Monday, 10 September 2012

Leviticus, Iolanthe and sisters-in-law

When a family historian launches into the day's planned project, it is unwise to predict where it might lead. Who would have expected that a quick check on the details of Philemon Lewis COLEY's two wives would find me juggling biblical commentary and Victorian light opera as sources?

The facts are straight forward. On 6 February 1887, P L COLEY married Margaret HARLEY. They had two daughters (Margaret Lucy and Beatrice Olive) before Margaret's untimely death on 26 March 1892. As was common at the time, Margaret's younger sister Lucy HARLEY came to help care for her young nieces. On 26 May 1893, P L and Lucy married and went on to become our 2xgreat grandparents. Which prompted someone to ask "Wasn't it illegal for him to marry his wife's sister?".

A preliminary search offered Leviticus xviii 18 as the ultimate authority on that question…

from which derived A Table Of Kindred And Affinity: Wherein Whosoever Are Related Are Forbidden In Scripture And Our Laws To Marry Together. The inevitable conclusion is that under Canon Law and in the Ecclesiastical Courts such a marriage would be considered "irregular" at best. But was it "illegal" in 19th century Queensland?

The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act removing the bar to such marriages eventually passed the Imperial Parliament in 1907 after more than half a century of trying. Gilbert and Sullivan's 1882 operetta Iolanthe mocked the inactivity (or intransigence) of the House of Lords on a range of important issues and had included the line "We will prick that annual blister, marriage to deceased wife's sister".

So on the face of it, the marriage of P L and Lucy (and the legitimacy of five of their eight children) was open to question until 1907. But Queensland was an independent Colony with its own Parliament.

In 1877, the Queensland Parliament has considered and passed The Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act (41 Vic. No. 25.). On 10 April 1878, Queen Victoria had given her Royal Assent and hence "no marriage between any man and the sister of his deceased wife shall within Queensland be voidable or in any wise impeachable upon the ground only of such affinity between the parties thereto any law usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding".

So had the COLEY family remained in England, such a union in 1893 would have been able to be challenged on the (completely unscientific) grounds of consanguinity. But in their new home, logic prevailed and the marriage was entirely legal.

That 1877 Act stood until the Acts Repeal Act of 1991 tidied away a number of older statutes including the Lady Bowen Lying-in Hospital Land Sale Act 1887, the Sandgate Racecourse Act 1896, the Enemy Contracts Annulment Act 1915 and the Deceased Husband’s Brother Marriage Act 1931. What could Gilbert and Sullivan have made of that?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...