William Problem, Solved!

Oh Joy! Oh Joy! It finally arrived!

“It” is the marriage certificate for William Casbon and Sarah West that I ordered in late August after writing The Two William Problem. I knew from the General Register Office (U.K.) website that the certificate was dispatched on September 10th and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its arrival ever since.

This was the treat in my mailbox yesterday!

Readers may recall that two children named William Casbon were born in Meldreth, Cambridgeshire—one to William Casbon and one to his brother James—in the 1835–­1836 time frame. One of the two married Sarah West in 1855 and can be traced in records all the way to his death in 1896; the other was lost to follow up. The question was, Which one married Sarah?

To learn the answer, I needed to expend some funds and purchase the actual marriage record of William and Sarah from the General Register Office.

Here is the certified copy of the record …

(Click on image to enlarge)

… and a more detailed view.

Copy of the marriage record of William Casbon and Sarah West, 10 November 1855, Melbourn, Cambridgeshire (Click on image to enlarge)

The certificate contains a wealth of information. Reading from the top down, we can see that the couple was married in the Baptist Chapel at Melbourn. The marriage took place on 10 November 1855; the bride and groom’s names are given and their ages are listed as 21 and 30 years, respectively. He was a bachelor and she a spinster (i.e., previously unmarried). His occupation was farm labourer and hers dressmaker. Both were residing in Meldreth at the time of the marriage.

Now for the big news: William’s father was William Casbon, farm labourer—not James. Problem solved! We also see that Sarah’s father was John West, a gardener.

Detail of the marriage certificate showing the fathers’ names and occupations (Click on image to enlarge)

Although this confirms what I believed, it contradicts what several others have listed in their online family trees, namely, that James Casbon was the father of William and father-in-law of Sarah. It’s nice (and important) to finally have proof of the correct relationship.

Aside from solving the problem of William’s parentage, the certificate contains several items of interest. The first is the fact that they were married in the local Baptist Chapel. This will not sound unusual to modern ears, but in England it was a relatively new thing in the mid-19th century for marriages to take place in so-called non-conformist denominations. The Marriage Act of 1753 required that all marriages, except those of Jews or Quakers, be performed by the Church of England. If a couple failed to wed in the Anglican Church, they had no legal rights as married people.[1] It wasn’t until 1836 that a new Marriage Act allowed couples to be married in buildings belonging to other religious groups, including Baptists.

Aside from their marriage, I have no evidence that William and Sarah were affiliated with the Baptist Church. Their children’s’ baptisms are not recorded in the Baptist church register, nor in the Meldreth (Anglican) parish register.

William and Sarah’s ages are also interesting. Based on census reports and his age at death, I estimate William’s birth year as 1835. The marriage certificate suggests that he was born in 1834. I wonder if he intentionally overstated his age on the marriage certificate. On the other hand, Sarah’s age was understated. Her baptism occurred in April 1832; therefore, she was already 33 years old when she married William.[2] It was unusual then, as it is now, for men to be so much younger than their wives.

This was not the only important difference between William and Sarah. Although not obvious from the record, they came from different social classes. As the son of a farm labourer and being one himself, William was in the lower working class. Sarah’s father was a gardener. This might not seem significant, but in fact, censuses and other civil registers show that John West was a landowner and had the rights to serve on a jury and to vote. His status was more like that of a skilled tradesman.

In the lower left-hand corner of the certificate, we see that William signed with his mark and Sarah signed her own name. This shows that he was at least partially illiterate, while she was able to read and write. Sarah’s education is confirmed by the 1841 census, where her occupation is given as “school mistress.”[3] Given that children’s education was not compulsory at the time, Sarah’s literacy is probably more unusual that William’s illiteracy and is another reflection of their different social classes.

One other difference not shown in the marriage record is that William and Sarah came from different places. William’s home was Meldreth, in southern Cambridgeshire, and Sarah grew up in Soham, Cambridgeshire, about 22 miles northwest of Meldreth and on the opposite side of Cambridge city.

Although an insignificant difference by today’s standards, the distance is outside of the norm for their time. It would have been unusual to know someone beyond about a ten-mile radius of one’s home village.

How did a farm labourer from Meldreth become acquainted with an educated woman from Soham? This is only a guess, but perhaps Sarah moved to Meldreth or Melbourn for employment purposes. Although she came from a higher social class, her father died in 1853[4] and probably left his family in a state of financial distress (supported by the fact that his widow, Sarah, was described as a “washerwoman” in the 1861 census).[5] Sarah (the daughter), an educated unmarried woman, might have found employment in Melbourn as a dressmaker or even as a governess. At the age of 33, she might have been more willing to overlook class differences in her quest for a husband. Could pregnancy have been a factor in the marriage decision? It seems unlikely, since their first child was born one year after their marriage.

Whatever the reasons, the couple had a long and fruitful marriage. They had three children, Walter (b. 1856), William (b. 1860), and Priscilla (b. 1862). They had been married more than 40 years when William died (sadly, by suicide) in 1896.[6] Sarah died on 22 December 1905 at the age of 83.[7]

I’m fortunate that my two-William problem had such an easy solution. In many cases, records do not exist or cannot be located to resolve this kind of problem.


[1] “Marriage Act 1836,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage_Act_1836 : accessed 28 Nov 20), rev. 13 Sep 20, 15:49.
[2] “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=9841 : accessed 28 Sep 20); entry for Sarah West, 6 April 1823, Cambridge, England.
[3] 1841 England census, Cambridgeshire, Soham, ED 2, p. 5, line 14; imaged at Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/8978/ : accessed 28 Sep 20) >Cambridgeshire >Soham >ALL >District 2 >image 4 of 17; citing The National Archives, HO 107/73/14.
[4] “England, Cambridgeshire Bishop’s Transcripts, 1538-1983,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/1465708 : accessed 29 Sep 20) >007676701 >image 474 of 520; Soham deaths, p. 182, no. 1449, John West, Soham, 80 yrs old, 2 Dec 1853.
[5] 1861 England census, Cambridgeshire, Soham, ED 6, p. 47, schedule 278; imaged at Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/8767 : accessed 29 Sep 20) >Cambridgeshire >Soham >ALL >District 6 >image 48 of 50; citing The National Archives RG 9/1036.
[6] “Meldreth: Sad Suicide,” Herts and Cambs (England) Reporter and Royston Crow, 13 Mar 1896, p. 5, col. 6; online image, “The British Newspaper Archive,” findmypast (http://search.findmypast.com/bna/viewarticle?id=bl%2f0001795%2f18960313%2f075 : 28 July 2017).
[7] “Holy Trinity Churchyard: Monumental Inscriptions,” Meldreth History (https://www.meldrethhistory.org.uk/topics/holy_trinity_church-2-2/churchyard/holy_trinity_churchyard_headstones : accessed 29 Sep 20).

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