Posts Tagged ‘mass wedding’

Phoebe was born in 1834 in Colchester. The date of her birth is unknown, as is that of her christening, if there ever was one. She went on to have one of the most interesting lives of any of my ancestors. Reading between the lines and there are many lines, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was a life beset by scandal and maybe it was. One thing is certain, it was a hard life, but oh the stories she could have told!


Phoebe was the 3rd child, one of six, of George Henry Gusterson and his wife Susan. George was an army man, at least for a short while. His first child was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia – now Canada – and his second at Chatham Army Barracks in Kent. Although I have no details of his service, it seems likely that he left the army around 1830 and the family settled in Colchester, the place of his birth.


They lived around North Hill in Colchester. For at least some of the time they most likely lived in a dwelling behind the houses and businesses on North Hill – a house or rooms off a courtyard which was no doubt cramped and perhaps a little squalid. George worked as a labourer. Over time he had various jobs which included working at the local iron foundry and as a bricklayer.


At the age of seventeen, Phoebe was working as a housemaid to a butcher and his family. She was listed on the 1851 census as being resident at the butcher’s house so it was a live-in position. At this time, her parents only had three children still living at home easing the burden on the household.


Phoebe’s adventures began in November 1854 when she married a Thomas Barrell. He was a soldier, a private in the infantry and fourteen years her senior. At the time of their marriage, his place of residence was recorded as the Wagon and Horses Inn. I have no idea if he was local although that seems unlikely; I can find no trace of him.


In June 1856 Phoebe’s father was in court on a serious charge (those of you who have read my previous family history blogs will know that my ancestors are quite familiar with court proceedings). He was charged with having “ill-treated his wife” and having “threatened to murder her”.  The story was helpfully recounted in the The Essex Standard at the time:

Colchester Town Hall. Monday, June 9. Before the Mayor and S. G. Cooke. Esq. George Henry Gusterson was brought up on a warrant, charged with having ill-treated his wife on Friday evening last and threatened to murder her. – It appeared that he had been for about two years out of employment, during which time he was mainly supported by the unremitting labour of his wife. Several times he has threatened to murder her, and on Thursday night his conduct was such that she was compelled to leave her home. On Friday night she returned to the house for some things, when the defendant received her with the greatest apparent affection; but after she had entered the house he fastened the door, and declared with an oath that he would murder her. Hearing her screams her son attempted to break open the door, upon which defendant struck her several times with a screw-driver, and she became insensible. – The Bench asked if he was in the habit of getting drunk; but the complainant (who seemed to feel keenly being driven to the necessity of appealing to the law for protection) begged not to be pressed to answer the question. – Defendant subjected his wife to a lengthy cross-examination, and endeavoured to show that he was the most ill-used of husbands; that he, not his wife, ought to be the complainant; and that notwithstanding the greatest provocation he always behaved kindly to his wife. – The Bench, however, considered the case proved, and ordered defendant to enter into his own recognizances in £20 to keep the peace for six months, and to find one surety in £10.”

The son who tried to break down the door was only twelve years old at the time! As it happens, George was unable to find surety and was committed to prison for six months. Six months!! That seems an unduly lenient sentence for threatening to murder someone.


Amazingly enough, in September of the same year he was back in court, this time to be discharged on the request of his long-suffering wife:

COLCHESTER TOWN HALL. – SEPT. 11. Before the Mayor and J. Chaplin, Esq. Mr. Abell applied on behalf of Mrs. Gusterson for the discharge of her husband, George Henry Gusterton [sic], who, it will be remembered, was committed to prison on the 9th June last, in default of finding surety for his good behaviour to his wife for six months. Having given a solemn promise to behave better to her for the future, his wife wished him to be set at liberty. – The Bench having acceded to this request, the prisoner was brought up into the Court and addressed by the Mayor, who said at the earnest request of his wife the Bench had consented to his liberation. He had much to thank his wife for, especially after the treatment she had received at his hands, and he hoped he would properly appreciate it. Whatever he did, let him shun drink; it was drink that had brought him to his present position. It had been to him a curse, and would continue so, unless he endeavoured in the most determined manner to free himself from it. – Gusterson thanked the Bench for their kindness, and having entered into his own recognizances for his future behaviour, left the Court with his wife.”

Maybe encouraged by the misdemeanours of her father Phoebe embarked on something quite remarkable. With her husband, Thomas, now presumably dead, most likely in the Crimea (sadly something I cannot ascertain), she married again.


In 1854, Britain had declared war on Russia following Russian incursions into the Crimea. Struggling to recruit sufficient soldiers at home the British fell back on the time-honoured tradition of hiring foreign recruits. The majority came from the German states, eager for action, many deserting their own army. Known as the British German Legion or Anglo-German Legion, the mercenaries saw little or no action as the war ended. Many were still being trained and Britain was contractually obliged to pay them their dues. In 1856, around 10,000 legionnaires were billeted at Barrack field in Colchester Garrison. Having committed the treasonous act of swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria they faced difficulties with repatriation and the British Government decided to resettle some of them, in the Cape Colony in South Africa, known then as British Kaffraria, to help protect the Eastern Cape Frontier. They wanted married men so they gave the men permission to marry any woman who was willing to join him on the adventure. In the end, less than 2,500 men volunteered for resettlement and the number of married soldiers that arrived in the Cape was far fewer than that, less than 400, and the colony struggled from the very start, not helped by the lies and exaggerations they were told about the settlement in order to make the idea seem more appealing.


One of Colchester’s oldest photos, taken in 1856, of the British German Legion’s encampment by the Garrison Church in Colchester. Source: Essex County Standard.


On 16 November 1856 Phoebe married a Carl Formhals on board the depot ship HMS Britannia in a mass wedding with a number of other couples. Her younger sister Sarah also married a German, Heinrich Langefeldt, her marriage taking place in the Garrison Church on 19 October 1856.


Carl was actually Prussian, from a town called Arnsberg. He was 5’4”, blonde and a butcher by trade. He enlisted in the British German Legion in November 1855 aged just 21.


Phoebe and Carl sailed for South Africa on 19 November 1856 and arrived in the Cape on 28 February 1857. They took a circuitous route, chasing trade winds across the Atlantic, then turning south down the coast of Brazil before crossing to the Cape. Three months on board a ship must have felt like an eternity.


On arriving in South Africa, after camping in a tented village overlooking the mouth of the Buffalo River close to the hamlet of East London, they were moved to Fort Murray, a three-day march away. The women and children rode on ox wagons with the baggage while the soldiers walked. Of course, by this time the legionnaires realised that British Kaffraria was not what they’d been promised. It was nothing like Germany – it was hot, there was a lack of proper roads and the forts were not stone castles but earthen constructions. When they arrived in Fort Murray they once again had to make do with tents. During these early days, and later on, many died from dysentery.


The legion was broken up into three regiments and after two months they left Fort Murray to settle into various villages. Sarah and her husband settled in Stutterheim where he was granted land and it is possible that this is also where Phoebe and Carl settled but there is no record.


There seemed to be some confusion about how the men should be ordered. Were they soldiers who were becoming settlers or were they settlers who had been soldiers? Apart from the weekly parade they were left to their own devices and did very little. There was dissent, money was a problem, soldiers starting deserting. Many seemed uninterested in constructing permanent homes. There were relatively few married men and no prospect of any women for the unmarried ones and therein lay the main problem.


The soldiers received full pay for a year; a whole 11 months longer than originally promised thanks to lies fed back to Britain by those in charge about uprisings and threatened wars. After that the soldiers were reduced to half-pay which made their lives unsustainable. By way of a solution to this and to help rid the colony of those soldiers who were uninterested in settling and thus causing problems, they were offered the opportunity to volunteer to serve in India where a “mutiny” had occurred. Around 45% of the settlers volunteered and by August 1858 they had left. Those who stayed were once again able to receive full pay. Further German immigrants were brought over and the colony started to flourish.


Phoebe and Carl stayed in South Africa as did her sister, Sarah, and her husband. Phoebe had two children, Charles in 1859 and Bertha in 1860. Carl purchased his discharge from the legion on 31 August 1859.


In 1861 Phoebe Formhals was back in Colchester, England, with her two children in tow, living with her mother and two siblings. The census lists her as married but her husband is not there. There is no record of when, how or why Phoebe returned to England. What happened to Carl is a secret that Phoebe may very well have taken to her grave.


Phoebe’s father was living elsewhere with a woman listed as “housekeeper”. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t; however, I doubt she was his housekeeper if this was her profession. In his daughter’s absence he had been in court again, this time on the charge of obtaining charitable contributions under false pretences. For this he served two months of hard labour. He died in 1865 in the workhouse. A sorry end to a sorry tale.


From the time she arrived back in England and until she married for a third and final time, Phoebe worked as a tailoress. On the 1871 census she reverted to her first married name, Barrell, and was calling herself a widow. Was she a widow? Who knows. She may have wished to distance herself from the German surname since anti-German sentiment began to make an appearance in Britain in the 1870s following the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war.


On 1 Jun 1873 Phoebe married Joseph Slade, another soldier. He had served in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and quite possibly the Crimea, and was living in the Colchester Garrison. The marriage certificate records Phoebe as Phoebe Barrell, widow. It makes no mention of her previous husband.


When Phoebe’s children married they both named their father as Charles Barrell, Charles being the anglicised form of Carl. On Charles’ marriage certificate his father’s profession was recorded as being a publican, which he most definitely was not, and on Bertha’s, it was correctly recorded as soldier.


Phoebe and Joseph remained together until her death in 1898. They had a child, William, in 1880, no doubt rather unexpectedly given Phoebe’s age (45-46). On the 1881 census Joseph is listed as an army pensioner so had at some point in the intervening years left the army. Another ten years passed and Joseph was working as a labourer at Colchester Garrison which afforded them accommodation within the barracks; however, Phoebe is sadly noted as being paralysed – to what degree it doesn’t say. She died on 22 May 1898 aged 64. Her death certificate lists the causes of death as rheumatoid arthritis and debility plus something that is frustratingly illegible. It says she had suffered from arthritis for 18 years and debility for two. Given the adventures she had and the hardships she must have faced, 64 seems like a good age.


So for all intents and purposes Carl Formhals never existed, or at least that’s the impression Phoebe seems to have been hoping to give. The German surname was erased from the collective family memory and, although we knew her children were born in South Africa, the mass wedding was just a rumour. It was only when I started delving into her past that we found out the truth. But what is the truth? What happened to Carl? Did he return to Germany? There is no record of him remaining in South Africa but that means very little. A man with the same name, birth year and birthplace married in Germany in 1861 but the name isn’t uncommon enough for me to make any assumptions and I don’t have access to any other records to be able to delve further. Did Phoebe commit bigamy?


Phoebe and Carl’s daughter, Bertha (pictured below), was my great x 2 grandmother. When she was eligible to receive an old age pension from the government she experienced some difficulty proving her age because she had no proof of her birth. There was no official recording of births and such-like in the Cape Colony.


The rather wonderful looking Bertha Mary Ann Hunwicke (née Formhals but known as Barrell). Family archive.


So, a tiny part of me is German, or more accurately, Prussian. Whatever the reasons for Phoebe and Carl parting ways I am very proud to call them my ancestors. I think they were brave and adventurous, especially Phoebe. Imagine the stories she could tell.


The story of the Eastern Cape’s German Settlers can be found here:




As an aside it is interesting to note that Phoebe’s elder brother, also George Henry Gusterson, seems to have been of the same ilk as his father. On 11 November 1856, five days before Phoebe married Carl Formhals, her brother was in court on charges of ill-using his wife. He had used a familiar threat: murder.

COLCHESTER TOWN HALL. – Nov. 6. Before Mayor and S. G. Cooke. Esq. MATRIMONIAL DISAGREEMENT. – George Henry Gusterson, jun., was summoned for ill-using his wife. – Mr Abell for defendant. Complainant stated that she had been married to defendant four or five years, and about two months ago he left her in London after selling off the furniture, and she did not know where he was till a week afterwards, when, on his promising to behave better to her, she came to Colchester and lived with him. On Friday last he struck her in the face with his fist, and threatened to murder her. On Monday last, when she returned from the Court, after applying for a summons, he repeated his threatening language. – A neighbour, Mrs Brooker, a respectable woman, spoke to hearing defendant make use of threatening language towards his wife on various occasions. Mr Abell, for defendant, called Eliza Hardwick, who stated that she had heard complainant speak to her husband about another woman, when defendant replied that he would knock her head through the wall. She had heard complainant tell her child not to love her father. – In answer to a question by the Clerk to the Magistrates, this witness admitted that she had been brought into the station-house off the pavement when intoxicated. – The Mayor asked complainant if there was any prospect of their living peaceably together after this? – Complainant. No, Sir: this is the fourth time he has treated me thus, and I wish to be separated from him. – Mr Cooke. We cannot do anything of that kind: our business is, if possible, to set man and wife together. – The Mayor, We might sit here all day if we were to separate married people who wished to part. – The Bench then required defendant to find two sureties in £10 each to keep the peace towards his wife; and the required sureties being forthcoming defendant was discharged.”

George Henry Gusterson, jun. disappears from all records after this and his wife is living in London with her daughter by 1861 and is recorded as a widow. Again, was she? Who knows.



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