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Two men charged with marrying Jessie Thompson: The story of William Furness and Nathaniel Kinsman


Mélanie Méthot and Elijah Schumland

a.k.a. Jessie Thompson, The Herald, 4 March 1890, 1.

Infamous Fitzroy preacher Nathaniel Kinsman has obviously attracted our attention, with 3 blogs already devoted to him and his exploits (KINSMAN #1, KINSMAN #2, KINSMAN #3). Kinsman’s extensive career of performing cheap and easy marriages drew a heavy degree of criticism. Of the 10,000 or so couples he joined, J.A. Kearns claimed in a Perth Catholic weekly newspaper, that “for many years, 50 per cent of the divorces applied for in Australia had ‘ceremony performed by Rev. N. Kinsman’ in their evidence.’”[1] While surely an exaggeration, Kearn’s statement proves that Kinsman’s career still inflamed passion even after his death.

According to our archival record, no fewer than 19 bigamy cases in Victoria involved the Free Church of England minister. It is more difficult to find out how many times Kinsman’s name appeared in the divorce court. Not only would we have to read surviving divorce case files covering a rather long period, since divorces could take place long after the marriage was celebrated, but also across colonies, and later states. Thanks to Trove, we do have some data. Our man was implicated in 115 divorce cases, which amounts to about 1% of all marriages he performed.

Kinsman received considerable press coverage over his 30+ years career and indeed after his death. The figure below illustrates that press interest in his activities reached unprecedented heights in the spring of 1890. After that time, the Reverend failed to attract quite so much attention.

Between the 15th of February and the 25th of July 1890, more than two hundred newspapers included an article on the infamous Kinsman and his role in the Furness-Thompson marriage. The Melbourne Age led the parade, publishing 18 articles. Although Victorian papers account for 53% of the coverage, the other colonies also had a special interest in the story. Why was the press so fascinated by the Furness case?


The Australia Prosecution Project dataset includes only 12 cases of “unlawfully marrying a minor”, a criminal offence not only for the groom or bride, but also for the individual performing the marriage service.[2] It is not difficult to imagine that it was quite a story when Mrs Thompson, a mother of five daughters and a son, accused her newly acquired son-in-law of having married her 15 year old daughter without her consent. The Melbourne Herald reported on the same day the mother informed the police that it was “a serious charge.”[3]

The Herald, 24 February 1890, 1.

Archival case files, civil documents and a careful analysis of newspaper coverage allow one to draw a timeline of events. Kinsman met with a potential client at his 224 Moor-Street Collingwood parlour on the 11th of February 1890. William Henry Strickland Furness, a 23-year-old dairyman from Coburg (TAS) had seemingly heard about the Reverend’s “quick and easy” marriage business and sought to bring his beloved Jessie Thompson before the pulpit. The initial interaction did not depart from routine business, a man inquiring on availability and prices. The Reverend probably surprised the groom when he turned him away because the bride-to-be was 16-year-old (Jessie was only 15, but Furness claimed she was 16).


Furness’s admission of Jessie's age points to the misconceptions the general public might have harboured about the marrying vicar. Contrary to some media reports, Kinsman did not blatantly ignore the law and apparently would NOT marry everyone who came to him. At Furness’s trial, Kinsman testified: “I celebrate marriages from time to time (an understatement which must have amused more than one!) I know the prisoner, he came to me a few days before the date of the marriage, 3 or 4 days before the 13th of February. I took down on a paper all the particulars. When he said that Jessie Thompson was 16 years old, I said at that tender age I wish the parents to be present at the marriage or have the written consent of the father. He said the father was dead, I then said you must have the written consent of the mother. He then said I have got the written instruction of the mother in a letter."

Victorian marriage law was clear: A marriage could take place only once consent from a minor’s parents was obtained. Thinking quickly on his feet, Furness informed the Reverend that he left at home a letter from the bride’s mother in which she consented to the marriage. Two days later, the couple returned with the letter, and Kinsman performed the marriage ceremony. The Free Church of England Reverend said: “I then saw him next by himself for about half an hour before the marriage was celebrated on Feb 13th after 8 o’clock. He said can you be ready tonight, I said yes providing the consent is given. I believe it was a genuine consent of the mother. I did not know the letter was written a few minutes before they came into the room.”[4] Jessie, as the wife of Furness, did not testify at his trial, but no one contested the fact that she had forged her mother’s signature. Kinsman’s version of events is somewhat validated by other details about the said letter, details which will eventually lead to his arrest, but more on this in our next post!


The case file reveals that Elizabeth Thompson, the mother of the bride, brought forth the information against Furness. It took less than 48 hours after the celebration for Jessie’s mother to charge the groom with marrying a minor. Article 23 of the 1864 Victoria Marriage and Matrimonial Causes Statute stated:

If any person marry a person under the age of twenty-one years without having previously obtained the written consent of the father or guardian or (when the mother is competent) of the mother of the person so under age or the written consent of some justice appointed in that behalf, or induce or endeavor to induce any minister Registrar-General or other officer to celebrate marriage between parties one of the whom is under age without such consent, or abet or assist in any illegal marriage, every person so offending shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.[5]

The Herald, 4 March 1890, 1.

On the stand, Mrs Thompson narrated Jessie’s life story, appearing as a loving and devoted mother, albeit authoritarian, who only wanted what was best for her child. She recounted that she had given birth on the 18th of May 1874 while sailing from London to Dunedin (NZ). Sadly, her husband Alfred died a few years later, leaving her alone to take care of their two younger daughters. Three of her adult children stayed in New Zealand when she relocated to Melbourne with her two youngest daughters, probably to be closer to her eldest daughter Catherine, who was running a successful hotel in Melbourne with her husband Christopher Lawrence.

Mrs Thompson specified that she had known Furness for 18 months. The accused had pestered her about marrying Jessie, but she categorically refused, citing the young age of her daughter. She proudly testified to having told the young man: “I would as soon she is dead than let you have her.” She admitted that she assaulted him: “I struck him with a piece of wood over the head and shoulders and told him to go away and he did so.” Mrs Thompson was establishing that Furness knew very well her objection and she demonstrated that she would not hesitate to protect her daughter from the young man. The Melbourne Age astutely reported that “though violently discouraged by the mother, who abused Furness and according to her own statement threw wood at him, the couple became clandestinely engaged.” The reporter was siding with Furness and against the strict matriarch.[6]

Mrs Thompson recounted that Furness came and saw her after the marriage, demanding to see Jessie. At that point, the teenage bride had admitted everything to her mother. The matriarch refused and vented: “You are a rogue, a vagabond and a thief for taking my child from me.” She added: “I told him you know very well you forged that letter." In his defence, Furness asserted that: “It was because you came between us,” ergo admitting his guilt but positioning himself as the hurt lover.[7]


We are to understand that under the careful watch of the mother, the marriage would never have taken place. But on that fateful day, Jessie was staying with her eldest sister. One of six witnesses at trial, Catherine Lawrence testified that at 10:00AM on the 13th of February, her sister had gone to visit a friend. Catherine insinuated that her young sister deceived her, not letting her know she had gone to meet with Furness. Catherine confirmed that Furness was infatuated with her little sister, talking a lot about Jessie to her.[8]

The testimony of Agnes Olsen also shines light on the event and the forged document. Serving as witness to the marriage celebration, when she testified at Furness’s trial, Agnes stated that she had indeed seen Jessie write the letter, but at the time did not know what it was.[9] It seems that the young girl was not forced to write the letter but composed it on her own volition.

It should be noted that in addition to the consent form, Kinsman also waited the customary three days required by law for registrars (not for ministers) to perform the ceremony.[10] The Furness-Thompson marriage was not performed on the spot as Kinsman’s detractors would have liked people to believe.


George Adams, the constable who travelled to Tasmania to fetch the groom and escort him back to Melbourne to face charges, testified that when he arrested Furness, the accused said: “I will do ten years for her [… ] I will have her by fair means or foul,” confirming the portrayal of forbidden love. The officer further declared that Furness admitted that Jessie wrote the consent letter, but in a gentleman’s fashion, he was ready to be held responsible: “I was the cause of her writing the letter and will take all blame.” At that point, Furness was still very much in love with young Jessie. He may have vanished to Tasmania after the altercation with his mother-in-law, but he was still hoping to have a life with Jessie. Trying to establish the accused’s guilt, Constable Adams asked if Furness paid the Olsen couple to witness the marriage, to which the groom simply replied that he gave him Agnes Olsen’s husband a pound after the marriage to get a drink.[11]


Some papers supported the accused publishing the love letters he sent to his teen-bride. The first one, written before he left for Tasmania, bares his eagerness and undying love.

Dear Loved One

I now write these few lines to you again to say that I have got to leave without seeing you. Dear Jessie, try and cheer up for my sake. Don't be afraid of them. Tell them that I will spend half my life in gaol for you, and then you will be my lawful wife after all they can do to me. If it costs me my life, my sweetest, they shan't hurt you, my love, my life, my future happiness, my heaven. I sail to-day — you know where to. I will keep my promise until death in everything. This is all.

Your loving husband, W. FURNESS, for life.

P.S. They can never part us two this side of the grave.[12]

Sitting in his Melbourne cell, he sent another missive to his bride revealing that he expected her to reciprocate his feelings:

Dear Jessie, — I now sit down to write a few lines to you, hoping they will find you in good health, as it leaves me at present. Dear Jessie, I am surprised at not getting a few lines from you, but never mind, it can't be helped. Dear Jessie, I suppose your mother and all the rest of them is all right now that they have got me in gaol, but it is not for a murder, nor being a thief, thank God! Dear Jessie, when your mother has done her worst to me I shall never blame her nor Mrs. Lawrence for doing of it — only myself. Dear Jessie, you need not be afraid, for I will stand all the blame, if you will write to me as soon as you can, Jessie, for I am waiting for a few lines from you. If you can't write, come up and see me on Friday. So this is all this time, so I conclude by still remaining yours ever— W. Furness.[13]

Furness painted their story as a tale of forbidden love, something the most romantic at heart would empathise with. Judge Williams discharged Furness on a suspended sentence, but the matter was not completely resolved. The justice system was after a bigger fish...


A day before he was to testify in Kinsman’s trial charged with marrying a minor, the groom was arrested on a warrant taken by his wife who feared for her life. In less than a month, their love story had turned sour.[14] She informed authorities that her husband had threatened her life in reaction to her rejection. Jessie’s brother-in-law, Christopher Lawrence, corroborated her story when he deposed that he found Furness “prowling around” his home with a gun and badgered him about the whereabouts of Jessie.[15] Even if nothing came out of the charges, the episode resurfaced a few years later when Jessie Furness petitioned for a divorce.


In her affidavit, Jessie stressed that she had never cohabited with the respondent. She mentioned his conviction for marrying a minor and that she visited him in gaol when he was awaiting his trial asking : “What he was going to do as regards [to] our future and he said he didn’t know what he was going to do.” In her next point Jessie claimed that on the 17 of March 1890: “the defendant came to see me at my place of residence Moreland and upbraided me for telling my relations of the said marriage and finally took out a revolver and said he would shoot me [...][16] Jessie Furness received her decree absolute in May 1896 on the grounds of desertion. She reverted to her maiden name, and in 1898 married George Washington Rochfort. Together they raised seven sons. Meanwhile, Furness married Evangeline Carpenter in December 1894, before Jessie had officially divorced him, making him a bigamist.

In the next blog we will demonstrate how shifting the blame from Furness to Kinsman served the purpose of Victoria’s jurists.


*We would like to thank Marian Lorrison and Mark Heinrich for their initial comments

[1] J.A. Kearns, “A Colonial Gretna Green”, Western Australia Record, 29 September 1900, 18. [2] [3] “Marrying a Minor”, Melbourne Herald, 15 February 1890, 1.

[4] Public Record Office of Victoria [PROV], 30/P/0029/3-5, Kinsman’s deposition.

[6] “A Marriage with a Minor”, The Age, 4 March 1890, 6. The Australian Star also depicted the mother-in-law as a fierce protector of her daughter. “By Yarra’s Banks,” The Australian Star, 17 April 1890, 6. [7] PROV, 30/P/0029/3-5, Elizabeth Thompson’s deposition. [8] PROV, 30/P/0029/3-5, Catherine Lawrence’s deposition. [9] PROV, 30/P/0029/3-5, Agnes Olsen’s deposition.

[11] PROV, 30/P/0029/3-5, Constable George Adam’s deposition.

[12] “A Marriage with a Minor,” The Age, 4 March 1890, 6 and in Launceston Colonist, 8 March 1890, 8. [13] “Marrying an ‘Infant’,” Melbourne Weekly Times, 8 March 1890, 21.

[14] “The Furness Case. The Youthful Bride Prosecutes”, The Herald, 25 March 1890, 2. [15] “By Yarra’s Banks,” The Australian Star, 17 April 1890, 6.

[16] PROV, VPRS 283/P0000, 1895/110, Furness v Furness.

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