My Love Letter Time Machine - Victorian History

Matrimonial Superstitions

March 18, 2023 Ingrid Birchell Hughes Season 4 Episode 6
Matrimonial Superstitions
My Love Letter Time Machine - Victorian History
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My Love Letter Time Machine - Victorian History
Matrimonial Superstitions
Mar 18, 2023 Season 4 Episode 6
Ingrid Birchell Hughes

Season 4, episode 6. 3rd-10th August 1882. Fred returns to Sheffield for a visit and seems to be being ghosted by his best friend, and Janie gets a bit of a fright when her cousin Maria Staniforth suddenly falls ill. We also take a look at some matrimonial superstitions of the day.

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Show Notes Transcript

Season 4, episode 6. 3rd-10th August 1882. Fred returns to Sheffield for a visit and seems to be being ghosted by his best friend, and Janie gets a bit of a fright when her cousin Maria Staniforth suddenly falls ill. We also take a look at some matrimonial superstitions of the day.

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Welcome back to My Love Letter Time Machine, Hi, I’m Ingrid Birchell Hughes, and I’m serialising the love letters of my great great Grandparents, Fred Shepherd and Janie Warburton. Travel 140 years back in time with me now where we take a look at Victorian history through their eyes and today Fred returns to Sheffield for a visit and seems to be being ghosted by his best friend, and Janie gets a bit of a fright when her cousin Maria Staniforth suddenly falls ill.

Hi, I'm sorry if it sounds a bit wierd today, I'm recording this in bed, coz I'm not feeling that great. But I thought I'd give it a go, so please forgive me if it sounds a bit weird.

[Book Recommendation: ‘The Unrespectable Woman’ by Roger Griffin]
Now before I start, this time I have book recommendation for you. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Unrespectable Woman’ by Roger Griffin, which is a gripping novelised account of the story behind the last woman to be hung in Wales. Set Cardiff in the Edwardian Era starts ever so gently as Roger Griffin reveals each piece of the jigsaw puzzle of the chaotic life of a woman going by the name of Leslie James. It encompasses alcoholism, casual prostitution and a terrible trade that was known at the time as baby farming. By the end you are met by the enormity of how Leslie, who’s real name was Rhoda Willis, met her tragic end. When I think about how our Janie’s sister Emma was protected by her family, I'm struck by the disastrous parallels here and how being a woman on the wrong side of the tracks could cost you a fair trial and ultimately your life. I honestly could not put it down and I was fair sobbing by the end of it. That’s ‘The Unrespectable Woman’ by Roger Griffin and it’s available on Amazon and other online bookstores. 

{Matrimonial Superstitions]
Back to Fred and Janie, and this week we start with a little flurry of back and forth in their run up to what will be Fred’s last visit back to Sheffield before their wedding:

[[  1882 08 03 JW to FS  ]]
August 3rd 1882
My own darling husband
I have only just a few lines for you to day, so please excuse me love as Polly has come + wants me to make Edith a dress + I want to fit it on twice before she goes away. I went there yesterday but Edith was from home so I could not get it done. From there I went down to Mrs Flears to see her about my [wedding] dress, as it is not finished yet.
I should have liked you to been have been with us in the nurseries darling, it was quite a treat.
We will go to our Church on Sunday morning + Attercliffe in the evening if you like love. I should like us to go, as it will be the last time we shall go as single young people, we shall be old married folks next time.
We should enjoy ourselves even at Cleethorpes darling if we were together or anywhere else.

I know love you would only be too pleased to take me away before this feast if you could. Only another day to pass over then I shall have you with me my own husband, this week is a long one, I do want to see you darling.

Polly wishes to be very kindly remembered to you
We are having very nice weather this week, it was a splendid night last night I did wish for you to bring me home from Darnall, I always miss you darling, you generally were somewhere near, when I was down in that direction. If I have not time to give you a little more tomorrow, I should be at the station to meet the usual train. I dare not write more it is post time 
I love you more than ever and remain your loving true and faithful wife 

Royal Exchange
August 4th 1882
My own darling Wife
I received your short but welcome letter this morning love – for which I thank you. I am sorry your dressmaking business prevents you from giving me a longer one, but I suppose I must bear it.
I have not time for much to night love, we are very busy. Only twenty four hours darling + then we shall be together. - + then I can take you home – tho of course you would no doubt prefer somebody else.
I shall come by the usual train love if possible.
I love you my darling Wife more than ever, + remain
Your loving true + faithful husband

August 4th 1882
My own darling husband
I shall be pleased to see you tomorrow, not many hours to our meeting now love.

I went down to Darnall with Polly last night + found Maria in a very poor state. Polly said how bad she was when she called. She has got in quite a low way + they are afraid of something very serious. I will tell you what it is tomorrow. The Doctor says she is not to be left by herself at all, they had a dreadful night with her on Wednesday. 

Aunt Staniforth asked me to stay all night last night so I did. She had a better night + when I left this morning she seemed nearly herself again but very weak. I do feel sorry for her.

You must please excuse more to night love I will save everything to tell you to morrow. I do wish it was here now.
I remain my darling
Your loving true + faithful

We have now one of those frustrating gaps where no doubt after Fred arriving in Sheffield he got all the updates on what exactly had happened with Maria. As for the details of their weekend together, all I can do is try and piece together the details from their subsequent letters. The local papers offer up some tantalising details about their associates. You might remember Janie mentioning their mutual friend Emma Gill on a few occasions - the poor lass who apparently has Tuberculosis or  consumption as it was known at the time. A few weeks ago Janie wrote about going on a picnic with several people including the entire Gill family. On Friday 04 August 1882 there was this report:

Drunken Driver.— Henry Gill, a market gardener, residing at Handsworth Woodhouse, was charged with having been drunk while in charge of a pony and trap in High street, Attercliffe, on Wednesday night. — The defendant, who admitted the offence, was fined 20s. and costs. 

That’s quite a hefty fine. It’s nearly a week’s wages manual labourer.

On the Monday, Janie and Fred might have felt obliged to go and see the Darnall Wellingtons playing a match  on the Nether Green where Jinnie Reckless’s fiancee, David Craven, contributed a single run to the winning total. It would be interesting to know how the Staniforth’s were coping with the idea of Jinnie being engaged to a Craven, given that Willie Craven may well have been part of the reason for Maria’s downturn. 

You see back in a letter of Fred’s dated 27th May 1882 he wrote: “I am sorry to hear that Maria has been unfortunate over Willie Craven. But I don’t quite see why he came to see her after his marriage. Did she not know of it? I think he is very foolish in marrying his deceased wife’s sister, because it is no marriage according to the law, + the children of any result will be illegitimate. The Craven’s seem rather unfortunate in their marriages I think. Was he really engaged to Maria or was he only trifling with her. I never thought he would marry her love, + believe I said so to you some time ago.”

Now, William Craven had been married to a Clara Blanche who had died suddenly the previous year aged 25. 

The issue of a man marrying the sister of his dead wife had become something of a political campaign during the Victorian era and I was surprised to see the number of reports on the subject even in just the Sheffield press, from reporting the progress of the act legitimising such marriages — which  was currently going through parliamentary procedure in Canada, to the lack of progress for a similar act to go through the British parliament, to a story from Cirencester, where a gentleman, after the death of his first wife had married his sister-in-law, was outraged when his local vicar refused to administer the sacrament to his wife. He appealed to the Bishop only for the Bishop to approve of the Vicar’s behaviour. If this had been done to her after she’d knelt at the altar, it seems rather cruel and humiliating.

Why was this such a big deal and why was it such an issue worth campaigning on  the time - a campaign the length of which was even sent-up in satirical song in Gilbert and Sulivan’s 1882 operetta ‘Iolanthe’. 

A contributing factor may well have been the maternal death rate which in the 1880s was still shockingly high. 1 in every 200 pregnancies ended with the death of the mother.  For comparison that number in the UK today is now only 1 maternal death in 10,000 pregnancies. It wasn’t until antibiotics came in, in the 1930s that things properly started to improve. Given this and the many other causes of premature death at the time, many men would have found themselves alone with several children to care for - but he would not have been expected to do it himself. If he could afford it he would have sought the help of a housekeeper and if he could not, he would be dependent of the support of his female relatives. Sisters-in-law stepped up to the plate all the time. Marriage for many was the next logical step either out of practicality or out of the genuine feeling that had grown with close proximity. 

This kind of marriage was considered a bit iffy it would seem in part due to a suspicion that it was adjacent to incest. Arguments were drawn from the book of Leviticus in the bible, that a husband and wife "became one flesh," therefore your sister-in-law wasn’t just your sister-IN-LAW, she was actually your sister.

However it wasn’t made explicitly illegal until 1835 when an act was passed in part to protect inheritance rights. And Fred is absolute right, any children of such marriages would be considered illegitimate. The law didn’t change until the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act passed in 1907. What of Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act I hear some of you ask? Well that didn’t change until after the First World War and was passed in 1921

Going back to Willie Crave, had Maria Staniforth played a role in comforting him after the death of his wife and is that how she developed feelings for him. Did he in his grief and confused state presume stronger feelings towards Maria and in a weak moment propose to her. What led him to break with Maria and decide to marry his sister-in-law instead? From the sounds of their future comments, it appears he was selfish man and was playing fast and loose with Maria’s affections. The whole family appears to rally behind her and Janie and Fred spent some time that weekend trying to cheer her up. 

I’m sure the weekend went quickly and before long, it was Tuesday morning and Fred was back on a train wending his way to Middlesbrough.

The North Eastern Steel Co. Ltd.
Offices – Royal Exchange
August 8th 1882 

My own darling Wife
I arrived here all safe a little before three o’clock this afternoon. I had a very pleasant journey but should have enjoyed it more if you had been with me love – but you will be next time.
I had the usual look around York – I am sure you will like it love when I can take you round.

I wish the time would go love + that I was coming to fetch you next week for good. I hope you got home all safe. I shall not be able to give you much tonight as it is now half past seven + I am rather hungry.

I remain my darling Wife
Your loving, true + faithful husband
P.S. If Fred writes to your house, you might open the letter + then forward it to me.

August 9th 1882
My own darling husband
I received your letter this morning. I was very pleased you arrived all safe love, + had a pleasant journey. I wish you could have taken me with you but I shall go next time + we shall enjoy the journey then, it is nine weeks tomorrow, not eight as we thought but it will not be very long now before I am your happy wife.

I shall enjoy the look round York when you take me darling. I got home all right love about eleven o’clock, I felt very tired in the afternoon. Mother said I looked as if I had been rakeing for a month. I thought it must be with dancing it could not be with anything else, we had so much company too yesterday + I had to wait upon them. I almost felt too tired to put one foot before the other but I feel all right to day. I have just finished ironing.
I promised J[innie] Reckless I would go up to the Institution one night while Mrs Gover is [away] , so I thought I would go to night as I am more at liberty than any other night this week, + change the [wedding] ring.

I feel sure love it will be too small + the sooner it is changed the better. I am going by the twenty minutes to six train + shall come back by the nine oclock.
I wish you could go with me love, I do love you more than ever darling. I am looking forward to a happy future when we shall always be together.

Our John has just gone to [undertake?] some parish business.
I will give you a little more to morrow they want me to get the tea ready now love. Fred has not written here yet.
I remain as always
Your loving true + faithful
P.S. Please love excuse the little smears.

Albert Terrace
Linthorpe Road
August 10th 1882

My own darling wife
I received your letter this morning for which I thank you. I thought you would contrive to let me have a few lines, if it were anyway possible.
I thought it was only eight weeks love to “the day” + am almost sorry that it is nine. But it will give you a little more time love to prepare for it.

I am sorry that you were so tired my darling – you seemed all right when we went from home. It must have been the dancing love, that knocked you up; it could not of course have been anything else. 

Did your mother say anything about our being upstairs together on Monday love?

You will know by this love, whether you have changed the ring, + if you have got one to suit. I am sorry I could not be with you, as I rather like making purchases of that kind with you wifie. I suppose Jinnie would have to see it – what did she say? She would go into ecstasies of course.

I have not heard from Fred love about my letter – do you think it would be advisable to ask John Meays at once, + so be sure of him? I am rather disappointed that Fred has not thought it worth while to write in reply, even if he had refused the offer. I suppose he will be busy spooning Miss Barton, + so will not have time to write.

Did your Emma get home all right on Monday night love?
Of course I will excuse the smear darling – I would excuse anything rather than not have a letter from you.
I should have written for tonights post – but it was after eight when I had done. It is our pay day + we have been busy sending out the cheques to the contractors. You must excuse me this once darling.

I intended going down to Mrs Gordon’s tonight, (but have not had time) to see if she has heard of a house near there. I think I understood you that either Church Street, Milton Street, or St. Paul’s Road would do love. I hope we may succeed in getting one in one of those streets as I should not like you to be disappointed.
I hear that Mrs Gordon has let her back rooms this week, I hope (with all due regard for her income) that she will not let the others as we could then take them for a week or two, I think you would perhaps be better able to settle down there, than having to go to a strange place. 
I think to day has been the most beautiful day we have had here, + also the hottest. There was scarcely a breath of air + the sky perfectly blue. I did wish that you were here love, + that we could have gone down to Saltburn for the afternoon. It would have been very enjoyable, wouldn’t it my darling.
I dont feel the separation so much this time darling, for I think that it won’t be long before you are my wife, + then there will be no separations for us.

I enclose you a cutting from a paper on “Matrimonial Superstitions.” It may interest you love if you have not seen it before.
I hope you are not superstitious as to day or time love, as I cannot see how they can affect anyone’s happiness.
I will now close for tonight love, + will give you a little more tomorrow on receiving yours.

I love you my darling wife more than ever. Good night wifie (x)

[continued] August 11th/82.
My darling,
I was rather disappointed at not receiving a letter from you this morning especially as you had almost promised me one.
It is awfully hot again to day – I have been longing for the Claret + Ginger Beer I used to have at your house last summer. I think I should enjoy a taste of it, but must do without it.
I think I am going to Yarm tomorrow afternoon. We shall take a boat at Stockton + row up the stream with the tide to Yarm and then come back with it. I have heard that it is very enjoyable. I shall perhaps take you up if it is nice + you are good, when you are my little wife.
I wish I was coming home again to see you love as I did last Saturday. It does seem a long time from Tuesday morning.
I remain
My darling Janie (wife)
Your loving true + faithful
P.S. I shall as usual expect one for Sunday love.

I can’t find the exact copy of the article on Matrimonial Superstitions that Fred sent to Janie but I found the what I assume may well have been a version of a piece that was in multiple newspapers across England and Ireland. The article first appeared in 1871 and was still doing the rounds 65 years later where I found it in 1936 being reprinted with the almost the exact same copy. It looks to be one of those handy filler articles that gets dusted off periodically during the wedding season. The lists of traditions in the latter half of the article is tedious and long and was probably useful to be cut to size to fill the available space. Can you tell I used to work as a layout editor on a Newspaper by any chance? Anyway here are some of the edited highlights:

It begins: 
MATRIMONIAL SUPERSTITIONS. In olden days, June was held the most propitious month in the twelve for marriage, a happy result being rendered doubly certain if the ceremony was timed so as to take place at the full moon, or when the sun and moon were in conjunction…May is in these latter days a favourite marrying mont in England, so that one matrimonial superstition has gone the way all such faneles are doomed, sooner or later, to go; for May… “Who marries between the sickle and the scythe will never thrive” … May never was the month of Love … That those concerned might better remember the rules, somebody put them into rhyme, running thus : Advent marriage loth deny. But Hilary gives thee liberty ; Septuagesima  says thee nay ; Eight days from Easter says you may ; Rogation bids thee to contain, But Trinity sets thee free again. 

“It was considered improper to marry upon Innocents' Day, because it commemorated the slaughter of the children by Herod ; and it was equally wrong to wed upon St. Joseph's Day. In fact, the whole season of Lent was declared ,unfettered from the intrusion of Hymen's devotees. “Marry in Lent. and you'll repent !” and there are good people among its still who, if they do not believe that bit of proverbial wisdom to be prophetic. undoubtedly think Lenten welders deserve to find it so. We may possibly be doing a service to some of our readers by informing them (on the authority of a manuscript of the fifteenth century) that there are just thirty -two days in the year upon which it I is unadvisable to go into join-hand […and the article proceeds to list every one of the dates… It then continues w a rhyme about marrying on specific days of the week] “Monday for wealth, Tuesday for health; Wednesday the best day of all; Thursday for crosses Friday for losses, Saturday no luck at all.”  We then get a list of customs:
 “It is a bad sign if the bride fails to shed tears on the happy day, or if she Indulges herself by taking a last-admiring glance at the looking-glass after her toilet is completed; but she may gratify her vanity without danger if she leaves one hand ungloved until beyond temptation. To meet a priest, dog. cat, lizard, or serpent on the way to church—to look back, or to mount many steps before getting to the church door, are alike ominous of future unhappiness; and, according to the north-country,  it is courting misfortune to marry in green, or while there is an open grave in the churchyard; or to go in at one door and out at another. The weather, too, has a good or bad influence twit affairs: happy is the bride the sun shines on. and, of course, the converse is equally true … When the bridesmaids undress the bride, they must throw away and lose all the pins. Woe to the bride if a single [pin] be left about her: nothing will go right: Woe also to the bridesmaids if they keep one of them, for they will not be married before Whitsuntide, or til the Easter following, at soonest!' Where the Scottish custom is followed of the newly wedded couple being welcomed home by the husband's mother meeting them at the door, and breaking a currant bun over the head of the bride before her foot crosses the threshold, it is thought a very bad omen if the bun be, by any mistake, broken over any head but that to which the honour is due. If a bridal party ventures off dry land, they must go up stream ; should they by foolhardy enough to go down the water, either the bride, the bridegroom, or one of the bridesmaids will infallibly feed the fishes. Spite of the faith in there being luck in odd numbers it is a belief in the north of England, that one of their wedding guests will die within a year. unless the party counts even. … and so on and so on and so the article goes on. I’m going to stop there. 

The superstitions don’t seem to bother our pair in the slightest, next week, as well as the continuing best-man-wrangling saga, Fred starts house hunting, and Janie continues to prepare by filling her bottom drawer.

Thank you so much for listening to My Love Letter Time Machine. I’d very much like to share Fred and Janie’s story with more people, so If you haven’t already - can I ask to share this podcast with someone you think might enjoy it? You can also find excerpts of Fred and Janie’s letters on instagram at my love letter time machine all one word and you can write to me at my love letter time machine at gmail dot com.

Until next time, take care.
© Ingrid Birchell Hughes 2023