• Wendy Percival

Birthday of a Black Sheep

Today is the 170th birthday of one of the Black Sheep of my family – Edward Henry Coules Colley.

It was a while before I found out exactly why he was considered a Black Sheep. A letter received by my aunt when she wrote to her uncle, Edward’s youngest son, Ernest, asking that very question, was less than conclusive. After telling her that his father had come from a family who loved “high life and parties” and had been “the playboy of them all,” Ernest announced, “and there I will close my book on him, with no regrets.’

Of course that wasn’t good enough for me! I needed to know more and it wasn’t until I was deep into my family history research that I discovered the answer. Edward, it seemed, had lived a double life!

He’d married my great-grandmother, Frances (nee Ellisdon) in 1867 but while living in Camberwell, London, with Frances and their family of 4 children, it transpired that Edward had acquired another “wife” a couple of miles away in Newington – an American born woman called Elizabeth Woolf. The couple also had family of 4 children!

During this time Elizabeth was living with her uncle and by the 1881 census, she was calling herself Mrs Colley.

Edward is rumbled!

The balloon went up in 1886 and by the 1891 census, Frances is on her own with her children, having to work as a waitress to keep the family, though when their father left (or perhaps, was kicked out) the younger children had had to spend a short spell in the workhouse, as I wrote about in my post, A Brush with the Workhouse.

It seems that Edward and Frances had married in haste – she was already pregnant with their daughter Rosina, born 5 months after the wedding but who sadly died 3 months later. Perhaps their rush to the altar for propriety’s sake didn’t bode well for their long term relationship.

When Edward’s transgression was discovered, he and Elizabeth quit England for Australia where they went on to have many more children, though not marrying until they were both in their fifites, in 1906. Edward died in 1919 in Perth. Elizabeth outlived him by 26 years, dying in 1945, aged 89.

As for the wife Edward left behind, Frances (picture above) – she emigrated to California with her children in 1901. She never married again and died two years after her husband, in 1921, aged 70.