Bigamy or not Bigamy? That is the Question!

Half way through the Writing a Family Saga unit we had to submit a 750 word piece expanding on one of the shorter stories we had written so far. As you can see by the title, I chose Thomas Forbes Nisbet to expand on as I knew it would be easy to write at least 750 words!

Bigamy or not Bigamy? That is the Question!

BIGAMY AT SALE screamed the title of the search result on Trove. What! This couldn’t be right.  I knew the ending to this story. They had many children and lived happily ever after.  Maybe there was another Mr Nisbett who was a shoemaker living in Sale.

I nervously clicked open the article and there in black and white was proof that I may have known the ending but there were obviously a few skeletons in the closet. The article reported that a most heartrending scene took place when Annie (my 3xgreat aunt) watched Thomas, her husband of ten weeks being arrested on a warrant for bigamy. Apparently he had a wife and children in Scotland!

Quick as a flash I was back to the search window and crossing my fingers that I was going to find more articles.  Finally after many frustrating moments, I hit pay dirt and found a Police court report.

Before a large crowd, the circumstances which led to the arrest and prosecution were revealed.   In what must have seemed to Thomas like a cruel twist of fate, he had run into a Mr Jamieson who knew him from the ‘old country’. Jamieson, who was just visiting the area, upon hearing about the recent nuptials, exposed the fact that Thomas was already wed as he had attended the first marriage. The intelligence was quickly relayed to Annie’s father who lost no time in getting a warrant issued against his new son-in-law.

A witness then stated that she’d had a conversation with Thomas just before he was arrested at which time he admitted having another wife living in Scotland. She also stated that he had expressed himself to the effect that the thing was done now and could not be helped, but that he was willing to make every reparation possible. To further confuse the issue, Thomas refuted her statement and called her a liar!

By this stage the presiding magistrates considered the evidence was barely sufficient to hold Thomas but on the prosecutor stating he was hoping to get Mr Jamieson to testify, granted a remand of one week with bail being allowed.

Once again I found myself back at the search window. Now I was praying to the ‘family history fairies’ that there was a conclusion to this sordid affair. Apparently it was my lucky day as my prayer was answered.

As it turned out Thomas was also lucky.  He was discharged from custody with the superintendent saying that there was no real proof that wife one was still alive and that if they wanted him again the police would find no difficulty in laying their hands upon him.  The decision was made in spite of a deposition from Mr Jamieson stating that he had been at Thomas’s first wedding and that he had recently received a letter from Scotland asking him to make inquiries about Thomas on behalf of the first wife.

With a million questions running through my head it was obviously time to go into full on detective mode.  Who was Thomas Forbes Nisbet? Was he a bigamist or not? Thanks to new information gained from the articles, it was time to break out the credit card and follow the clues!

Apparently Thomas Forbes Nisbet was born on 11 November 1838 on the Island of Unst (Shetland Islands) not in Leith as reported on his marriage and death certificates. He was the son of Charles Nisbet and Archibald Thomson, although they were listed as Robert and Barbara (Thompson) on both certificates. It seems that not only women lie about their age.  Thomas stated he was 25 when he married Annie but was in fact 34 to her 18.

The pièce de resistance being a Scottish marriage certificate which showed that on 18 February 1863, Thomas married Willamina Gardner in Unst and most surprisingly, it ended in divorce. Unfortunately there was no date written in the stamp to clear up whether Thomas had indeed been a bigamist or not. Birth certificates were also found for a Charles, Andrina and Jemima Nisbet.

What happened in the five years between Thomas being present for his daughter Jemima’s birth and marrying Annie in Australia? Did he intentionally desert his family or did he travel ahead to scout the area and then decide he was better off alone.  Was he working to save money and Annie caught his eye and he feel in love.  His son Charles was born barely 9 months after the marriage.  Maybe a shotgun had been involved and he had never really loved Willamina.  Alas, questions that are never going to be answered.

Funnily enough, Annie and Thomas’s first child, Adeline was born barely seven months after they married. Whatever Thomas had or hadn’t been he had obviously been irresistible!


  • Empire (Sydney)
  • Gippsland Times National Records of Scotland
  • Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria

Reflective Statement

Thomas Forbes Nisbet, man of mystery, was my first ever ‘what the?’ or to put it more politely ‘wow’ moment. I had simply been searching for death notices or maybe an obituary when I stumbled across the bigamy article.

As I had only recently been swept into the addictive world of family history I was starting at the top. Thomas’s wife Annie was the first child of my English born but recently immigrated 3xgreat grandfather James Shingles. It certainly showed me that you needed information from many different sources to get to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

Writing this assignment has brought back a hunger to get back into some of the other mysteries I have yet to solve.  It’s been over six years since I solved Thomas’s case.  I had forgotten how exciting it was to sink my teeth into a really good mystery.

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I have been researching my family history since 2009. I am interested it the family names Shingles, McEwan, Snowdon & Witt around Gippsland and Wodonga areas of Victoria, Australia

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