Alleged Bigamy at Sunderland

A recent DNA match caught my eye. It was a very good match on a line that I haven’t been able to extend past my second great grandfather, John Bruce (born in Edinburgh, Scotland about 1843 but lived most of his life in Tunstall, Co. Durham, England). I immediately sent an e-mail to this DNA match, hoping that I would get a response. A lot of folks test their DNA just for grins (most want only the ethnicity results which tell you what percentage Scottish, English, Irish you are, and so on) and don’t actually care too much about matching to other people. Luckily I received a very quick response to my initial email. We worked out the connection between us fairly quickly and began emailing back and forth on our shared ancestor, John Bruce.

John Bruce

John Bruce had been married twice and my new DNA match descended through his second wife, Judith. I descend through first wife, Isabella. In my quest to push back on this line I’ve done quite a bit of research on John Bruce and his two wives. John married Isabella Bowes on 30 July 1864 at the Durham Register Office. He was 21 years old and Isabella was 19. Between 1866 and 1881 they had seven children together.

The 1881 census for Tunstall, County Durham shows John and Isabella Bruce with three of their children. That is the last time they are enumerated together and by 12 March 1884 John Bruce has married again, to Judith Brown. The marriage certificate shows John as a widower. I mistakenly assumed (an easy enough leap to make) that Isabella has died in the years between 1881 and 1884. Over the years I’ve gone back and redone extensive searches for her death in many different repositories but all were fruitless. I set aside that research and moved on to researching John and his new wife, Judith.

One of the first pieces of information that struck me was that Judith was 22 years younger than John. There was obviously a story there but I wasn’t sure what it was. Until my new cousin mentioned that she had discovered a John Bruce in trouble for bigamy but that she wasn’t sure it was him as the name is so common.

Newspaper research for the win! The British Newspaper Archive is one of my favorite sites to do research on. I have had great success finding information on many of my ancestors. As I began to gather articles from different newspapers in the Northeast of England, the story of John, Isabella and Judith emerged.

John, Isabella, and Judith

On 9 June 1884, the Northern Echo newspaper reported that at the Sunderland County Petty Sessions, John Bruce, a miner at Silksworth Colliery appeared in the police courts, and pleaded guilty to a charge of bigamy. He acknowledged that he had married Judith Brown on 12 March 1884, knowing that his wife, Isabella, was alive. He was admitted for trial and released on £5 bail.

This news was carried by most of the local area newspapers, some adding a few more tidbits of information. The Yorkshire Post noted that John Bruce had lived with his wife Isabella up to 1882 and that he, “had left his wife owing, it is alleged, to her intemperate habits”. A few days later, on 13 June 1884, the Newcastle Courant printed the same story but added that the defendant, John Bruce, was “a respectable and inoffensive man”.

Under the newspaper headline, ‘Alleged Bigamy at Sunderland’, the Newcastle Journal reported that Judith Brown, John’s second wife, stated that she had one child with the defendant, and that she knew he was married and his wife living, when she married him. She had initially been hired as housekeeper. Judith stated that the defendant had been a kind husband to her and that she did not wish to prosecute him.

What I noted from the newspaper articles was that:

  • Isabella Bruce was accused as having ‘intemperate habits’
  • John and Isabella had not been living together after 1882
  • Judith Bruce knew about John’s first marriage
  • John was described by his second wife, Judith, as ‘kind’ and by others who reported on the case as ‘a respectable and inoffensive man’
  • The case went to trial at the Durham Assizes which would have been reported on in the newspapers

The trial

John Bruce went to trail on the charge of bigamy on 18 July 1884. He was represented by a Mr. Strachan who addressed the court and noted:

The prisoner had separated from his wife on account of her extremely bad character, on the recommendation of the magistrates before whom she had been frequently brought up for flagrant acts of misconduct. He put his wife away at that time, and his second wife was perfectly aware that he was a married man, and knew all the circumstances of the case at the time he married her. He treated her very kindly, and she had been, as it were, a mother to his children. The prisoner had a very good character for steadiness and respectability. There were degrees of bigamy, and this was not one of those cases where any injustice had been done to the second wife. He had witnesses to prove acts of adultery and drunkenness against Mrs Bruce, and he should also put the second wife into the box, and one of the prisoner’s children to prove that the second wife was like a mother to her.

Durham County Advertiser, Friday, 18 July 1884 via

Mr. Justice Mathew’s response:

It is unnecessary [in response to having the witnesses, Judith and one of the children, take the stand]. The story is sufficiently told on the depositions. His Lordship said he regretted very much that he had to sentence the prisoner, for he wished the law would have justified him to release him upon the spot.

Durham County Advertiser, Friday, 18 July 1884 via

Although it appears Mr. Justice Mathew would have preferred to simply release John, a sentence was imposed. One week’s imprisonment without hard labor.


What were these ‘intemperate habits’ and flagrant acts of misconduct’ that Isabella Bruce was accused of? The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette of 21 February 1881 noted that Isabella Bruce was fined 5 shillings and costs for being drunk. On 12 June 1882, John Bruce put a notice in that same newspaper that he, John Bruce of 6 Maria-street, New Tunstall, would not be responsible for any debt or debts that his wife, Isabella Bruce, may contract on or after that date.

In December 1882, Isabella Bruce was imprisoned for one month with hard labor for stealing an overcoat. After December 1882 there were no more mentions of Isabella Bruce in the newspapers.

John and Judith Bruce

Despite the 22-year age gap between them, and the difficult beginnings of their marriage, John and Judith Bruce stayed together and added five children to their family. By all accounts, Judith was a caring and loving mother to John’s children from his first marriage. I do wonder if Isabella ever saw her children again or had anything to do with them.

Technically, John Bruce committed bigamy. But there was so much more to the story. What started off with a DNA match, and a small clue to an alleged bigamy, led to some wonderful information which helped fill in some big gaps. I got to know my great great grandfather as a kind, respectable and inoffensive man, who did the best he could under difficult circumstances and who, in the end, seemed to have a happy marriage and life.

13 thoughts on “Alleged Bigamy at Sunderland

  1. Now days Isabella would probably be diagnosed with a mental illness or a disease like Alzheimers. I have an elderly friend with schizophrenia, and a (former) friend my age (40s) that also has mental illness (she turned against me for perceived wrongs, it makes me so sad). I cannot wait to meet them again on the other side! I know their eccentric and erratic ideas and thoughts are of this world and they won’t have them in the next. I hope that when you meet Isabella you find she is actually very sweet, though her sufferings with earthly trials made her bitter while here on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, very good point. We can’t judge our ancestors actions as we really don’t know what they went through at the time. I would love to sit with her and ask her about her life and her decisions and actions. There is always much more to the story than we can know from records.


  2. Very interesting, you have answered some questions and as often happened created more. I have an ancestor who was sent to prison for abandoning her three illegitimate children, I’d love to know her full story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have you been able to uncover anything in the newspapers at the time? Depending on the time period and place, you may be lucky enough to uncover a little of her story.


  3. Thank you for sharing this story. I love that you were able to find a just few pieces of Isabella, John, and Judith’s stories. I agree. It is hard to learn unpleasant facts about our ancestors. But, there are many pieces of Isabella’s story that still are missing. As I have pondered about the unpleasant stories of my ancestors, I have learned and decided to try my best to not judge them. They are all imperfect humans, much like myself.

    I found this quote this past summer that I really helps me deal with these emotions as I research and study the past.

    “As a historian, I try to follow the advice of a British novelist. He said: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between [1953], prologue). That means when we visit the past, we don’t want to be an “ugly tourist.” We want to try to understand people within their own context and their own culture. We want to be patient with what we perceive as their faults. We want to be humble about the limits of our own knowledge. And we want to have a spirit of charity about the past.” -Matt Grow


  4. Amazing what you managed to uncover through newspaper records. Interesting to see that the judge was obviously sympathetic towards John Bruce, given the circumstances. The bigamous marriage clearly accounts for the lack of a death certificate for Isabella. Bigamous marriages probably happened more often than we think but more often than not, the guilty party got away with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right and that there were far more bigamous marriages than we think there were. The thought never crossed my mind that Isabella was still alive when John married Judith. A good lesson for me in not making assumptions!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I was thinking about that yesterday. I’ll need to put together a research plan on how to accomplish that. Could be quite daunting if she remarried, or left County Durham. Even if she didn’t do either, Isabella Bruce is a fairly common name in the north east of England.


    1. I’m not sure, to be honest. I try to embrace all my ancestors although it is hard when you discover stories like this one. Isabella and John lost several children, all in infancy, one after another. That surely must have affected Isabella but would it account for the stealing and general misbehavior? I feel the most sadness for the children who survived, including my great grandmother, Margaret. She would have been 15 when her father was arrested and was surely the child referred to by the attorney as one he would call as a witness to testify that Judith was as a mother to her. I will definitely have to think more about Isabella and how I feel about her now.

      Liked by 1 person

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