Ellen Jessie Coker - caught up in bigamy
By Warren Nunn
You know those English period dramas where an unsuspecting young lady becomes besotted by an older man, falls pregnant, gets married and then discovers that he already has a wife?
If you think such tales are solely from the fertile imagination of a writer, think again. Those things really did happen back then... and most likely still happen today.
As the stories go, the older man is sometimes a cad and leaves his younger bride to return to his legal wife and her money... or so the stories sometimes go.
It's no surprise when, as a family researcher, you stumble on a similar story in your own lineage. My great grandfather Harry Coker's first cousin, Ellen Jessie Coker had such an experience.
And while it is hard to tell from the records, it seems she had a better outcome than many other women who faced similar circumstances.
Born at Southwark, London, in 1871, Ellen was not baptised until 1877 on the same day as her younger sister Florence Clara at St George's Church, Battersea.
Ellen Jessie Coker's baptism entry as well as her sister, Florence Clara's. The family was living at Currie St, Battersea.
On the 1871 census, they were at Hill St, Newington.
By 1891, the family had moved back to Newington and it was in that part of London that Ellen fell for the charms of the older man, a silk hat maker named Peter Sinnott. Note that the surname spelling varies between Sinnott and Sinnett. By July 1900 Ellen was pregnant, so she and Peter Sinnott married at St Andrew's Church, Lambeth.
The wedding entry for Ellen Jessie Coker and Peter Sinnott. There are a couple of things worth noting. Peter gives his age as 41...
and his occupation as warehouseman; neither of which were accurate.
To that end, it is worth comparing Peter's signature with that on the following wedding entry. It is for a Peter Sinnott, aged 25, hatter, who married Louisa Ellen Webber at Lambeth in 1876. As further information reveals, it is the same Peter Sinnott who, 24 years later, claims to be only 41 and who marries Ellen Coker.
The following reveals that, within a couple of weeks, the unpalatable details of Peter Sinnott's subterfuge were uncovered as he faced court .. and then three months in jail. One of his sons confronted his new wife and the secret was out.
Jail time for Peter Sinnott (incorrectly recorded as Linnott).
Note his correct age of 53 is given. That is confirmed
from other records that reveal he was born May 1850 (see next image).
Peter Sinnott's christening record for 19 May 1850 in Liverpool
A newspaper report of the case correctly names him
Peter Sinnott, but gives Ellen Jessie's maiden name as Coghill
rather than Coker. The wedding date should be 16th, not 6th
but everything else is correct.
Here is a transcription of the above report:
East London Observer 01 August 1903, p6
Singular Story of Alleged Bigamy.-A hatter named Peter Sinnott, aged 53 living at Vincent-street, Shoreditch, was charged at Worship-street Police-court on Thursday with contracting a bigamous marriage with Ellen Jessie Coghill*, his lawful wife being still alive. The second wife, a pale and delicate-looking woman, who carried a baby, said she lived with prisoner for six months. At the end of that period she informed him of her condition, and they went through a form of marriage together at St Andrew's Church, Lambeth, on July 6#, 1900. He told her he had never been married before. Witness added that the previous night prisoner's son, who was an entire stranger to her, came to the house while his father was out and told her that prisoner's first wife was living. He showed her the certificiate of marriage, and when prisoner came home she taxed him with having committed bigamy. Prisoner replied, "Yes, I have been married before. My wife is living at Plaistow." Witness broke down during the recital of her evidence and sobbed bittlerly. Prisoner, who was committed for trial, said he was guilty of the charge, but his second wife was innocent of it altogether. *Should be Coker. #Should be 16th
The report shows that Peter Sinnott did not try to deny his duplicity and told the court that Ellen had no knowledge of his lawful wife and their children.
However, as 1901 and 1911 census records reveal, Peter remained with Ellen and they had a second child. As an aside, Peter and Ellen used the names John and Ellen that Peter and his first wife also gave to two of their children. This causes added confusion when researching what happened to various family members.
1901 census entry for 22 Peabody Buildings B Block, Lambeth, London
Peter Sinnott, head, aged 50*, silk hat maker, born Liverpool, Lancashire
Ellen Sinnott, wife, aged 30, born Kennington, London
John Sinnott, son, aged 6 months, born Lambeth, London
*On the 1900 wedding certificate, he gives his age as 41
and his occupation as warehouseman.
They are still living at same address, Peabody Buildings.
1911 census for 15 Ellesmere St, Gorton, Lancashire:
Peter Sinnott, Head Married M 60 1851 Silk Hatter Maker Liverpool
Ellen Sinnott, Wife Married 11 years F 40 1871 London Lambeth
John Peter Sinnott, Son M 11 1900 School London Lambeth
Ellen Sinnott, Daughter F 5 1906 School Manchester Harpurhey.
It's interesting to note that Peter and Ellen moved out of London after the court case and his time in jail.
At some point thereafter, there was a move back to London because that's where Peter died in 1923.
We first find Peter Sinnott as a married man on the 1881 census at Parsonage Walk, Newington with his first wife. They were living at a pub.
1881 census for 13 Parsonage Walk, Newington
Peter Sinnott, head, mar, aged 30, silk hatter, born Lancs Liverpool
Ellen Sinnott, wife, mar, aged 28, born Wellington, Staines (near Taunton, Somerset)
Louisa Sinnott, dau, aged 4, born Surrey Southwark
Peter H. Sinnott, son, aged 2, born Surrey Southwark
John Sinnott, son, aged 7 months, born Surrey Lambeth
In 1891, the family had grown to six children and they were still at Newington.
1891 census for 17 Darwin Buildings, Newington
Peter Sinnott, head, aged 40, silk hatter, born Lancashire Liverpool
Ellen Sinnott, wife, aged 38, born Somerset, Taunton,
Ellen Sinnott, dau, aged 14, bodice maker, born London, Southwark
Peter Sinnott, son, aged 12, born London, Southwark
John Sinnott, son, aged 10, born London, Southwark
James Sinnott, son, aged 8, born London, Peckham
William Sinnott, son, aged 6, born London, Peckham
Thomas Sinnott, son, aged 4, born London, Southwark
There is an ancestry.com tree with a photograph of what may be above Ellen Sinnott with her adult children. Given Ellen (maiden name Webber) died in 1939 according to the researcher, the image must have been taken in the 1930s judging by the age of the adults. Without further information about the image, it's difficult to make any other observations.
After the 1911 census, it is difficult to track what happened with Peter Sinnott and his second wife Ellen Jessie Coker. While a death record in 1923 is found for Peter Sinnott, information about Ellen Jessie dries up. As yet, no further details can be confirmed about their children John Peter and Ellen.