DNA Journey Episode 4
Gavin and Stacey favourites, actors Larry Lamb and Alison Steadman, embark on a road trip to find out their family history using a mix of DNA and genealogy, meeting living family members they never knew existed, along the way.
Although I’m not on screen in Larry and Alison’s episode of DNA Journey, I was involved in the research, and it threw up some interesting stories. One of which, explained below, was featured in the excellent programme.
A shocking and Unusual 19th Century Divorce
I researched one particular story involving the family of Thomas Kerr Larry’s 3 x Great Grandfather, that turned out to be an unusual one for working class people at the time.
Thomas was on Larry’s Dad’s side of the family; and Elizabeth Kerr was Larry’s Great Great Grandmother’s Sister, so Larry’s 2 x Great Aunt.
The Kerrs were Irish Cockneys, Thomas was born in Londonderry according to the 1851 Census, and Elizabeth his daughter in Letterkenny Donegal. The Family had come over to England around the time of the Potato Famine. Her father Thomas (Larry’s 3 x Great Father) was a ladies Shoemaker. The Family were living in St Giles-in-the-Field in the East End of London, often described as an “Irish Rookery” at that time. This was because the area was packed with cheap housing and from the late 1830s through the 1840s and 1850s was predominantly split between working class Irish people fleeing the Potato Famine and looking for a better life in England, and English Cockneys.
The area was very rough, although not everyone was living in complete poverty, and Thomas being not just a Shoe or Bootmaker, but specifically a Ladies Shoemaker meant that he would have been of a slightly higher skill level than the average Working-Class man. At least one of his sons, also called Thomas followed his father’s trade as a Ladies Shoemaker.
Thomas had three daughters and two sons, all born in Northern Ireland, but all living in East London in 1851.
During the research into the family, I found divorce papers filed by John Gayton suing for Divorce from his wife Elizabeth Kerr. For two working class people, from a very working-class area to go through a formal divorce was a highly unusual move for non-wealthy people. The couple lived in Bacon Street just off of Brick Lane on the borders of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green.
The petition was based upon John Gayton claiming that Elizabeth had adulterous relations with John Parrott and another, unknown man, seemingly a straightforward claim. However, the case started to become more complex, Elizabeth counter sued, and claimed that John had “incestuous” relations with her sister Jane Howell (Kerr) (Larry’s 2x Great Grandmother) as well as a woman named Martha Wells.
Elizabeth also claimed that John Gayton, beat her, kicked her, dragged her along the ground, tore her hair out with his teeth, slapped her, attempted to strangle her, threw her down the stairs, and twice threatened to kill her, to “kick her entrails out”. Part of the affidavit is shown below:
Were these the just tit-for-tat accusations? Well, I did further research to look for evidence, and found that John Gayton had a history of violence. In 1870 He had been prosecuted for attacking a Cab Driver in the Prince of Wales Pub in the Kingsland Road. He claimed he mistook the Cab Driver for a man who had got Elizabeth imprisoned for another offence, however he had attacked the wrong man, dragged him out of a pub with an accomplice a Cattle Dealer, beat him, and tore part of his beard from his face! It was only the intervention of the Publican and his Potman that save the Cab Driver from a further beating.
Picking up from this clipping on the fact that Elizabeth may have had her own criminal background, I researched Elizabeth’s past and found that in 1872 Elizabeth had blacked a man’s eye in the street. She claimed she did it because the man had sexually assaulted her, and I thought good for her, until it came out that the reason she hit him was actually because he had simply remonstrated with her for beating a youth in the street, and although the Police initially arrested the man with the black eye, once the veracity of the stories were checked, it became clear that Elizabeth was attempting to deflect guilt to the victim, and in this case although the man was initially arrested by the Police during the kerfuffle, he was ultimately released without charge. So it seems that both John Gayton and Elizabeth Kerr were in a violent relationship, in a generally violent situation, in a very rough part of working-class London.
“You can take the man out of the Horse Markets, but you can’t take the Horse Markets out of the man.”
Having said this John Gayton was doing rather well for himself, he had been a General Dealer selling whatever he could, most likely in local Markets, he had then become a Horse Dealer, which at this time in London outside of selling to the gentry, was a rough old trade, there was a big market for stolen horses to be brought up from the nearby home counties and sold on to traders in the Markets of London, with no questions asked (from where we get the phrase “Don’t look a Gift Horse in the mouth”, this meant dealing with some shady characters, and some violent ones, so John Gayton was schooled in this environment. And he was He was successful at it, moving on in the 1870s to become a Grocer, and being able to afford a servant to live in house with him and Elizabeth. But still signed the divorce papers with an “X” showing that he was functionally illiterate. But as his treatment of Elizabeth shows “You can take the man out of the Horse Markets, but you can’t take the Horse Markets out of the man.” However his success did mean that he could consider taking out divorce proceedings, and that would have been well beyond the means of most people at the time.
Divorce and Settlement
Understandably, with the marriage irreparably broken down, the Divorce was granted, and the marriage was dissolved. Then when I looked into the decision a little more, there were some interesting details. Both parties in the Divorce had to swear that they had not colluded to bring about the divorce, as divorce cases in English Law at the time required both blame and an injured party to be successful, just “not getting on” wasn’t enough. So to stop parties making stuff up so they could go their separate ways, this oath that there was no collusion was inserted so that the couple could be charged with perjury if they did.
Elizabeth agreed to withdraw her charges against John Gayton in order for the divorce to be concluded without delay.
But that wasn’t all, the judge made a very accommodating decision on what could have been a very difficult part of the outcome, the costs. Cleverly the judge could see “the lay of the land” and decided that Elizabeth’s alleged lover John Parrott would have to pay the costs of the case to Elizabeth’s husband John Gayton, but that Gayton should pay for his wife’s costs for her case against him (as she had agreed to drop her charges). Effectively John Gayton had got his divorce and expenses from the man who had cuckolded him, Elizabeth had shown the case free of charge against her husband and had been released from the marriage, and Elizabeth’s lover John Taylor Parrott had paid to get Elizabeth out of her marriage. Everyone was happy, as far as we can tell, with the result, especially the lawyers.
It does seem that the accusations made by both parties may well have been true, John Gayton was a violent individual, and not just at the level of “everyday” violence that happened in society at that time, but to a psychotic level beyond that, the idea of tearing hair from the head of his wife with his bare hands, and tearing lumps of beard from an innocent man’s face, in a violent frenzy in a public place. Given John Gayton’s violent disposition Elizabeth’s claims of domestic violence were highly plausible.
Elizabeth denied the adultery charge, but did not defend against the Divorce, and John Taylor Parrott didn’t turn up to defend his position (perhaps living in fear of the ferocious John Gayton). It seems likely that the accusation of adultery was true, as separated from the violent John Gayton, Elizabeth quickly fled South of The River with the younger man John Taylor Parrott (variously a Valuer, Autioneer’s Clerk, and Hotel/House Agent) John Taylor Parrott was probably as different from John Gayton as someone could be; he may well have been incredibly relieved that the case had been settled legally rather than in a physical confrontation with an angry former Horse Trader with a history of extreme violence.
The claim of “incestuous” adultery with Jane Howell (Kerr) Elizabeth’s sister, Larry’s 2 x Great Grandmother, levelled at John Gayton by Elizabeth, although outright denied by Gayton, as was the charge of adultery with Martha Wells. Elizabeth was very specific in her charges, naming the dates and places that she alleged her sister committed adultery with Gayton. Although the charge against Gayton and Elizabeth’s sister Jane may have had a basis in fact, as in 1881, immediately after the case, I found Jane living apart from her husband Joseph Howell, so Jane’s marriage had de facto failed to survive her sister’s divorce.
After the divorce Elizabeth cohabited with John Taylor Parrott, and later in 1879, when the Decree Nisi went through, Elizabeth married John Taylor Parrott. Elizabeth was supported and perhaps protected by her older brother and his wife, William Crossley Kerr and Mary Anne, who were present at the wedding as witnesses. William Crossley Kerr was an ex-Market Porter, Fishmonger, Grocer, Bar Tender (in Liverpool) and eventually a Publican in Paddington, probably a good man to have on your side to keep violent ex-husbands at bay!
However, this flight across The River and marriage led to an unexpected problem, as Elizabeth was not finally Divorced until February the following year, so the marriage was technically bigamous. The couple were perhaps oblivious to this technicality, and it wasn’t until 1884 that they put the mistake right and married for the second time, legally, this time in Westminster with friends and family present!
The couple lived out their lives in the quiet residential back streets separating Camberwell from the Elephant and Castle near the Walworth Road in South London, a vibrant working class and lower middle class area. Elizabeth lived to the ripe old age of 85, apparently quietly and happily with her love, John Taylor Parrott.