John Nicholas Varnham, the oldest son of John Varnham and Jane Pinnell, had also turned up in South Wales by 1911. Born on the 21st March 1875, he joined the Royal Navy on the 20th February 1891 and  signed up for 12 years on his 18th birthday. He served on HMS Impregnable - a training establishment at Devonport - until the 16th December 1892. On the 17th December that year he sailed on the Cuzco  from Plymouth to Sydney with a replacement crew for HMS Curacoa which was working the Australia Station. HMS Curacoa left Australian waters in December 1894, and he is signed off of her list on the 31st May 1895, and his service record places him at HMS Pembroke I - a shore-based establishment at Chatham - from the 1st June to the 9th September 1895. All through his naval career his service is  rated “VG”. On the 10th September 1895 he was sent to join the crew of HMS Galatea which was serving as the coast guard ship in the Humber district based at Hull, but eight months later, on the 18th May his naval record says “Run Hull”, though ironically, his final assessment on the 17th May still says “VG”. On the 2nd January 1896 he had married, after banns, Lydia Mercy Pearson in Drypool parish, Hull, as John Nathaniel Varnham, a Seaman. According to newspaper reports of the time there was a lot of contact between the crew of Galatea and the local Hull residents, mainly in the form of football and shooting matches: so presumably there was scope for other less organised activities. As John had only moved from HMS Pembroke I at Chatham in September he must have got to know Lydia very quickly, and it is perhaps telling that the 18 year-old Lydia, an only daughter, married with no family members as witnesses though her parents were still living locally and also some of her brothers. John and Lydia obviously moved away from Hull, as a deserter he needed to escape the scene of the crime, and they had a daughter Lydia Isabel born in Peterborough on the 5th March 1898, though they are back in Hull for her baptism on the 12th December 1900 in Holy Trinity parish church when they give their address as 8 Oxford Terrace, Holderness Road; John is a labourer. According to his naval record John had been “recovered from desertion not to be claimed for further service” on the 15th February 1899, which explains why they had felt able to return to Lydia’s home. John and the two Lydias are still at this address in the 1901 census: John is now a Gas Engine Driver Stationary, and they have been joined by his younger brother Robert who is working as a Moulder’s labourer. The next event in John’s life was his marriage on the 26th December 1904 at St Mary Magdalene in Peckham to Sarah Ann Louise Foster. Using his proper name of John Nicholas Varnham, he claims to be a bachelor, aged 29 and an Engine man. His wife, known as Louisa, is 20 and a spinster, and they both give the address of 3 Atwell Street, with two Foster witnesses, probably her father and younger sister. They had two children born and baptised in Peckham: John born on the 26th September 1905, and Henry born on the 21st May 1907. On the 27th September 1907 John, Louise and their two sons, John and Henry, sailed on board the Allan Line ship RMS Victorian as steerage passengers from Liverpool for Montreal. According to the passenger list John is a Stoker aged 32, Louise is 23 and the boys are 2 and 5 months respectively. Whatever happened in Canada by the time of the 1911 census the family are back this side of the Atlantic and living at 4 Barry Road, Cadoxton-juxta-Barry where John is carrying on a business as a Bird dealer. This is the same part of the world where the Dowdings and Lawrences had been living, so it was presumably family connections that drew him here. A daughter Victorina Mary Louise was born here on the 24th May 1911 shortly after the census. His relationship with Louisa quickly went off the rails, for less than a year later, on the 25th February 1912, a daughter was born to John and Margaret: John had married her mother, Margaret Vincent, in January of that year. Margaret can be found in the 1911 census living with her parents and siblings at 106 Main Street, Cadoxton, and working as an assistant in a bird fancier’s shop. Oh dear. Louisa and the children packed their bags and went home to Peckham, and there was a maintenance order made on the 26th January 1912 at the Thames Police Court for  John to support them; it was his failure to comply that ultimately led to his spending six months in Wandsworth prison with hard labour, at the end of 1913. The story unfolded under these headlines in The Illustrated Police News:  THREE WIVES. A Man Who Wanted His Matrimonial Affairs Cleared Up. 2 Oct 1913 MUCH MARRIED. Ship's Fireman Who Is Troubled by His Bigamous Marriages. 16 Oct 1913 Fortunately for John his story doesn’t seem to have made the national press, a quick search for October and November 1913 turns up nearly 300 references in the currently indexed papers to this common crime, but John’s case does not seem to be among them. The Thames Police Court had sent Police-sergeant Whitney to Neath to arrest John for failing to pay £9 15s arrears on Louisa's maintenance order. On the way back to London by train, John admitted to his bigamous marriages. The newspaper reprinted the text of his written statement: I want to clear myself of committing bigamy with two women. I will tell you all about it so that I can have it all cleared up here. I will then be able to hold my head up when I go back to Wales. I was married to Lydia Mercy Pearson, at Holy Trinity Church, Drypool, Hull, in January, 1897, or 1898. I lived with her for about eighteen months, but she left me ... On December 26, 1904, I went through a form of marriage with Louisa Foster at St. Mary's Church, Peckham. I lived with her for about seven years, and she had three children by me. I left her owing to disputes with her people. I did not know whether my first wife, Lydia Pearson, was alive or not when I was married to Louisa Foster. About February 1912, I went through a form of marriage with Margaret Vincent, at the Wesleyan Chapel, Charles-street, Cardiff. She has one child by me. When I married her I did not know whether my first wife was alive or not, as I had not seen or heard from her since she left me  - I believe in 1899. Lydia's father, Joseph Pearson confirmed that his daughter was still alive and living in Sheffield. Louisa Foster and Margaret Vincent both confirm the details he has given, and on the 16th October John was committed for trial on the charge of bigamy. There are various errors in John's statement which can be seen in hindsight and which cast him in a more favourable light. His marriage to Lydia lasted at least five years, and they had a daughter. Louisa probably left him because he was having an affair with his shop assistant that became obvious when she fell pregnant. Still when the case came to court on the 11th of November, John was charged with "Feloniously marrying Sarah Ann Louisa Foster, his former wife being then alive. Feloniously marrying Margaret Brinda Vincent, his former wife being then alive". He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to "6 months hard labour in respect of each offence, concurrent sentences" at Wandsworth Prison. I feel at this point I should be changing the names to protect the innocent, but of course, that is precisely what John did when he got back to Wales. Though I imagine the name J. VARNHAM tattooed on his right forearm, as described in his Royal Navy record, was a bit of a giveaway if anyone saw it. Incidentally he married for the fourth time in 1963 at the age of 88; he died the following year. And of his wives? Lydia was indeed in Sheffield, where under her maiden name she married George Randerson in 1915; their only son, George was killed in action in France in May 1940 as a member of the Expeditionary Force. Lydia died in 1959. Louisa didn’t re-marry and died in 1968; I wonder if she did get the £9 15s arrears for maintenance? But as the marriage was bigamous I presume she wouldn’t have been entitled to it anyway. Margaret stuck by her man, after all he had mostly confessed and served his time; she died in 1955. To be continued … with the two nieces Sarah Lines, born in Horsforth, Yorkshire, and Jane Tanner, born in Box in Wiltshire.
Tales around the tree John Nicholas Varnham
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