Saturday, October 17, 2015

To Boston and back - Alfred Pearson Bentley

The SS City of Richmond
Alfred may have arrived in America
in 1879 on this ship or one like it.
When Walter Bentley married Alice Hough in 1898, his father did not attend the wedding. Although his father's name, Alfred Pearson Bentley, was recorded on the register, it was followed by "deceased." But Alfred was far from deceased, in fact he was living less than 60 miles away in  Cheshire, with his second wife and son. Whether Walter or his mother Annie, Alfred's first and only legal wife, knew this is one of those intriguing mysteries.

According to family lore, Alfred, an engraver by trade, left England for America in the late 1870's, with a promise to send for his wife Annie (nee Reed) and their four children when he had established himself there. But, the story goes, he died in America, leaving the widowed Annie in Salford to fend for herself as best she could. Her youngest child, Ernest, was only a few months old, and the oldest, Margaret, was seven.

What the records show is that Alfred did indeed go to America. But he didn't die there. Soon after arriving in the US, Alfred married Annie Jane Smith, the daughter of John and Catherine Smith. Their wedding took place in Boston, Massachusetts on September 3, 1879. Both claimed that this was their first marriage - which was true at least for Annie Jane. Alfred's parent's names, Ben and Harriet, were noted on the marriage record, along with his occupation, 'dial writer' (a trade sometimes taken on by engravers).

North Grove St, Boston, 1888. Alfred and Annie Jane
were living at no. 11 in 1884.
The fire house, no. 16,  is circled in red.*
Alfred and Annie were still living in Boston at the time of the 1880 US census, and his occupation was then listed as 'engraver'. Their son, John Alfred, was born in Boston in 1884. While the child may have been named after Annie Jane's father and Alfred himself, it was a strangely insensitive name to give him, since Alfred already had a ten year old son named John Alfred back in England.

Sometime between 1884 and 1890 the family returned to England, to Cheshire, which was Annie Jane's home county. They remained there for the rest of their lives. John Alfred was their only child.

All sorts of questions spring to mind but seem unanswerable. Did the first wife, Annie Reed, know that her husband had gone through a bigamous marriage in America? Or did Alfred somehow arrange for false evidence of his death to be sent to her? In the 1881 census she was still listed as married, but she described herself as a widow on the 1891 census. Was that her belief, or a face-saving fib? Divorce was not an option because of the cost, and admitting that she had been betrayed and abandoned for another woman after ten years of marriage would have been hard.

While bigamy was illegal, it was not unusual among the working classes in England at a time when divorce was out of their reach. According to one researcher, it was considered tacitly acceptable only if the three parties involved were all aware and agreed to the arrangement, and the husband was willing to support both families. Annie Reed Bentley was taking in laundry to support herself and her family in 1891, so it doesn't appear that Alfred made any financial arrangements for her.

And what about Annie Jane Smith. How and where did she and Alfred meet? He was born in West Yorkshire but lived his early adult life in Salford in Lancashire. She was born and raised in Weston, on the Cheshire coast near Birkenhead. Her mother died some time in the 1860's, and Annie was no longer living with her father in 1871, but I haven't been able to trace her on the census of that year. Did they meet in England and travel to America in order to marry, or was it a chance encounter in Boston that led to their relationship? Did Annie Jane Smith know that Alfred had been married, in fact was still married, with a family back in England, or did he deceive her too?

All Saints' Church, Runcorn
(photo from Wikimedia)
Alfred's story takes another odd turn in  December 1890 when, at the age of 41, he was baptised into the Church of England at All Saints' church, Runcorn. Unlike his marriage, this was not double-dipping. His parents, Ben and Harriet, belonged to a non-conformist denomination and maybe for this reason Alfred had not been baptised as an infant. Was he simply seeking social conformity, or was he looking for peace from a troubled conscience? If he ever confessed his bigamy to the parish minister, it remained a secret.

Alfred outlived both of his wives and his son Walter. He died in September 1922 at the age of 73, leaving all his estate of over £1500 to his Boston-born son, John Alfred. His first wife, Annie Reed Bentley, died of cirrhosis in Salford in 1899 at the age of 55, leaving no will. We'll never know the full story, but perhaps my cousin David's description of him as "The Cad" is apt.

*Map from the Boston Fire Historical Society site.

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