My latest favourite book is Paupers & Pig Killers by the Rev William Holland, who comes across as a thoroughly decent chap, with an often wicked sense of humour and his family, though well off by the standards of many in his parish of Stowey in Somerset, also spread manure on the fields and was a sort of amateur doctor when necessary. But he is, ultimately, a representative of both the church and local government as he shows in his dealing with a man who he doesn’t even give a proper name.
The Botany Bay man lived in the local poorhouse and has just produced a second child by his sister in law, whose husband has been transported to the above-named colony. I am guessing the link with the convict may be the reason they are both in the poorhouse, as who would trust the relatives of a criminal with a proper job?
But this man has gone to the parson for advice, specifically, he wants to marry the mother of his children, which the parson tells him is not possible, as under British law the woman of his children is technically his sister, so this is incest, and if her husband returns then she should be shown to be a bigamist, so could be convicted on both counts. So the parson says he cannot give him any advice or help him.
The man persists, asking what can be done, as he wants to do the right thing, but there is no way to resolve this. In any other country, marrying a sister in law was encouraged in order to protect the family; Henry VIII did it so it seems odd that it became a crime, or perhaps that’s why it was outlawed.
The man also claims that many other people are able to marry when in a similar situation, so he is confused at the parson being so unhelpful. If true, this raises questions as to how they got away with it. Did they have less scrupulous parsons, did they find a cleric – possibly non conformist – who didn’t recognise the original bond, or did the couple move somewhere that they were unknown and just keep quiet or lied about their relationship?
A lot of writers at the time – this is very early 19th century- condemned the poor for being ignorant and lawless, but here is an example of a man – and presumably a woman – in a terrible position, trying to do the right thing but stuck with a legal system that is more a prison than a help to them.