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Lifestyle Article - The Ballarat Bigamy Case

Thomas Andrews Wellington was a well known undertaker in Ballarat, who became even more well known due to a packed public committal hearing at the Ballarat Police Court in January 1893 for a bigamy charge involving the marriage to Clara Courtis in 1882. There was widespread press coverage in the local Ballarat Star and Courier newspapers, as well as further afield in the Melbourne Argus, Hobart Mercury, and even the Maitland Advertiser.

Born in Bristol in 1838 and immigrating before he was 19 years old, Thomas married Mary White in Ballarat in 1857 and had storeman and contractor type employment for about 15 years whilst the family grew with 10 births and 2 deaths. By 1878 when his last child was born, he was involved with horses, firstly as a livery stable helper and then later as a coach proprietor. He doesn’t appear to have been a full time undertaker until the mid to late 1880’s, but quickly included his sons Thomas and William in the profession, along with two other sons later on.

In 1878-9 it appears that Thomas become very jealous of his wife Mary, making the marriage unbearable, and Mary separated. Why Thomas would be jealous is unclear, but a ‘bad’ and ‘wicked’ neighbour was implicated, and there were other family stresses in 1878 including a birth and a 5 year old’s death.

Thomas appears to have met Clara Courtis in Beaufort about 1881-2, and they were married in Melbourne in August 1882. Clara arrived in Melbourne in 1869 as an 18 year old in an escorted group of young servants. Within 18 months she had an illegitimate child who died after 4 months, whilst struggling financially in a poor refuge in St Kilda as indicated by a stealing charge. Ten years later she was living with a man Owens in Beaufort, possibly for a few years, as she was thought by many to be Mrs Owens and had acquired some property.

Thomas and Clara’s marriage was at a Congregational Church in Kew, with Thomas signing his name as Thomas Wellington Andrews, but having crossed out the Wellington. The church minister recalling that Thomas seemed anxious to erase the name Wellington, which appears to have been an obvious deception at the time, and with Thomas representing it as an oversight in the lead up to the court hearing.

Four years after the bigamy-tarnished marriage ceremony, Clara died of pleurisy and pneumonia on 14 August 1886, with the death certificate giving her name as Clara Courtis, not Wellington, and with Thomas as the informant and described as a friend and as the undertaker responsible for the funeral.

Apparently straight after Clara’s funeral, Thomas was corresponding with her sister from Adelaide, Sarah Carter Saint, and visited Sarah in September staying about 10 days in which time he repeatedly requested her to move to Ballarat to take charge of the house from her deceased sister. Sarah had had a tough life too, married in 1870 to a butcher at Walloora Mine, Moonta, she had 6 children in 10 years, with 3 dying, and her husband going insolvent with mounting debts, and quite a number of court hearings for her and husband relating to assault and stealing. Sarah had separated from her husband by 1886, and accepted the offer by ‘well-to-do’ Thomas to move to Ballarat within a week of Thomas’ visit.

Apparently at Sarah and Clara’s mother’s request from Cornwall, Sarah asked for Thomas’ marriage certificate with Clara. This, plus an offer by Thomas to pay the costs, resulted in mother Sally, and other sisters Cecelia, Lucinda and Laura leaving London in March 1887 less than seven months after Clara’s death, bound for Ballarat. And in the same time frame Sarah had evolved from housekeeper to mistress. But the reunion between Sarah and her family turned sour very quickly – and Thomas moved Sarah out to another house after 11 days due to a row – supposedly over the inheritance of Clara’s property from Beaufort, but it would be fair to say the family may have been stressed about Clara’s bigamous marriage, the likelihood of Sarah also entering into an equally bigamous association, and Sarah quitting her family in Adelaide.

Within 6 months, Sarah and Thomas had split, even though Thomas had asked her to marry him three times. It seems that Thomas found three new sisters around the house more appealing than an angry Sarah, and within a year Thomas had married sister Lucinda after obtaining a divorce from first wife Mary (White) in October 1888 – apparently bigamy was not now an option. Sister Laura was also married a year later in 1889 to George Taylor, who had come over on the same boat from London as the Courtis family 2 years earlier. George’s marriage in to the family would have assisted the formation of the partnership he made with Thomas’ sons in an Undertaking business called Wellington Bros and Taylor. This business partnership lasted till 1895 and had premises in Ryrie St Geelong, and extended to Steiglitz.

Tensions can’t have improved between Sarah and Thomas after Thomas married sister Lucinda. Probably in pursuit of ownership right over the Beaufort property, especially as a consequence of her mother dying in 1892, Sarah was threatening Thomas with legal proceedings for bigamy as a form of blackmail. Obviously Thomas was indignant to the threats, and so Sarah instigated the court action in mid January 1893. The outcome of the hearing at the Ballarat City Police Court was for Thomas to present for trial at the next criminal assizes of the Supreme Court of Victoria in mid February, but as yet no information has been found about any such trial taking place.

Sarah Saint probably didn’t get her way, and her rage and behaviour resulted in her maliciously wounding a woman in August 1901, for which she was remanded to the Ararat Asylum for medical examination, where she resided for ten years before passing away. Thomas’ marriage to Lucinda endured until Thomas committed suicide in 1910 by hanging. Once again, his actions made newspaper headlines in both Ballarat and out of state. The main influence was ascribed to difficulty collecting debts, although Lucinda was in poor health at the time, and Thomas also had the flu. Lucinda recovered and continued to live at Dawson Street with her spinster sister Cecelia, finally passing away in 1945 aged 91. And Mary White even married again in 1896.

The final twist to Thomas’ death is that he was buried in the Ballarat family grave with a headstone naming two of his sons, Edward and Arthur who pre-deceased him, then Thomas, then a James Phillips - who has been perplexing us for many years, as he has no known association with anyone. But we now have a lead to track down, as we think that James Philips was a nephew of George Taylor.

Last update: 17th September 2010