Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Common Law Relationships in 18th Century England

While old English communities no doubt frowned on unmarried couples living together, and certainly would not have approved of them having children together, there is no reason to suppose it was uncommon.

When we look at baptism entries in older parish registers we often find children with second names and, occasionally, more than one child in a family had the same second name. I pointed out in a post on March 17, 2015 that some children were given the names of their grandparents or great-grandparents as second forenames. But there was also a group for which no father was listed and an assumption was made that the second name was really the missing father’s surname.

I was contacted by a family researcher recently to see if I could find burial information on a man named Amos Rice. We found a marriage record for him, to Sarah Bond, in the marriage register for Plympton St. Mary parish, Devon, dated April 13, 1784. Both were shown as resident in the parish. There was no baptism entry for him. In fact there were no families of that name in the area prior to the 1800s. We have not found a death or burial entry for him either although Sarah was buried in the parish in 1818 at the age of 78.

The parish baptism register did not show any children of the couple at least with the name Rice. But there were seven entries for children of Sarah Bond between 1763 and 1784, all of them “base born” and four of them with a second name of Rice. The Rice name began with the 1777 baptism. The last child was baptized just 23 days before Amos and Sarah were married. The coincidence of second names strongly suggests that the couple was living together for at least seven years. What finally prompted them to make it legal is anyone’s guess at this point.

There is no evidence about where Amos had come from or what happened to him after his marriage to Sarah, other than mentions of the family in a series of entries in the Overseers Register of Applicants for Relief between 1805 and 1823. It appears that Amos was sick and/or in need, possibly for many years. The parish provided cash and clothes to assist the family, including help for an unmarried daughter who was “in childbed”.

Judging by the entries it seems likely that most of the entries that mentioned an Amos Rice were actually for the son of Amos and Sarah. The only one that can be linked to Amos Senior is an 1806 entry when and entry showing that funds were paid to Sarah also indicated “Husband ill”. In all entries after that it is not possible to distinguish where the relief was paid to Amos Senior or Amos Junior.

Amos Junior’s story is interesting as well. He was baptized in 1777 as Amos Rice Bond. He was also married under that name in 1799. But all of his children were baptized with the surname Rice with one of them having a second name of Bond. He was also buried as Amos Rice in 1842, in Plymptons St. Mary parish. It is clear he was eventually convinced that his father was, in fact, Amos Rice and that he should carry that name.

In the parish marriage register there are four marriages that could be for children of this family. Mary Bond married Robert Shiers in 1791; she may not have been Amos’ daughter as she was one of Sarah’s children that did not have a second name of Rice. Amos Rice Bond, as mentioned above, married Mary Warren in 1799. Ann Rice married David Dunn in 1801; she had been baptized as Annrice Bond in 1778. Sarah Rice married Robert Andrews in 1804; she also had been baptized with the surname Bond in 1784. The last two grooms were soldiers and not from the Plympton area.

So we have another example of people whose surname changed over time. In this case it appears the children knew who their parents were and the number with the second name of Rice indicates the couple lived together in what we would now consider a common law relationship.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated


  1. Mary Catherine Judd9 February 2016 at 21:04

    I don't know if this is true in England, but with circuit riding preachers in the US, there was often a long time between when a preacher would come through. So couples would live together until the preacher came then everyone who wished to be married since the last preacher had passed through would get married. Maybe it was the same there, maybe not. Interesting article though.

    1. In England at least most areas had established churches for centuries so the prospect of having to wait for a minister was unlikely. In remote areas it might have been the case but people likely could travel to a centre to get married relatively easily. Among my own ancestors in early America I am very sure there were times when couples had to wait for a preacher, and possibly even had a child or two before one showed up. A complication of these late marriages by travelling ministers is that one wonders where the marriages were actually registered with church or government offices sometimes very far away.

    2. As the limits of location in NSW were expanded during the 1830's to '50's & settlers took up land in these remote areas circuit ministers were the only means the assigned convicts, farm labourers & servants had to marry or baptise children, it was far too remote for them to travel to a developed town.
      I have seen a few examples in my family of couples marrying & having a number of children baptised on the same day when the circuit minister arrived in the area.

  2. What a fantastic find for me! Ann Rice Bond who married David Dunn is my 5 great grandmother. I was not aware of the Bond name & could find nothing further about her family. I was also having trouble figuring out why the second name of Andrews was given to a number of her children. All explained above with the addition of her parents!

    1. It does get complicated sometimes but second names in the 18th century were not common and usually represented a relationship with another family or ancestor. I am glad serendipity worked for you in this case. If you want more information do come visit my OPC website at http://cornwood-opc.com/psmary Maybe we can flesh out more about your family.