Meeting an Urgent Need

The First World War threw widows and their brothers-in-law together, but their marriages were considered incestuous. 

 Lord George Wellesley with Louise FitzGerald, former wife of his brother, Richard, c.1918. Bain Collection/Library of Congress, Washington DC.

During the First World War the British government persistently rejected calls to legalise marriages between a man and the widow of his brother killed in action. Drawing no distinction between blood bonds and those acquired by marriage, sections of the Church of England regarded these relations as incestuous. Bruised by the protracted debates over the passing of a parallel measure, the Deceased Wife’s Sisters Marriage Act of 1907, Prime Minister Lloyd George refused to act. Although rectifying this inequality of treatment between the sexes would have been relatively simple, he knew the dangers of interfering with the law in this matter.

The government’s intransigence seemed perverse in some quarters. A Yorkshire woman spoke of the ‘crying injustice’. The campaign for change drew together such unlikely allies as the suffrage paper The Women’s Leader and the popular weekly John Bull, which characterised the anomaly as ‘ridiculous and cruel’

Surviving brothers provided economic, practical and emotional support to the widows and children of those killed in action, often fulfilling a promise made to their brothers departing for the front. When strong attachments inevitably formed, many saw this as a natural development and were dismayed when their desire to legitimise their bond was thwarted. Others felt it was important for bereaved children to have a male breadwinner and role model in the house. One ‘sufferer’ asked who could better provide paternal influence than their dead father’s brother.

A ‘conservative’ estimate by The Woman’s Leader put the number affected at 5,000, approximately two per cent of the 240,000 women widowed in Britain and Ireland. Viscountess Astor alone received between 200 and 300 letters on this emotive subject, a significant portion of her constituency mailbag. Proclaiming herself a ‘victim’ of government inaction, one widow wrote of how this apparently small ‘sacrifice’ in their eyes resulted in real hardship. After enduring ‘four years of loneliness’ her hopes of remarrying were dashed. Believing that forming an irregular union would be unfair to her young sons and any future children, this prospective couple felt they had no choice but to maintain separate households.

Living apart was just one option facing couples in this predicament. Other countries adopted a more progressive view of such unions, so those few who had sufficient resources could marry overseas. Lord George Wellesley, for example, created a ‘mild sensation’ by marrying the widow of his brother Richard, killed in action at Ypres, in a quiet ceremony in New York. Yet couples availing themselves of this option were often effectively exiled. On their return to England, they would find their marriage considered null and void and any children of the union illegitimate in the eyes of the law.

Other choices were to ‘live in sin’ or to conceal the relationship – and some believed they were morally justified in doing so. Making a false declaration to the registrar was a criminal offence under the 1911 Perjury Act. Registrars spoke of the injustice in having to refuse notices in those ‘painful’ instances where individuals were unaware of the law. Adjudicating before the Northamptonshire Assizes, Justice Shearman pronounced that such cases should be brought before the courts so that others might understand their illegality.

In March 1920, Lady Astor again drew attention to the ‘urgent need’ to resolve the matter. Momentum for change gathered in the postwar period, buttressed by a feeling that the original controversy over the 1907 Act had diminished. Reform seemed aligned to the national interest in reducing the mounting pensions bill. As an inducement to widows, the remarriage gratuity offered a one-off payment. At the beginning of the war this equated to two years’ pension, reduced to one year in 1917. One proponent estimated this could produce potential savings of £180,000 per annum.

Some widows only discovered the unlawfulness of their private situation after applying for their ‘marriage money’. Administrators carried out background checks when the accompanying documentation showed husband and wife bearing the same surname before marriage. Interdepartmental discussions between the Ministry of Pensions and the Treasury show sympathy for the plight of ‘innocent’ parties and discomfort that, on occasion, officials were finding widows ‘guilty’ of illegal behaviour when they had not been convicted in law. A vicar from Peckham made a coded plea for one ‘very respectable’ remarried woman, who throughout her widowhood had led a ‘perfectly normal life’. Adding weight to her claim, was the fact that her second ‘husband’ had been discharged from the army after losing his right leg. Despite calls for clemency in such hard cases, the Treasury remained implacable, giving no quarter for genuine mistake or ignorance.

Women felt slighted by the implication that their behaviour had, in any way, been improper. One remarried widow insisted that she and her dead husband’s brother, both respectable people, ‘had done nothing wrong’. Moreover, by obeying his country’s call to serve, her first husband had fulfilled his patriotic duty, paying the ultimate sacrifice when he lost his life. Such protestations highlighted the moral policing of women’s behaviour engrained in the system, a hangover of the days of philanthropic oversight. Pensions and gratuities could be withdrawn from widows whose probity and moral conduct fell short of the required standard of respectability. Over 900 ‘unworthy’ widows forfeited their pensions in one year alone. For those couples who believed they had acted properly and in good faith by formalising their bond, being stigmatised this way contravened their sense of natural justice. 

A further catalyst for legislative reform was the decision in March 1921 to grant gratuities to Irish widows who had received a dispensation from the Catholic church to marry their dead husband’s brother. The following month, the government capitulated. Contrary to expectations, the Bill passed through its parliamentary procedures swiftly and with little dissent, coming into force on 28 July 1921 – laying to rest a curious anomaly that gained emotional and economic import as a result of the huge number of Great War casualties.


Linda Maynard is the author of Brothers in the Great War. Siblings, Masculinity and Emotions (Manchester, 2021).