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  • A lock of hair, a bible, and bigamy.

A lock of hair, a bible, and bigamy.

To receive a box of old family papers is always a delight for a family historian. Some of the items may re-inforce research already done, other items may open new avenues for exploration and some just makes you go back to re-examine previous research and conclusions. Two items in just such a box led me from a lock of hair, through a photocopy of a page in a bible to the discovery of a case of bigamy.

The lock of hair (below on the left) belonged to my great-great-great-great grandmother – Mary Edlin, formely Caton, and helped confirm what I already knew. As the envelope correctly states she died in July 1848 at the age of 96. She was born on 27th November 1751 to Gilbert Caton and Sarah Caton, formerly Willetts, and christened in St Botolph Aldersgate on 22nd December 1751; her parents having married on 2nd February 1750 in St Giles Cripplegate. Mary’s father, Gilbert, had become a Freeman of the City of London in 1747 by Servitude. His Indenture of Apprenticeship showed that his father was Rob. Caton, of St George Southwark, an Ostler.

Gilbert worked as a watchcase maker until 1752 and then disappears from view. Sarah also disappeared until 14th January 1784 when she remarried in Richmond. The marriage was by Banns and she declared herself to be a Widow and her second husband was Thomas Colsill, a bachelor. In 1785 Thomas insured property worth £700 with the Sun Insurance.  He died in 1789 and according to his will[i] left a freehold property in Mortlake near the sign of the Ship. Sarah survived until 1818, dying in Conduit Street at the home of her grand-daughter.  

Mary, in the meanwhile, had married Edward Edlin on 23rd July 1774 in St George Hanover Square. He is described in various directories as a Turner and Toyman at 34 New Bond Street. Mary and Edward had 3 children, one of whom was Edward Colsill Edlin who had a business at No. 37 New Bond Street as a Toyman. He also had property at Mortlake in Ship Lane, probably the same property that had belonged to Thomas Colsill. Edward Colsill Edlin had 17 children – one of whom Thomas Edlin named on the envelope enlcosing Mary's hair  and another was Sir Peter Henry Edlin, Barrister and Judge. (More about Sir Peter in future posts).

The next item out of the box of old papers was a photocopy of a page from the Edlin family bible (see photo below o right). It had a dedication – “Given to Sarah Caton by me Francis Knollys Bart”. Sadly Francis Knollys had not included anything so useful as a date or an explanation!

So the next question is who was Sir Francis Knollys Bart? And what was his connection with Sarah Caton (formerly Willetts)?

Research showed that Francis Knollys was knighted in 1754 and died in 1772. His will[ii] did not show any obvious connection to Sarah or Thomas. So by some strange piece of good fortune I turned my attention to his father – Richard Knollys. I discovered that he had married Ann Taylor in Mortlake on 6th December 1739. Mortlake! – was there a connection to Thomas Colsill?

Richard Knolly signed his will[iii] on 23rd January 1769 and it was probated on 7th October 1770.  Thomas Colsill was left an annuity of £15 per annum, a bequest of £50 and all “wearing apparel both linen and woollen”. These bequests were contingent on Thomas being in Richard’s employ at time of death. Sarah Caton was also left a bequest of £100 for her own separate use – with the provision that she too was in Richard’s employment at time of his death.

The will[iv] of Ann Knollys showed similar provisions. It was signed on 11th July 1771 and probated on 17th July 1776. Sarah Caton was described as “my maid” and received a bequest of £100 and all wearing apparel. Thomas Colsill, “my butler” was also left £100. Both bequests were contingent on each being in the employment of Ann Knollys at the time of her death. Money was also left to each of them for mourning clothes.

At this point a multitude of questions ran through my mind. Had Gilbert died? Had Sarah fled a bad marriage and taken a job to support herself and her child? Had she known either Richard Knollys or his wife Ann previously? Had Gilbert deserted her? Had he escaped his marriage by joining the army? Had he been imprisoned? Was he in a workhouse or a lunatic asylum? There are more questions than answers.

When I originally planned to write this piece, albeit it with a different title, it was my intention to finish the story here. However I decided to have one last look for Gilbert’s death. This time I found it!

Gilbert Caton was buried on 1st February 1791 in St Botolph Aldersgate, the very same church that his daughter Mary Caton had been baptised in. I had previously been looking in the time period between Mary’s birth and Sarah’s second marriage which is why I had failed. The parish register for his burial described Gilbert as “poor”!

Gilbert’s burial in 1791 took place two years after the death of Thomas Colsill. Therefore, for Sarah, her marriage to Thomas in 1784 was bigamous as her original husband was still alive.

The pressing, and probably unanswerable, question is – did Sarah know that Gilbert was still alive when she married Thomas Colsill in 1784? Or did she just presume that Gilbert must have died in the intervening period; thus she truly believed that she was the widow she declared herself to be?

So the delightful discovery of a lock of hair from my great-great-great-great grandmother, Mary Edlin, formerly Caton, has taken me, via a family bible, to the somewhat surprising discovery that my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Sarah, had entered into a bigamous second marriage.

[i] Will of Thomas Colsill of Mortlake, Surrey. 20 May 1789. National Archives PROB 11/1178

[ii] Will of Sir Francis Knollys of Fearnhill, Berkshire. 10 July 1772. National Archives PROB 11/979

[iii] Will of Richard Knollys of Mortlake, Surrey. 02 October 1770. National Archives PROB 11/961

[iv] Will of Ann or Anne Knollys, Widow of Mortlake, Surrey. 17 July 1776. National Archives 11/1021

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