The three lives and wives of John Cecil Rhodes

We have always known that my great-grandfather was a convicted bigamist. A few years ago, my dad pieced together what we assumed was a comprehensive history of his grandfather’s infidelity but further research by me has revealed that the story is even more convoluted than we thought. What we previously understood to be the position is as follows.

John Cecil Rhodes was born in 1877, the son of the village butcher in Calverley. He came from a long line of butchers and worked as a butcher boy for his father as a child. Later, he was apprenticed as an engineer to a crane maker in Rodley, the Thomas Smith Foundry. His job eventually saw him commissioning cranes throughout the UK.

He married Eva Pearson on 27 September 1903 and they were living at 6 Herbert Street, Stretford, Manchester when my grandfather, Henry Cecil, was born in 1904. Their next child, John Kenneth, was born in Glasgow. They then moved to 16 Mall Road, Hammersmith, London.

In about 1912, John started an adulterous relationship with Bertha Mary Brassington, a nurse working for the Sich family who owned the Lamb Brewery in Chiswick. Bertha became pregnant which presumably caused John’s marriage to Eva to break down. Eva left and took the two boys back to her parents’ home at 18 High Street, Farsley around Christmas 1912. (This remained the Rhodes family home until my grandma died in 1979).

Bertha had baby Marjorie in 1913 and they lived together with John at 46 Avenue Gardens, Acton. John registered the birth and named the mother as Eva Rhodes. This could have been to cover his tracks or to give the baby legitimacy (at least on paper). They then moved to 11 Waverley Road, Reading, where a son, Ronald Eric, was born. Again, he registered the birth with Eva as the mother.

Several years later, Eva told the insurance man that, although she was continuing to pay the premiums on John’s life policy, he could have died for all she knew. The insurance man said his company would trace him. The investigation found that the errant John was now living in the Birmingham area, having bigamously married Bertha. He was convicted of bigamy and sentenced to six months in prison.

John then turned up in Farsley in the winter of 1942/43, when my grandma was expecting my dad. My late aunt Mary recalled that he gave my grandma money to buy a pram. Mary described her new-found grandfather as smartly dressed and a charming, handsome man. It would appear that John and Eva attempted a reconciliation but this failed after a few months.

According to Mary, John said Bertha had died and left him two boarding houses, one or both of which had been bombed and he had lost his business and money. Intriguingly (in the light of what we now know) Mary described Bertha as John’s “Irish wife”.

He eventually died in a workhouse in about 1944.

Fascinated by this story, I set about trying to find a record of John’s trial. A trawl through the online British Newspaper Archive revealed nothing of John’s relationship with Bertha. It did, however, throw up something completely unexpected.

According to the Derry Journal of 4 February 1926, John had appeared three days earlier at Cork District Sessions charged with bigamously marrying a Sarah Fitzgerald at St Nicholas Church, Cork in December 1922. It is undoubtedly the same John Rhodes because his (lawful) mother-in-law, Sarah Anne Pearson (my great great-grandmother) gave evidence that the accused had married her daughter, Eva, on 27 September 1903. Anne’s address is recorded as being 18 High Street, Farsley. Frustratingly, the newspaper doesn’t record the outcome of the trial but the evidence against John was clearly overwhelming.

This then leaves us with several unanswered questions:

  • When did John move to Ireland?
  • Did John marry both Bertha and Sarah?
  • If so, was he married to them both at the same time as Eva (which would make him a trigamist)?
  • Was he convicted of bigamy twice?
  • Was Sarah, not Bertha, the “Irish wife”?

Hopefully, further research might answer these questions…

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