My Genealogy Research

My research, genealogy tips and anecdotes

My Genealogy Research
Research Tips

Splitting Up Was Easier In The Early 1900’s

Postcard of Birmingham England Street Scene in about 1900
Postcard credit:

In my years of research, I have found multiple couples who show up in census reports as widowed when they are actually just split up. Most of these couples never divorced and I will often find a marriage for one of the spouses once the other has died. In my family there is a husband who shows up with a second family in a different town. His wife was living with their children and listed as widowed. In that case, I’ve never been able to find a marriage for the second partner or baptisms for their daughters.


This week I had a feeling in my gut that I was dealing with one of these split couples posing as being widowed. There are a few clues to look for. A big one is when one of the couples changes their marital status in different census years. Since the wife in this instance was the one related to me, she was who I found first in Birmingham, Warwickshire, where the family had lived in 1901. In this case, she was listed as “married” in one census where she was a live in servant, and then in 10 years she was listed as widowed, while still working as a servant. Because of the order, it was possible, but something didn’t feel right.

The other hint is when a couple has young children and the supposed surviving spouse doesn’t have them living with them. In this case, the children were not with the wife in 1911 or 1921. This in itself didn’t prove anything as the children could have been living with relatives or put in a children’s home if the mother couldn’t support them. But, it was another thing that just rubbed me the wrong way.


I decided to search for the one daughter I was the most sure about as far as birthplace and date. Sure enough, in 1911 I found her living with her father and brother in Staffordshire, where her father was from. That year, the husband was listed as being widowed, which we knew now to not be true. He actually was listed first as being married, and that was crossed out. The word “Widowed” was written in. All of the other marriage info has slash marks through it.

1911 Census for William Jennings and children
1911 Census listing for William Jennings and his children. Note the marital status.

In 1921 the husband, listed as being widowed, was back in Birmingham with the couple’s youngest child. I already knew that the wife was also in Birmingham listed as being a widow. There is no record of this couple ever getting a divorce.

I did find a probable death record for the the husband in Warwickshire in 1922. This fits with the fact that the wife ended up remarrying in 1928, when if I’m correct that they didn’t divorce, she would have been legally able to do so.


For those of us living now with a multitude of technology, it seems impossible to believe that a couple could both be living in the same city, both claiming that the other was deceased. In those days it seems to have been fairly simple. It was even easier when one of the couple moved to a different town or county or even country. It was very easy to just start a new life with no one being the wiser.

In the instance mentioned earlier where the husband had a different family in Cornwall, the wife moved to the US to live with their son and lived her life as a widow. In all of these cases, especially where one partner was off in an unknown location, it’s possible that the remaining spouse didn’t even know if the other was still living. In the case of the wife in the US, she may have been abandoned an really believed she was a widow.

Today, it would just take a simple google search to find out where the missing spouse was and everything they were doing!


The lesson here is to not always believe the label of “widow” or “widower” in a census or other record. Search for the children, and the other spouse separately and see if they show up. You have the tools to do what the people back in the past couldn’t do!

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