Today’s featured individual is a man whose love life ended up as the subject of a court case.
Isaac William Heenan
Before 1914 divorce was rare in the UK. In the first decade of the 20th century, there was just one divorce for every 450 marriages.
The expense of the process put it out of the reach of most ordinary people; the necessity to prove adultery or violence was another factor in keeping the number of divorce petitions low. But public opinion also played a key role – divorce was considered scandalous particularly among conservative, church-going communities.
The turning point came with World War 1 which ushered in a slightly more liberal attitude to relationships between the sexes. In 1918 there were more divorces than ever before; in 1919 there were half as many again.
But divorces only really proliferated after the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act which put men and women on a more equal basis in terms of divorce, and made the process more accessible to poorer people. Now either party could petition for divorce on the basis of their partner’s infidelity (previously, only the man had been able to do this).
We are still however talking in relatively small numbers as this chart illustrates.
Isaac William Heenan was one of those rare cases of an individual from a relatively low income group who found themselves embroiled in a divorce case.
Isaac had been born in 1882 in Grimsby, Lincolnshire; the third son of a fisherman called Michael William Heenan and his wife Emma Raynor.
Isaac didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps but went instead to work in the coal mining industry. He appears to have been a colliery banksman, a job which meant he worked at the pit bank (the area at the top of the mine shaft) to dispatch the coals, and organise the workforce. He would have been in charge of loading or unloading the cage, drawing full tubs from the cages and replacing them with empty ones.
He married Sarah Ann Sadler in Grimsby in 1902, with whom he had at least one son: Bernard , who died as an infant in 1904). They moved house subsequently because 1904 sees them in Derbyshire. In that year Isaac William joined the army, signing up for a minimum of three years service with the Coldstream Guards. However he never completed that service, being declared medically unfit after an operation on his right arm.
When war broke out he tried again to join the army, this time enlisting on 14 September 1914 with the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment). He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion as a private. Once again his army service was short lived: he was deemed medically unfit for service and was discharged on 16 Nov 1914 without having left England.
Isaac William Heenan: In court
In 1919 Isaac was named in a divorce petition which was heard in the High Court of Justice in London the following year.
A tanner by the name of Frederick Plenty alleged that his wife Annie Maud Plenty had committed adultery with Isaac William Heenan “at diverse places and at 4 Talbot Street, Wharf Road, Pinxton in the county of Derby” during August and September 1915. In his petition, he further stated that Annie Maud had borne Isaac William’s child in May 1916. Since that date, Annie Maud and Isaac William had co-habited at the house in Talbot Street.
Neither Annie Maud or Isaac William appeared in court to defend the case.
Frederick was granted a decree nisi on 29 November 1920 and a decree absolute in September 1921.
The “guilty’ parties married in 1922, in the same quarter as the birth of a child: George R Heenan.
The family continued to live in Talbot Street. In the 1939 National Register, Isaac William is described as a “coke over door sealer”. He died in 1958.
The divorce petition alleges the adulterous relationship between Annie Maud Plenty and Isaac William Heenan occurred in 1915. However the couple knew each other well before this. The 1911 census shows Isaac William living at 75 Pool Close, Pinxton Alfreton, Pinxton, in Derbyshire. He is described as married. His wife Sarah Ann is however not in the property.
The only other occupant is …. Annie Maud Plenty, who is described as a housekeeper, and married for eight years. Which is very odd because court papers show she was actually married to Frederick Plenty in 1898 (13 years earlier). Maybe she just miscalculated?
Isaac and Annie Maud had at least one child – and possibly two -before they were married, indicating that the relationship was much older than that indicated in the divorce proceedings.
In 1912, the birth of a William Plenty was recorded in the Mansfield registration district of Nottinghamshire. The mother’s maiden name was given as Bowen (Annie Maud’s maiden name). The same index shows that the child was also registered under the surname of Heenan-Plenty. In army pension records, Isaac records in his next of kin two sons:
- William Heenan-Plenty
- Bernard Edward Heenan-Plenty
I haven’t found any trace of Bernard under that surname though there is a Bernard Plenty recorded as born in 1913 in Mansfield, with the mother’s maiden name of Bowen. William did continue to use the surname of Heenan-Plenty – there is an entry in the 1939 National Register where he is a colliery worker living in Blackwell, Derbyshire.
The other mystery concerns the whereabouts of Isaac’s first wife , Sarah.
She disappears after their marriage and birth of their child. She isn’t on the 1911 census with Isaac nor anywhere else in England and Wales. But I haven’t found any record of her death.
Clearly there is some further research needed…
- Civil registration England and Wales: Q3, 1882, Caistor registration district, Lincolnshire, Vol 7a page 648 . General Register Office
- Civil registration England and Wales: Q2 1903, Grimsby Registration district,, Lincolnshire, England vol 7a page 1593 General Register Office
- Civil registration England and Wales:Q1 1922, Mansfield registration district, Nottinghamshire vol 7b page 220 General Register Office
- Civil registration England and Wales:Q4 1958, Chesterfield registration district, Derbyshire, England, vol 3A page 206 General Register Office
- Census of England and Wales: 1911, Pinxton Alfreton, Derbyshire, England RG 14 Find My Past
- National Register of England and Wales: 1939 Blackwell, Derbyshire RG101//5948C, Find My Past
- Divorce Court File J 77/1558/8296, The National Archives
- Divorce statistics: UK Parliament report