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Martha Meredith

Martha Meredith was born and brought up by her parents James and Caroline (nee Lewis) at Sunny Bank Cottage, off Pergoed Lane. They are one of my favourite families from my research+, although I don’t think my ancestors, John Pitt and his wife Sarah would have agreed, as some of the neighbours with whom the Meredith family had some run ins with over the years.

Martha was born around 1847. The 1851 and 1861 censuses show that she was living at home at Sunny Bank Cottage with her parents and four brothers (James, Thomas, Philip and Charles). She was the only girl. The “Glascoed Riots” exploded in 1861, when Martha was aged just 13. The reports in the local papers recount her father as having said “About seven o’clock in the evening I heard guns go off, I was alarmed, and my family were afraid to go out.” and " I heard Job Lewis threaten to burn my house down.” Later Job Lewis was reported to have said: “down with it all, I would not care a d--- for pulling the house down, and burning it, and all that is in it.” The threats weren’t one-sided … “Was told by Thos. Edwards, one of the defendants, that Mrs Meredith had threatened to shoot the first man that came there.”

A year later, my Great-Great Grandfather, John Pitt, tried to take her before the magistrates for trespassing in his orchards. I imagined at first (from the Usk Observer version of events) that Martha was probably scrumping (stealing apples) although on closer examination, the incident seems to be related to the on-going border disputes with various neighbours following on from her parents’ involvement in the “Glascoed Riots”. The Free Press article gives a little more detail: “There was a dispute about the ownership of the land. Had received instructions from Mr. Waddington of Usk, to hedge the land round, and defendant pulled it up again.” The Pitt family had been living at Panta Cottage in 1861, although by the time of this article (April 1862), it appears that they had moved to Rose Cottage, which was just a couple of hundred yards further up Pergoed Lane from the Meredith’s cottage. I imagine that John was erecting a hedge around Rose Cottage as a condition of his new tenancy. Martha and the Merediths must have felt that the land being enclosed was actually part of their land.

The next time we hear of Martha was in 1865, when she was a witness against one of the neighbouring families, the Strattons of Poplar Tree Cottage. The Strattons were accused of having a “Biddle” (illegal drinking party). Martha was reported in the Free Press as saying: “I was at a tea party held at defendant's house on the evening of Sunday last, and at about ten o'clock they were selling beer and spirituous liquors”. Martha would have been aged about 18 by now.

Martha’s first husband was John Harney/ Harnay. They married in the Cardiff area in late 1867. The marriage was quite short-lived, since John was convicted of sheep stealing in 1869 and transported to Australia for 14 years. See the two Monmouthshire Merlin articles describing the circumstances here and here. I’d love to find out more about John, his background and what happened to him. His sentence would have seen him returning to the UK in 1883 (or maybe Martha joining him in Australia then or in the years prior). I know that didn’t happen … so what was John’s story and fate?

As we established, I don’t really know what happened to John Harney. The evidence points to either an early death or to Martha disowning her transported husband and carrying on with the rest of her life as a single woman. Whether or not John had died (divorce was rare and expensive in the 19th century), Martha decided to clearly get on with the rest of her life.

Martha’s father, James Meredith, died in February 1871. The 1871 census shows us that Martha was still in the UK and living with her recently bereaved mother Caroline and two of her brothers, Thomas and Philip. Later in 1871, Martha had a child - Sarah (interestingly named Meredith rather than Harney). Martha alleged that a Thomas Smith was the child’s father, as reported in the Monmouthshire Merlin. The court found insufficient evidence to prove this, so we are left none the wiser. Some may say there’s no smoke without fire … An interesting point though is that Martha was said to be “a married woman, whose husband was transported three years ago, for 14 years.”   

The 1881 census shows Martha living with her mother, Caroline at Sunny Bank Cottage, along with her brother Phillip and daughter Sarah (who was interestingly named Meredith).

Martha had definitely moved on by 1881. She was a woman with a child to bring up, and an estranged husband for the past 12 years. She married a George Adlum in the December quarter of 1881, in the Pontypool registration district. I don’t know much about George really or what happened to him. The big question that entered my mind was “does this make Martha a bigamist??”

That was my assumption at first, although on further research, I found that wives of transported convicts left behind in the UK had been known to remarry legally. Henry Alan Finlay’s enlightening book, published in 2005  “To Have But Not to Hold: A History of Attitudes to Marriage and Divorce in Australia 1858-1975” sheds light on the law. Finlay writes:

“An act in 1828 (I believe this was a statute in the Offences aginst the Person Act)… allowed for a remarriage if one spouse were ‘continually absent… for the space of seven years … and shall not have been known… to be living within that time’.

As such, presumption of death was a defence to a charge of bigamy, although any subsequent marriage would not thereby be rendered valid, if the first spouse should subsequently turn out to be alive. The defence was utilised particularly where the missing spouse had been beyond the seas for seven years, sometimes even where the defendant knew her or him to be alive.

The rule came to be widely used as a means of escaping from a marriage that was felt to be irksome or no longer viable. Where spouses had become separated because of transportation, for instance, it was generally beyond human endurance to wait for seven or 14 years before being reunited. If a person’s spouse had disappeared, or had departed for parts unknown, for example beyond the seas, and had not been heard of for seven years or longer, the presumption might then be invoked. It was used, not only by transported convicts, but even by some of the wives that had been left behind, because they were unable or unwilling to make the necessary inquiries.”

Martha and George had a son in 1882 named James. His birth was registered in the Abertillery registration district. I don’t know how long Martha and George lived there or even how long their marriage lasted.

We next find Martha back in  Glascoed and named as Martha Eddins, living with a new “husband”, James Eddins at Cwm soar farm, on Glascoed Lane on the 1891 census. James, a native of Cradley in Herefordshire, had been living with a Charlotte Thomas and her son Edward on the 1871 and 1881 censuses, with Charlotte noted as his wife. I haven’t been able to find any marriage records for James and Charlotte yet though - maybe they were living as “Common-law” husband and wife? I also have not been able to find a death record for a Charlotte Eddins (or anything similar) between the 1881 and 1891 censuses. So this may be another indicator that perhaps they never married?

I wrote that James was Martha’s new “husband” on the 1891 census (taken on 5th April 1891), since their actual marriage didn’t come until the October to December quarter of 1891. In writing this, I hope that I’m not sounding judgemental. While marriage certainly was society’s convention of the time, Martha’s history of marriage is an interesting one and I’d just love to get at the real story behind this collection of marriage and census dates. I guess historians are just nosey at heart - or maybe it’s just me?!

In 1892 a new baby joined Martha and James at Cwm Soar. This baby however was Sarah, Martha’s daughter’s baby. He was named John Meredith and was baptised at St. Michael’s Church, Glascoed on 24th April 1892. He was living with Martha, James and family at The Wern in 1922. He married Rosa May Edwards (known as May) in 1923. They lived at Hill View, Glascoed (as shown in records from 1929 and 1939). He was working as a General Labourer (Public Works) in 1939.

Martha and James had moved to the Wern by 1901 and stayed there until they died in 1922. Both died at the end of 1922, in their mid-70s, a decent age for those days. Hopefully Martha found a man who she could rely on in James after a couple of short-lived marriages earlier in her life. I found a burial record for Martha at Llanfihangel Pontymoile - 20th November 1922. James died in the final Quarter of 1922 as well - I wonder where he was buried?

It looks as though Martha lived an eventful life - it would certainly have been interesting to meet her to flesh out some of the details.


Censuses: 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911.

Register of Electors: 1922.

Baptism records:

James Adlum: 1892.