re-booked on to the fateful voyage of the Titanic). What we do know is that the Bendigo did sail to Australia on 23 November 1927, as can be seen on our ship search screen:

 bedigo ship search

One of the passengers who sailed on the Balranald is of interest, in that she is a Hilda Margaret Eavis of Worthy Farm.

Hilda EavisHilda Eavis

Perhaps she had foreseen that her relative, Michael, would found the Glastonbury Festival on the site and wanted to avoid the crowds, or maybe she had grown tired of all the mud…

This year or last year

January 15, 2007

Have you ever caught yourself, during the first week or two of a new year, out of habit still writing or typing the old year? It’s too easy a mistake to make: for 52 weeks you’ve been using the old year and it takes a week or two to absorb the novelty of the new one.

The BT27 passenger lists show us that this error has probably always been with us. The archive box full of passenger lists says they date from 1909, say. But you take out a list and there on the front page, as clear as day, it says January 1908. Surely, you think, the list couldn’t have taken a full year to reach the Board of Trade, the British government department for whose use and enjoyment these meticulously compiled lists of passengers were originally intended. No. You turn to the summary page, which usually bears the imprimatur of the Board of Trade, and sure enough this is endorsed by a BT official with a rubber stamp giving a date in January 1909. Then you realise: a clerk simply forgot the recent change in the calendar when writing out the list. Doubtless the Board of Trade officials were not infallible either, although I have yet to discover my first instance of them getting the year wrong. But it is another illustration of how errors abound in original, primary source material and how all of us researchers need to remain alert.

The accompanying image shows a variation upon this theme. In this case, the clerk (seemingly the Emigration Officer Mr Findlay) has unwittingly written the date on the top of this single page passenger list as 2nd January 1896, while at the foot of the page Mr Sargent the Officer of Customs, who received and countersigned the document a couple of days later, has dated it correctly as 4th January 1897.