A Victorian Village Scandal

In the mid-nineteenth century, nearly all adults attended church at least once a week. Kings Head landlord, Robert Greaves, was among them. Finmere Rector, William Jocelyn Palmer, appreciated his devotion and described him as:

A respectable and sober housekeeper, a constant attendant at church and a frequent Communicant. (Rectors’ Book)

Unfortunately, Palmer’s admiration did not last. Robert was twenty-three when he married eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Petty in St Michael’s Church in 1828. They had five children before Elizabeth’s early death in July 1847. Robert’s actions ten months after Elizabeth’s death drew Palmer’s anger. On 16 May 1848, Robert, aged forty-three, married Emma Northover, just twenty years of age. But they were not married in Finmere; the wedding was held in St Pancras Old Church, Camden, to avoid Palmer’s scrutiny. The truth was, however, soon discovered. 

Emma was not Emma Northover at all. She was Emma Petty, the niece of Robert’s late wife. It was then illegal for a man to marry a relative of his deceased wife. Palmer acerbically condemned the marriage.

[This] was in fact no marriage at all, either by the Ecclesiastical or by the Civil Law… the impediments were well known, but were intended to be got the better of by the form of marriage obtained under the disgraceful circumstance of fraud and perjury. (Rectors’ Book)

Palmer refused the couple Communion, a symbolic gesture as the Greaves no longer attended church. They did not wish to suffer Palmer’s ‘repeated admonitions’ on the legality of their marriage. Palmer’s anger grew as Robert and Emma had children. He could not morally or legally refuse to christen a child, but his ire spilled over into his records of their christenings.

There has been issue [children] of this connection, which may be seen in the Parish Register in various forms. The last entry (1852) is supposed to be the most correct. (Rectors’ Book)

The Register entries show Palmer’s difficulty in recognising the marriage.

1 March 1849. Thomas Henry Petty, son of Emma Petty, alias Northover, alias Neville, alias Greaves, single.

18 May 1851. Charles Frances Petty, otherwise Greaves, son of Emma Petty.

17 October 1852. Mary Emma Petty, illegitimate daughter of Emma Petty, living as wife with Robert Greaves, victualler.

17 October 1852. Mary Emma Greaves, illegitimate daughter of Robert and Emma.

In 1851, Robert’s children by his first marriage were being taught at home—perhaps another reflection of Palmer’s wrath, as he was school manager. William Jocelyn Palmer died in 1853 and thereafter Emma and Robert’s lives proved easier. Frederick Walker, who succeeded Palmer, made no adverse comment on the birth of the Greaves fourth child, Edward, in 1854. Emma died three years later, aged just 29. She is buried in the churchyard and her gravestone at last recognises her marriage.

In memory of Emma
Wife of Robert Greaves