Some Redruth folk’s marital issues

Occasionally, peering through the routine pages of the nineteenth century censuses examining the lives of our predecessors can seem to veer perilously close to prurient curiosity. Perhaps we discover something that they tried hard to hide – an illegitimate child brought up by the grandparents, a deserted wife describing herself as a widow, a bigamist on the run from his former life.

The Bolenowe Valley with carn Brea in the distance

Nevertheless, putting any such scruples aside interesting sidelights can sometimes be unearthed when tracking the whereabouts of our Victorian ancestors. Louisa Orchard’s upbringing in the rural part of Redruth parish was conventional enough. She was one of the several children of Hannibal and Elizabeth Orchard. Hannibal had been a copper miner in 1851 but by 1861 had taken on a farm of 21 acres. The family moved to a smaller holding, but were still resident in the parish in 1871. Louisa remained at home into her 20s, helping her mother manage the household. By 1881 however, we find her married to Henry Prisk, 20 years her senior, who was a cattle dealer at Bolenowe Croft near Camborne. The couple had four children, the eldest born in 1878.

All seemed perfectly above board and humdrum. Although the marriage details couldn’t be found this isn’t that unusual. Until that is we read the census entry for 1891. For, ten years later, Louisa was returned under her maiden name and described as housekeeper, not wife. In 1901 she had reverted to being a wife but there’s still no marriage record. Her husband/partner Henry died in 1906 but Louisa lived on until 1929. Her death was registered under her maiden name but it’s not known whether she used Orchard or Prisk in 1911 and 1921.

Louisa’s 1891 census entry

Was there some reason they hadn’t married? Was Henry already married perhaps? Divorce was not easy to obtain in nineteenth-century Britain. Before the 1858 Matrimonial Causes Act civil divorce could only be obtained through a special act of Parliament for each divorce. This restricted them to the very richest and only about 100 divorces a year were passed through Parliament. Under the new law a special court (but meeting only in London) could grant divorces at a cost of around £100 (around £13,000 nowadays).

This would still have been too costly and inconvenient for most people in Cornwall. Furthermore, the prevalent double standards of morality were sealed into this law. Husbands could sue for divorce simply on the grounds of adultery but a wife had to prove that in addition to adultery her husband had committed another sin – bestiality, bigamy, incest, rape or cruelty. Equality between the sexes wasn’t established until 1923.

William Harry Salter from Redruth was definitely legally married in the 1880s. He was the eldest son of an engine fitter at Trevingey in Redruth in 1861 and emigrated to the US in 1870. Harry seems like a restless character and almost immediately enlisted in the US Army, in which he served for three years until his discharge in 1874. In 1880 he married Ellamando Arnold at La Crosse in Wisconsin. By the mid-1880s the couple had moved west to North Dakota but in 1887 it was reported that Harry had deserted his wife and absconded, leaving a variety of debts behind him. He hadn’t gone far as in 1891 he bought land in Ward County, North Dakota and a year later obtained a divorce from his wife. That wasn’t the end of Harry’s exploits, as in 1909 the local newspaper in Logan, North Dakota reported that Harry Salter, ‘local drayman’, had been arrested when he had tried to deliver beer to a group of picnickers in what was presumably a ‘dry’ county.

One thought on “Some Redruth folk’s marital issues

  1. The Orchards are part of my family tree. The name Hannibal was popular, going back to my relative Hannibal Bassett.

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