A bigamist with (at least) nine wives
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 13 FEBRUARY 2024
In October 1858 a woman made her way to Adelaide Terrace, north of London Bridge, where the Register Office of Merchant Seamen was located. Her name was Sarah Ann Geer, and she told the official that her husband, a ship’s mate called George, had left to join his ship five days after their wedding in May. She was concerned that he had not been seen since.
George was 157cm tall (5’2”) with a bushy red beard, small moustaches and delicate hands. He always carried a watch, engraved ‘GG’, which he had been given as a reward for saving someone’s life. More curiously, he enjoyed studying medical books, even though he had no medical training, and claimed to have been an accoucheur on board ship.
This singular picture caught the attention of the Clerk to the Register, Everard Home Coleman. Mrs Geer was not the first woman enquiring after a diminutive red-bearded mariner who vanished soon after his wedding. Coleman suspected the man was a bigamist, or, more correctly, a polygamist.
Coleman brought this to the attention of the Lord Mayor at the City of London’s Magistrates Court in Mansion House. The public must be warned about this miscreant, who posed as a merchant man in order to trick young ladies into marriage, and then deserted them. The City of London police were immediately tasked with investigating.
An Egham love nest
After several weeks of dogged detection Inspector Leonard and Detective Greene were admitted to Marble Hall — which is known to have been in Egham in Surrey but cannot be identified — to meet the homeowner. His name was George Gordon.
Gordon was a slightly built invalid who wore his arm in a sling after a recent bout of paralysis. He appeared older than his thirty-two years. He had what newspapers described as a ‘somewhat sinister cast of countenance’, and he sported tell-tale ginger facial hair.
Certain that George Gordon was also George Geer, the police arrested him on a charge of bigamy and arranged a transfer to a London magistrates court. Gordon begged permission to write a note for his wife, Celia, who was currently at church. The note read:
My sins have overtaken me at last; speak a good word for me.
Eliza Cecilia Gee: wife no. 1 — the original
On 22 December 1858 it was reported that a collector of rents residing at 5 Brook-Terrace in Hammersmith had been charged with bigamy. His moniker was neither George Geer nor George Gordon but the somewhat improbable Gloucester Gale.
Gale’s early life gives no indication of a criminal future. He was born in Westminster on 22 March 1826 to Charles and Honour Gale. Charles was a furnishing undertaker, an occupation that put him at the top of the hierarchy of funeral operatives, as Cassells’ Household Guide of 1869 makes clear:
Besides the persons who make the coffin, there are the coffin-furniture manufacturers, the funeral robe, sheet, and ruffle makers, the funeral-carriage masters, and funeral feather-men. All these supply at first-hand the furnishing undertaker, who, in his turn, supplies the trade and the public.
Gloucester may have worked for his father, but at his first marriage, in January 1849, he gave no profession, describing himself instead as a gentleman. He married his first cousin, Eliza Cecilia Gee, and if their union was not a love match then it may have been arranged for family convenience, as Eliza had an illegitimate child.
The young couple moved frequently, living in Brentford, Acton, Oxford Street and St Martin’s Lane. The 1851 census recorded them at 21 Gerard Street in Soho. Although Gloucester was now calling himself a gentleman annuitant, his wife later said that he was a commercial traveller, and that this explained his frequent absences from home. After eight years of marriage he completely absented himself.
Celia Maria Wye: wife no. 2 — true love or a meal ticket
Celia Maria Wye lived in Kennington with her elderly father, George Wye, a retired merchant. At forty she was unlikely to marry, twenty-five being the average age of marriage for women at the time. But when George died in March 1857 her prospects changed. She was a wealthy woman, for George, disinheriting his other children, had left her everything.
Somehow, somewhere Celia met thirty-one-year-old George Gordon. The name had no doubt been chosen as being redolent of nobility. One thinks of Lord George Gordon of the 1780 riots and Lord George Gordon Byron the poet. They married on Monday 30 November 1857 at St Mary’s Islington, far away from Celia’s home in Lambeth and from all who knew her.
As a marriage settlement George was given a generous £1500 and made the sole beneficiary of Celia’s will. They moved to Egham. Mr Gordon was often away from home, called away by what his wife believed was his job as a collector for a mercantile house.
Lydia Murch: wife no. 3
No objections were raised when the banns were called at Old Holy Trinity Chelsea in advance of a marriage between Lydia Murch and George Thomas.
On 3 January 1858, which was a Sunday, Gloucester as George Thomas swore that he was a bachelor and a first mate in the merchant navy, and married the unsuspecting Lydia. Gloucester’s younger brother, Charles, had actually joined the merchant navy a few years previously, which informed this deception.
Lydia Murch, the daughter of a dairyman, had been born in Topsham in Devon in 1821. She worked as a servant in Devon and probably did the same in London. Having reached the age of thirty-six she was no doubt relieved to ‘be off the shelf’ and to have a husband with a secure profession.
In February George Thomas left to ‘go on a voyage’ to Malta and Oporto. He returned in April, and they lived together for a week before he set off on his next voyage.
In fact Gloucester Gale had travelled no further than Shepherds Market in Mayfair, where he had taken lodgings in Carrington Street. He wanted to be close to St George’s Hanover Square, where the banns were being called for a fourth marriage.
Sarah Anne Drewett: wife no.4
Twenty-four-year-old Sarah Drewett, although born in Somerset, had come to London by way of Kidderminster in Worcestershire, where she had worked as a silk quill winder.
Sarah differs from Gale’s other victims in that we know how he met her. She admitted that the meeting had been accidental and that she had acted imprudently. Gale had followed her and insisted on making her acquaintance.
On Monday 3 May 1858 they married. This time he called himself George Geer. Once again he was a mariner. After a brief five-day honeymoon in Dover Street in Southwark George ‘left to go on a voyage’ and never returned.
Martha Gover: wife no.5
Gale’s diary for Sunday 27 June 1858 notes that on this day the final set of banns had been called for his marriage to a Miss Hayes, who may have escaped his machinations. Banns were also called in advance of his union with a Martha Gover.
Martha Gover, who was twenty-four, was originally from Clutton in Somerset, where her father was a farmer. From at least the age of seventeen she had worked as a servant in Hampstead alongside her older sister Mary Ann.
No doubt she too was happy to make an advantageous marriage to a mariner. He was called Edward Swain. The wedding took place on 13 July 1858 at All Soul’s Langham Place, and Mary Ann was Martha’s witness.
A week later Martha’s husband said that he was off to sea. In fact he was visiting the Crystal Place in Sydenham with his next victim, Fanny Turrell.
Fanny Turrell: wife no.6
Tuesday 17 August 1858 witnessed the marriage of Fanny Turrell and Edward Gordon at St Saviour’s Southwark, which is now Southwark Cathedral. Fanny was no doubt pleased to be marrying a sailor as her father William was a master mariner. After a single day together it was decided that Fanny would go to Devon to rent and furnish a house for them. Edward then went to sea on a three-month voyage and never returned.
Divorce in the nineteenth century
Bigamy was common in the nineteenth century because divorce was difficult and expensive. Prior to the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act the only way Gale could have divorced and remarried was through an expensive Private Act of Parliament, having proved his wife guilty of adultery.
When the new divorce act came into law on 1 January 1858 — only a month after Gale Celia Maria Wye — the process became somewhat easier and less expensive. But even if Gale had delayed his second marriage in order to divorce his first wife — Eliza Cecilia Gee — it would still be necessary to prove adultery. And of course Celia Wye might have had scruples about marrying a divorced man at a time when divorce was frowned upon.
Why did he do it?
Firstly, dismiss the idea that Gale was a ‘reluctant’ bigamist, which might be the excuse for a man who, finding himself unable to divorce, made only one illegal marriage. Gale was not that man: he was a cynical serial offender.
Although Gale exploited women sexually — all his marriages were consummated — I do not believe that this was his main motive. Sex was readily available to those who could pay: prostitutes were cheap, and in any case, with his access to Celia’s money, Gale was in a position to keep a mistress. He appears to have enjoyed the deception as much as the seduction.
Really he was nothing more than a confidence trickster, and he sought to profit by exploiting a need in each of the six women. His legal wife, Eliza, who had an illegitimate child, needed a respectable marriage. Celia and Lydia were older and may have seen Gale as their last chance at marriage. And Lydia was a working-class woman, as were Sarah, Martha and Fanny: marrying a man with regular employment would have changed their lives.
The primary motive of the confidence trickster is usually money, and reports indicate that Gale rarely worked but mostly lived on women. He received a significant sum of money on his marriage to Celia and with it the likelihood that he would inherit on her death. Then again he pawned over forty items belonging to Fanny: he got hold of them after sending her to Devon and was found with the pawnbroker’s tickets on his arrest. And it is likely that all six of his wives had some savings put by as a form of security.
Because he adopted false names, and operated in different areas across London, Gale no doubt presumed that he was safe. After all, how many women would admit to being duped and seduced? To do so would risk losing their good names and future employment prospects.
Wife no 7 — the unnamed — and justice
On Saturday 30 December 1858 Gale was committed at Clerkenwell Police court. The London Evening Standard reported that
five of the deceived fair ones attended and swore to their marriage with the scoundrel, who had cohabited with them for periods varying from a year to so low as a day.
His legal wife did not appear in court, but his sister, Mrs Rowena Pearce, confirmed that Eliza was alive.
A total of twelve women claimed a connection with him, for in addition to his six identified wives he had married an unnamed seventh, and banns had been called for a further five. His diary, which was produced in evidence, revealed that he had juggled these multiple frauds by keeping detailed records of the women along with the banns and marriages. On a single day he had banns called for three marriages in three different churches.
On 3 January 1859 Gale stood in the dock at the Old Bailey, awaiting sentence. In the face of overwhelming evidence he had pleaded guilty to all five charges. The Morning Herald had the following to say:
The Prisoner, an insignificant-looking little man, with a profuse red beard and moustache, in a whimpering tone, begged for mercy on account of his bodily sufferings, he having some spinal infirmity.’
In mitigation he asked to return ‘several little articles which belonged to ladies’ and said that he had given her money back to Celia Wye. After this special pleading Gale appeared surprised when the Recorder said that he should be severely punished and sentenced him to four years.
Lavinia Bannister: wife no. 8 — and early release
Gloucester was released on licence in April 1862, just after Eliza was awarded a divorce. Six months later he married again in the name of William Briant, commission agent. Did he use as false name as a prelude to more bigamous marriages?
His bride, Lavinia Bannister, was thirty-six and may have had some resources of her own, as she had previously been a partner in a Mount Street milliner’s shop. A year later, on discovering that Gale had married her illegally, Lavinia’s father insisted that they marry again, and that this time Gale use his legal name.
They went on to have three children. Two were girls. The third, a boy, died young.
Mary Elizabeth Fitch Furtado: Wife no.9
On Monday 1 May 1871 at St Barnabas in Addison Rd the marriage of Mary Elizabeth Fitch Furtado and William Morgan took place. Mary, a music teacher, was forty-nine but said that she was thirty-two. William, a mariner, was forty-five.
Mary was happy in her marriage until a woman with two children in tow turned up on her doorstep and demanded to know where her husband was. It was Lavinia Gale.
William Morgan aka Gloucester Gale was sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude. Mary wept and asked that he not be severely punished. But it was to no avail, and, moving around the prison system, Gale served time in Newgate, Pentonville, Brixton, Woking, Dartmoor and Millbank. In 1880, after seven years and ten months, he was released on licence.
Then he disappears from view, with his legal wife, Eliza, calling herself a widow from 1881. His daughter Honour’s marriage certificate, dated 1885, does not record him as being deceased, but her sister’s certificate, dated 1896, does. Did he die between 1880 and 1896 or was he just dead to his family? For all we know, the vile Gloucester Gale may have continued his bigamous career under assumed names after his release, and just not been caught.
What happened to the women afterwards?
In May 1861 Eliza Gee filed for divorce, accusing Gale of bigamy and adultery with Sarah Ann Drewett. The divorce was finalised in March 1862. Eliza died of heart disease in 1868 at the age of forty-five.
Celia Maria Wye married a draper’s assistant by the name of Thomas Richard Meadows Butler in 1861. He was twenty-eight to her forty-four. They lived in Liverpool, where Thomas worked, unsuccessfully, as a merchant and commission agent. Celia died in 1885. Meanwhile Lydia Murch moved to Bristol and in 1867 married Charles Jones, a map mounter. She died in 1902.
Sarah Ann Drewett workedas a nurse for the family of the Rector of All Souls and lived at 10 Chandos Street in Marylebone. Then on 18 June 1868 she married at St John Smith Square. Her husband was Dionis Faber, a German-born tailor, and they returned to his home in Melbourne in Australia immediately after their wedding. Within four years Sarah was committed to the Yarra Bend Asylum, suffering from paralysis or dementia, which might in fact have been a case of neurosyphilis caught from the sexually promiscuous Gale. She died on 21 December 1875 and was buried with her husband in Melbourne General Cemetery.
In June 1859 Everard Home Coleman of the Register Office of Merchant Seamen appealed for money to aid a destitute and pregnant victim of Gale. Although no name was given, she can only be Martha Gover, who was visited by Gale on 21 October 1858. The humane Coleman found Martha in a lying-in hospital after she had been fired by her employers. While her child remains unidentified, the trail has not gone entirely cold, for she may be the Martha who married John Wear in Shadwell in March 1861. If so, she emigrated with John to Canada, then lived in New York until her death in 1908.
Fanny Turrell, though, has got clean away. Every report provides an alternative spelling of her surname. As for Lavinia Gale, she worked as a housekeeper and shirt maker. She died in 1907 and is buried in the old burial ground at St Mary’s Acton.
Mary Furtado corresponded with Gale throughout his time in prison, and, although there is no evidence, I wonder if he went back to her on his release. She lived in and around Kensington and Fulham, working as a singing and music teacher, and died in Eastbourne in 1899.
Books you may enjoy
Please note that these are paid links and that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases