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William Harfield Wolfe  Before marriage

Portsmouth 1858-?


James Tissot is an artist I have discovered in the process of building this website and above is one of his ship paintings - there seem to be several, so he must have lived near the sea at some point.  And indeed he did - and in Portsmouth too.  The painting is called the Captain and his Mate - I assume the mate is the one perching on the rail.  No doubt this is a much larger ship than William worked on and therefore the crew would be more highly paid - and probably the women they associated with not as well dressed.  They may well have been just as pretty though.  And I just had to include the lovely daguerrotype of a merchant marine in uniform on the right.  I hope they both set the scene.

So back to William and his niece/wife Elizabeth Wilson Tier.  How did this come about?  At the time Elizabeth must have been a young woman of ill repute for she already had one illegitimate child - Annie Tier - when she married and she was pregnant with another (Agnes Ellen).  Was William the father?  Was there one father, or two?  My first assumption was that there was indeed an incestuous relationship between the two, but, as my husband said, maybe he was roped in to make an honest woman of her - though not very honest, considering she was his niece.  The age difference was nine years, although William seems to have lied about his age at the time and said he was 28 not 32.  And if he had been born in 1821 as one of the shipmen tickets started, then he would have been 37.

Thirty two seems a little old to be marrying for the first time, for the times, although maybe like the captain and his mate, there had been many women in his life and marriage just wasn’t that attractive.  ‘A girl in every port’ is the favourite phrase I believe.  I tried very hard to find another William Harfield Wolfe, or another Elizabeth Wilson Tier, in order to find a more legitimate liaison, but to no avail.  We shall probably never know the true story of how this incestuous marriage came to be unless a distant Wolfe descendant has some personal letters or something similar.  The Ellis side of the family certainly doesn’t.

The bald facts are that on May 21st 1858 at White’s Row Chapel in Portsea, William Harfield Wolfe, bachelor aged 28  (well he was really 32) and Elizabeth Wilson Tier, spinster aged 21, both of 17 King Street, Southsea (shown in the photograph below) were married in the presence of at least one family member - John Tier (Elizabeth’s brother).   Elizabeth’s parents lived further down the street at no. 34.  So the family must have known about it.  Annie Tier, Elizabeth’s illegitimate daughter was almost two years old.  We cannot find Annie’s birth certificate, and her marriage certificate does not nominate a father.   Elizabeth’s second daughter, Agnes Ellen was born in September - just four months later, so Elizabeth would certainly have known that she was pregnant again. 

There is no further sighting of William.  I have tried and tried but cannot find a death, emigration, second marriage  - anything.  Elizabeth, however, can be traced, and in the 1861 census she is still saying she is married, and the two children now have the surname Wolfe.  Indeed Agnes kept it until she was married - so she must have been told and/or believed that William was her father.  Well that is what one would assume would one not.  William is not at home in 1861, but then he was a sailor, so this is not perhaps so surprising. It would also explain why he cannot be found in the census.  Ships in port were included in the census, but not those on the high seas.  The photograph at right is of a carpenter and a mate on board a merchant ship - maybe dated a little later, but I think it gives a picture of the rough and ready nature of the world he lived in.

Merchant marine sailor.jpg
father & daughters.jpg
sailor & wife.jpg
Carpenter and Mate Aboard Ship.jpg

But back to his home life.  There are no more children from this marriage, which could mean one of at least two things - it was not a sexual relationship, and/or William died soon after the marriage - although the implication is that, if he did die, it was not until after 1861, for Elizabeth is still claiming to be married then.  And this would have been plenty of time in which to have another child.

However, in 1865 Elizabeth married again, calling herself Elizabeth Wilson Wolfe, but also stating that she was a spinster, and that her father was James Wolfe.  So I am guessing she was aware that her first marriage was not entirely legitimate.  It is possible that the marriage had been annulled - it was not truly legitimate after all, and maybe this technically made her a spinster.  Whether her new husband, Henry Joseph Tee, knew about it all or not we cannot tell.  He was a sailor too, so may well have known William.  It does seem that if a marriage is deemed to be incestuous (which it was), then it could just be disavowed, and a new marriage undertaken.  I also believe, that if the husband (or wife) deserts or disappears for seven years or more, then a new marriage could be legitimately entered into.  And it was more than seven years since her first marriage.


Before marriage

After marriage


William Harfield Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe

Maria Harfield

Elizabeth Wilson Tier

Annie Tier

Emsworth and Warblington


Merchant seamen

So did William disappear, desert, go overseas or did he die?  I cannot find a death.  Did he marry again and lead a completely new life?  Was his first marriage a marriage of passion or of convenience?  I think it would have to have been one of these two extremes because of their uncle/niece relationship.  At the moment I have no idea, but will continue looking and please get in touch if you know something.  Email me.  I conclude William’s somewhat frustrating story with the painting at  left which sort of sums up to me his potential fate - last seen battling the seas.  I almost chose it as my William Harfield Wolfe logo.  Maybe I should have.

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