24th August 1896

Jersey men are permitted to marry their dead wives’ sisters

The Dean of Jersey wrote to the mainland newspapers on 24 August 1896 to explain various changes that had been made to the island’s laws concerning marriage. In short, a widowed man could now marry his wife’s sister – something that was still outlawed on the mainland.

Thus, wrote the Dean, “owing to the publicity given to this measure in England, a not inconsiderable number of persons domiciled in the United Kingdom are constantly coming, or are proposing to come, with the intention of being married here to their sisters-in-law, under the impression (a mistaken one, I believe) that their marriage will be legal in England because it has been celebrated in a place where such marriages are now recognised by law”.

Legal uncertainty

Why was the Dean bothering to write to the mainland papers about an island affair? Because he was refusing every application for such a marriage licence that he received until the Church of England ruled on the legality of such a marriage itself. His refusals had so far been the cause of “astonishment and disappointment”.

That didn’t stop would-be couples applying to the Superintendent Registrar who was powerless to refuse the application but, warned the Dean, there was no guarantee that the marriages would be considered marriages at all once the couples returned to the mainland.

A response to the Dean’s letter from the Attorney-General for Jersey didn’t exactly clarify matters. Willian Venables Vernon wrote, “as regards their validity, such marriages… will continue… to be governed by the old law [and] such marriages are not absolutely null and void (as they would be in England under Lord Lyndhurst’s Act) but merely voidable and liable to be set aside during the lifetime of the parties thereto only”.

So the message was simple: get married if you want, but bear in mind that your marriage might be struck off once you get home.

What wasn’t explained was whether the law worked in the other direction. Did it concern only men who wanted to marry their dead wives’ sisters, or could widowed women also marry their dead husband’s brothers? We may never know.


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