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Thomas Waters – Bigamist #52ancestors in 52 weeks

March 26, 2020

Professional genealogist and podcaster Amy Johnson Crow has put out the challenge to genealogists and family historians, to write stories about 52 of their ancestors in 52 weeks.

I am happily taking up the challenge, and look forward to writing stories, that will collate many years of research results. In most cases, the research for my ancestors is not complete, and possibly never will be complete, but I’m hoping to build a story of the lives they lived with the information I have to hand. I’m hoping to publish these stories in a book at the end of 2020. Each week a prompt will be given as the theme for the week.

Week 13: Nearly Forgotten

My great great grandfather, THOMAS WATERS was born at Newtonbury, Dunton, in Bedfordshire, England in 1829. It seems that when he decided to start a new life in Australia, he left a few issues behind in his past. He had been  the licensee of The Castle, at 98 Kent Street, St. George-the-Martyr. He was in the hotel business for a short time, giving up the licence in July 1852, after just 18 months.

*note: Kent Street has been renamed Tabard Street

Thomas left England in 1854 . The family story is that he was ship’s crew and jumped ship when he arrived in South Australia. But again, I have found no evidence of this oral history. What is known, is that when he left England, he left behind a wife.  In 1852, THOMAS WATERS married RUTH WINDUST at St. Giles parish church, Camberwell, Surrey England.

This information raises a couple of questions that need further research:

  •  In leaving, was he escaping debts from the hotel?
  •  Was he escaping a bad marriage?

On 12 January 1857, three years after his arrival in South Australia, Thomas Waters married Elizabeth Anne Cox, at Strathalbyn, South Australia. There is no record of a divorce from Ruth Windust. But it’s important to know that in the mid 19th century, divorce was very costly, leaving it only available to the upper classes. As far as I have been able to ascertain, Thomas and Ruth had no children  I can imagine if things weren’t working out for Thomas, taking a job on a ship to the new world of Australia, could be an option to be considered. There on the other side of the world, his old life could be nearly forgotten and a new future could be made.

Looking back with our 21st century eyes, Thomas Waters could be thought to be a bigamist. But it wasn’t uncommon at the times to walk away from a marriage and even re-marry with no divorce.

“In mid 19th century England, a missing husband was often assumed to have ‘gone abroad’ or ‘gone to Australia’; and not surprisingly, since gross emigration averaged more than four persons in each thousand of England’s inhabitants, in the early 1850s and the boom was above all, in sailings to Australia” – written by Olive Anderson and published in The Economic History Review

THOMAS WATERS married ELIZABETH ANN COX, on 12 January 1857 at Strathalbyn, South Australia. They went on to have 12 children, and lived a long life together. It’s possible that Elizabeth didn’t know about Thomas’ past and I’m sure that Thomas quickly moved on from his past, even though deserting his wife was considered to be an offence, almost forgetting those early days as a young man in England.

Thomas Waters

Ruth Windust: Whatever Ruth Windust did after Thomas Waters left England, she left very little trail behind and she didn’t remarry. There is an entry in the England and Wales Civil Registration Death Index 1837-1915 in the 4th Qtr 1864 for Ruth Waters who died at the parish of St. Saviour. St. Saviour is close to Southwark where Ruth’s father was licensee of a hotel.

My story of Thomas Waters, being a bigamist, is just one of many who walked out on their marriage and started a new life with a new wife, without a divorce being in place. For those who went on to have happy lives, I’m sure their early years of marriage were nearly forgotten. Although bigamy was an offence, there wasn’t an alternative available to them, due to the cost and unavailability of divorce.

© 2020 Copyright. all rights reserved:


FreeBMD. England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915 [database on-line].
Original data: General Register Office.
England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes.
The Economic History Review (1997) p104-109
Newington Court Minutes: PS.NEW/1/7

From → Family stories

  1. One of my ancestors apparently left a wife and family behind too and remarried out here. We’ve had problems finding them though as he came out here as a convict named John Hayes, yet had the initials JL tattooed on his arm. He later, at some point, began calling himself John Lyon/Lyonn/Lyons which we believe was his real name. Mum has been hitting dead ends with this one for years.

    • Family history can be very frustrating Jo. It was common that our ancestors changed names and remarried to start a new life. One day your Mum will knock a hole in that brick wall.

  2. I’m finding several men on my tree who disappeared, but no luck finding out if they were murdered or just went somewhere else to start a new life. I should redouble my efforts on those.

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