Illegitimate Children and a Widow’s Reluctance to Remarry

Dave Annal’s talk, “Lying Bastards”: the impact of illegitimacy on the records that our ancestors leave behind at the Register of Qualified Genealogists conference last month (September 2021), has stimulated me to tell the story of Maria Lown’s illegitimate children.

Baptisms

1815. December 9

Betsey Makeman bastard daughter of Maria the Widow of William Lown, who was a Farmer living in the Fields below the Town.  She lives in a small House in the low Fields. This woman’s moral depravity is so great, that she prefers living in a state of Adultery with one Wm Makeman, to a state of Matrimony with the same Man!!

Baptism Register. Whaplode, Lincolnshire. Findmypast

1817 April 17th

William bastard son of Maria Lown a widow, A Prostitute. Town 

VIDE Dec 29th 1815 [Dec 9th].  NB. This abandoned woman might be Married but will not ! The Banns of Marriage have been published, but she prefers a state of Prostitution!  Remarking or having remarked, that She is already a Whore; & can be no worse.  Therefore, will even remain as she is!!! Sic malimores pravalebunt!!!  She submitted to be Married in August following 

S Oliver curate

Baptism Register. Whaplode, Lincolnshire. Findmypast

Given these comments what might you expect Maria’s background to be like?  Do you think she was accurately described?  Are you imagining her response was a potty mouthed torrent?  Has pity for a poor widow stirred you?  It is hard not to react to these entries, but let’s take a step back and look at the circumstances more closely.

Maria Copeland married William Lown in 1799.  She was his second wife, so became stepmother to his two children, Ann, and William, from his first marriage with Sarah Watson.  Maria and William Lown went on to have six children between 1800 and 1807, namely William, Moriah, Elizabeth, Snelson, Ann and Robert Snelson.  William Lown died in 1812 and was buried at Holbeach, a neighbouring parish.  There are no burials for any of the children indexed prior to his death, so I’m working on the basis that they had all survived to 1812.

So, at the time of becoming a widow, Maria had up to eight children to support.

Rapid remarriage, or the alternative of forming a joint household without marriage, is widely cited as an economic necessity for many widows.  Does it apply to Maria?

The 1815 baptism above identifies William Lown as a farmer and residence at “Fields below the Town”.   The occupation is a clue that William Lown may have owned or rented land.  I have not investigated land holdings in Whaplode, but he is in the manorial property records in neighbouring Moulton. 

William Lown bought a copyhold plot of 6 acres 36 perches, consisting of two fields with a messuage (house) and outbuildings, in 1805 in the Manor of Moulton Harrington, located on the former common  near the hamlet of Seas End.  It is about 3 miles north of Whaplode village centre.  All records of the Lown family place their residence in Whaplode, which suggests that at least the house in Moulton and possibly the whole holding was rented out.

Why would a widow resist remarriage?

As a second wife, Maria was vulnerable to inheritance under primogenitor, which would have left real property to William Lown’s eldest son (aged 18).  Furthermore, she was potentially vulnerable due to customs of local manors that removed dower rights.  As a widow, Maria may have gained control of assets through guardianship of her children (eldest aged 12) and stepchildren (eldest aged  21).

William Lown did not leave Maria helpless.  He made a will appointing her as executrix, so she had control of the Lown family property.  I have not yet accessed the will at Lincolnshire Archives due to the pandemic, so don’t know the value of his estate.  It does not seem that Maria would  have needed to remarry through necessity straight away. 

Social status is another possible reason for Maria Lown’s reluctance to re-marry.  She had been a farmer’s wife.  William Makeman was of lower status.  The baptisms of William Makeman’s legitimate children display an advancement in his status from labourer (1818), to horseman (1819, 1822) and then cottager (1825, 1826).  

What happened to the illegitimate children?

William died on 21 September 1817, just 5 months old and less than 2 months after his parents married.  None-the-less curate Samuel Oliver continued his commentary in the same vein.

1817 Sept 21

William Bastard son of the Widow, Maria Lown, A prostitute

Burial Register. Whaplode, Lincolnshire. Findmypast

Betsy was acknowledged by her father and was named Betsy Makeman when she married in 1839.  She married James Cooley, schoolmaster of Moulton, son of John Cooley, a farmer.  This was a good match as I know from my research of the Moulton manors that the Cooley family were significant landowners.  The marriage was performed by the same curate, Samuel Oliver, but without any commentary.

Why were the curate’s comments so vitriolic?

Samuel Oliver did not comment on every illegitimate birth beyond use of the term ‘illegitimate’.  In the 3 years between 1815 and 1817, there were 11 baptisms of illegitimate children out of a total of 170.   Apart from Maria, one other person was the subject of vitriolic comment, this time a man who had child with another woman having abandoned his wife

Maria certainly answered back.  Was there dose of misogyny in his reaction?  Did he think a farmer’s wife should behave differently?  Did he fear that Maria might become dependent on the parish if she did not remarry?


Religious Affiliation and Who’s the mom?

When I examined the original parish register at the Bury St Edmunds branch of Suffolk Record Office, back in 2002, the name of this bride’s father stood out.  As I was following my Coulson relatives, I did not investigate further at the time.

Bride: Lily May Smith, age 20
Groom: George William Coulson, age 27
Date: 23 June 1905
Location: All Saints, Hitcham
Father of Bride: Alice Jane Smith (deceased)
Father of Groom: John Coulson (deceased)

Alice Jane Smith does not sound like a man’s name, so why would a woman be recorded as a ‘father’?  Could Lily May have been the illegitimate daughter of Alice Jane Smith?  My first step in pursuing this question was to verify the marriage entry from an independent source.  A gravestone at the Wattisham Strict Baptist chapel commemorates this couple and confirms their approximate dates of birth.  The Baptist chapel at Cross Green in Hitcham was a satellite of the Wattisham chapel.  In my experience, people who are missing from the established Church of England registers for All Saints, Hitcham, often turn up in the Baptist records.  George was baptised at All Saints.  The couple could have married in the Baptist chapel at this date.  As there is a long history of non-conformists marrying in the established Church of England, we can’t assume that this couple’s choice indicates their religious affiliation.

Lily & George W Coulson gravestone

Lily & George W Coulson gravestone
Wattisham Strict Baptist Chapel, Suffolk, England

In loving memory of
LILY
beloved wife of
GEORGE W COULSON
died 9th Dec 1958
in her 73rd year
safe in the arms of Jesus
also of
GEORGE W COULSON
died 31st July 1959
aged 8[1] years
for ever with the Lord

George and Lily appear on the 1911 census at Brettenham Road, Hitcham, with daughter, Violet; brother-in-law, William Smith, aged 61; and mother-in-law, Susannah Smith, a widow aged 72.  The mother-in-law relationship to George suggests Susannah was Lily’s mother, but her age is too old for that to be likely.  I found no reasonable match for Alice Jane Smith, which is consistent with her deceased status on the 1905 marriage register.

In 1901, Lily was living and working as a servant in the household of a farmer in neighbouring Bildeston, so we can glean no helpful relationships from that record.  Susannah (aged 65) is recorded on the Hitcham census with husband Robert Smith (aged 79) and two adult un-married daughters, Alice (aged 35) and Elizabeth (aged 21).  The 1891 Hitcham census is even more helpful as Robert Smith’s household contained wife Susan (aged 50), daughter Alice (aged 23) and granddaughter Lily M (aged 5).  It does not identify Alice as Lily’s mother, but I will be surprised if the civil birth registration for Lily (1886, Jan-Mar quarter Cosford district, vol. 4a, p. 691) does not confirm my suspicions.  The evidence so far clearly suggests Lily May was raised with the support of her grandparents, Robert and Susannah Smith.

© Sue Adams 2013