William Stokes and Jane Dent

The Day They Married: William Stokes and Jane Dent

My 2 x great grandparents William Stokes and Jane Dent married on 6 September 1893 in St Thomas’ Church, Bethnal Green. The church suffered bomb damage during the Second World War and was subsequently demolished. However, I’ve found the church on Charles Booths’ Poverty Map of Victorian London.

The church was in an affluent area, red, but William and Jane lived in poverty, Diss Street and Chapel Street, respectively. William established a furniture-making business and twenty years later they were living in 52 Moorland Road, Walthamstow, in a house now valued at £891,000.

Designed by Lewis Vulliamy, the church of St Thomas was constructed in 1848. The building was financed by William Cotton as a memorial to his son. By 1851, Bethnal Green’s church attendance was 11,752 Church of England and 11,791 Nonconformists, revealing that nonconformity was strong in the area.

The 6 September 1893 was a Wednesday. On that day the newspapers reported discussions at the Rugby Union about “compensation for loss of time.” This led to a schism with the northern unions and the creation of Rugby League. While Rugby Union followed the amateur philosophy the players who played Rugby League where paid for their skills and endeavours. It took over a hundred years for Rugby Union to turn professional, that day arriving in 1995.

Did our ancestors take community health more seriously than we do? On 6 September 1893 the newspapers reported a cholera outbreak in Grimsby. The newspapers stated that, “A staff of assistant sanitary inspectors is now thoroughly cleansing and disinfecting the whole town.” 

In our Covid-troubled times we have seen the conflict between public health and the economy. That battle raged in 1893 with leading trade’s figures claiming that Grimsby “remained open for business.” From our experience it would appear that the lesson of good public health equals consumer confidence equals thriving trade is a slow one to learn.

The newspapers also reported the weather for William and Jane’s big day, “Variable light breezes, becoming unsettled with rain.” That’s a forecast they could have repeated on every day over the past 150 years with a high degree of confidence.

If you read Victorian newspapers you will inevitably come across advertisements for Holloway’s Ointments and Pills. In 1837 Thomas Holloway manufactured his ointments and pills in his mother’s kitchen. 

He believed in advertising and spent a small fortune on it, initially £5,000 a year. This rose to £50,000 a year. The advertising worked and Holloway became a multi-millionaire, one of the richest men in Britain at the time.

Holloway’s products were ‘cure-alls’. However, after his death scientific evaluation of the pills revealed that few of them contained ingredients of significant medicinal value.

Thomas Holloway

William Stokes and Jane Dent’s marriage was witnessed by William Howard and Elizabeth Middleton. Elizabeth was William Stokes’ sister. Born on 27 March 1868 she married James Middleton on 6 December 1886 in Bethnal Green. James was a cabinet maker, sharing the same trade as William, so it is easy to imagine how he met Elizabeth. Maybe William introduced James to his sister. James and Elizabeth produced nine children, following the standard Victorian pattern of a child every two years throughout married life.

Jane Dent and William Stokes, seated left and right, middle row, at a family wedding in 1927.

Why did William and Jane marry, for love or money, or another reason? The 1891 census stated that they were living together as husband and wife. However, the marriage records prove that they wed on 6 December 1893, so what was going on?

In 1891 William and Jane were living in 63 Gee Street, St Luke’s, Holborn. When they married their addresses were, William 8 Diss Street, Bethnal Green, Jane 20 Chapel Street, Bethnal Green. These streets ran parallel to one another and were around the corner from St Thomas’ in Baroness Road. 

Birth records reveal that Jane was five months pregnant in April 1891, hence the reason why they were living together as a ‘married couple’. Indeed, she gave birth to their second child a week after their marriage in 1893. She almost combined the wedding and a baptism in one. 

It would appear that William and Jane misled the census enumerator in 1891. With Jane pregnant again in 1893 were they really living apart or did they provide two addresses to spare their blushes? 

William and Jane were poor at the time of their marriage, and because of their first baby maybe they were shunned by their families. If shamed by this, they still didn’t feel the need to marry straight away, waiting until a week before the birth of their second child. Maybe they couldn’t afford a marriage ceremony in 1891 and had to wait.

My impression is William and Jane set up home together when she became pregnant. They set up that home in a poor district because it was the best they could afford. They were obviously a couple in 1892 and 1893, and probably living together. It would have been expensive to run two homes, and I don’t think William would have abandoned Jane and their baby. Therefore, 20 Chapel Street was a convenient address for the marriage ceremony. The deception on the census suggests that they would have had no qualms about a minor deception on the wedding certificate. Equally, Jane might have resided in Chapel Street in the weeks before their marriage. At this distance, it is difficult to tell. Certainly, being nine months pregnant Jane could not have hidden the fact from the vicar and the community that she and William were already enjoying a relationship.

A letter found in the family archive claimed that William was a champion bare-fist fighter in the East End of London. To date, I haven’t discovered a source to confirm this claim, but the other items in the letter are accurate, so it’s quite possible that William was a boxer.

William and Jane’s sons, Albert and Arthur (my direct ancestor), 1918. Both boys lied about their age so that they could join the Army. Fortunately, the armistice was signed before they could see military action.

Married life for William and Jane produced nine children, six boys and three girls. In 1911 all their children were still alive. Most lived well into adulthood, although sadly their youngest daughter, Elise Lilian, died aged twenty-four and their second son, Robert Fredrick, died on 26 June 1916 in Hébuterne, Nord-Pas-de-Calais during the First World War.

William and Jane remained married for thirty-seven years, until William passed away in 1930. Although their first child was born out of wedlock, it’s clear that they were devoted to each other.