This is a story illustrating the confusion of surnames used by one family and what erroneous conclusions can be drawn from limited information. I found this while transcribing parish registers of Plympton St. Mary parish, Devon.
On the face of it, there are a curious set of comments on the baptism register from Plympton St. Mary parish. On two baptism entries, in 1873 and 1874, children are shown with only one parent, Elizabeth Nicholls. No father is indicated. A statement was made on both occasions that might lead one to think there was some hanky-panky going on!
The 1873 baptism for Mary Nicholls has a note that says her mother, Elizabeth, was “living with her deceased sister’s husband.” The 1874 baptism for Mary’s brother, Ernest, had a similar note which said Elizabeth was “living with her sister’s widower, Thomas Mackenney.”
In 1859 Thomas McKenny had married Eliza Nicholls, the sister of Elizabeth Nicholls.
|1859 marriage record for Thomas McKenny and Eliza Nicholls, Plympton St. Mary parish|
|1861 England Census - Thomas and Eliza Mackenny family, residing at North Side of Underwood, Plympton St. Mary parish|
Eliza died in 1870 leaving Thomas with six young children. In 1871, Elizabeth Nicholls was living with her brother-in-law and his children. Perhaps she had come to help out after her sister’s death the year before.
|1871 England Census - Thomas Mackenny family and Elizabeth Nicholls, residing at Sydney Cottages, Plympton St. Mary parish|
By 1881 Elizabeth had apparently married Thomas as she is shown with the MacKenny surname. The couple now had three more children, presumably together, all with the surname MacKenny.
|1881 England Census - Thomas and Elizabeth MacKenny family, residing at Dark Lane, Plympton St. Mary parish|
Civil registration documents show Thomas and Elizabeth were married in Plymouth in 1872. Birth records for both Mary and Ernest were registered with the name of MacKenny, even though the baptism entries said their name was Nicholls.
This is an example of the prohibition against a man marrying his deceased wife’s sister in effect at the time. The refusal to approve such marriages was part of early canon law based on the interpretation of texts from the Old Testament. It became an absolute civil ban with passing of the Marriage Act of 1835. It was not repealed in Britain until 1907. While the births of the children were recorded by civil authorities with the man’s surname, it is obvious that the church refused to recognize the union, if they even knew. Nor would the church have sanctioned the marriage ceremony in the parish in which they lived. Very likely the marriage itself was done under license and the parties did not tell the entire truth about the relationship of the sisters.
Regardless, the baptism information could lead one to search for quite different people without having first looked at other records for the family and unraveling a bit of history first. The note in the register about the mother’s living arrangements does give a clue about what was going on.
By the way, the prohibition against a wife marrying a dead husband’s brother was not lifted until 1921.
Curiously, I have not found a baptism record for the last two children born to Thomas and Elizabeth after 1874. The marriage record for one of them, Bessie, indicates she was married after banns; so she must have been baptized someplace.
The lesson here is that not all is what it may seem from entries and notes in the parish registers. It is always necessary to look at all the information available, as well as review the data in light of historical conditions, in order to get the real story.
Baptism and marriage images reproduced here are used with the kind permission of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office (PWDRO), Census records are the property of The National Archives and published under their Open Government License. Images were downloaded from Ancestry or FindMyPast , or copied from my own microfiche.