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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Mystery engagement

Having finished writing the 4th Esme Quentin novel (soon to be published - details coming soon!) I've had a chance to consider what's next in my own family history investigations. While browsing my notes, I was reminded of this intriguing story about my maternal grandfather.

Before he followed his dream to become Ken Barton,"theatrical artist", Herbert 'Bert' Colley (his real name) worked in the newspaper industry (for The Times, I believe as a printer) and it may have been here where he met Mary Ann Fry, a “paper packer” (possibly someone who packed newspapers?) to whom he became engaged.

Reading of the banns

In late November and early December 1889 the banns were read in St John's the Evangelist, Walworth announcing the forthcoming marriage of batchelor, Herbert Henry Coules Colley and spinster, the aforementioned, Mary Ann Fry. Herbert would have been 20 and Mary Ann, 19. 

But it seems that the actual marriage never took place and the entry on the banns record is crossed out.

It might be logical to assume that either the bride or the groom called off the wedding and that was the end of that... except that less than 3 months later, in March 1890, another banns record appears for Herbert Henry Coules Colley and Mary Ann Fry. Again there is no record that the marriage took place and, again, the entry has been crossed out.

Drama in the pews?

So what occurred? Was the first wedding cancelled due to illness? Did either party change their mind and then change it back again, to try a second time the following year? Did everyone arrive at the church on two separate occasions, only to witness the bride – or the groom – not turning up? Perhaps someone, in true dramatic fashion, as in the infamous scene in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, stood up and declared there was an impediment to why these two people could not be joined in matrimony!

When I raised this conundrum on Twitter a few years ago, a fellow family historian suggested that perhaps the "cancelled" wedding was because of the couple being under age. However that still doesn't explain why they tried again only 3 months later, as they'd still have been under age. I'd love to know the story!

To conclude the story, I can tell you that 5 years after the second banns reading, Herbert married his first wife Ada Dean (not my grandmother) in 1895, at the same church, St John's the Evangelist, Walworth and, in intriguing twist to the tale, one year after that, in 1896, Mary Ann Fry married Herbert's uncle, his father's brother Robert Colley (in a different church, in case you're wondering). Herbert's own sister, Maud, was one of the witnesses. I wonder if Herbert went to the wedding?

Sounds like a great plot for a novel... had I been a romance author!



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