You May Get Away With it in Tasmania, But Do Not Try It in Victoria! Bigamy in Australia 1812-1959

Photo by Zoriana Stakhniv on Unsplash

Between 1816 and 1959, Australian courts prosecuted a substantial number of individuals who participated in a legally binding marriage ceremony despite the fact of a previous legal commitment of an identical nature. Historian Henry Finlay notes that in England and in the colonies, people wrongly believed that if one party were transported, both parties were released from their marriage and free to marry again. When he sentenced bigamist Sarah Nicholls to seven-year transportation in 1841, Tasmania’s Judge Montague hoped the publicity of the punishment he imposed “would have the effect of putting a stop to so bad of a practice.” His words and harsh punishment suggest that authorities dealt severely with those who mocked monogamy. The limited number of indictments during the convict era hints that Australian courts had turned a blind eye towards bigamy, but the situation changed with time. Indeed, Australia distinguishes itself from other parts of the British Empire by continuing to prosecute offenders well after the end of WWII.

Mélanie Méthot is professor of history at the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on gender and legal history and the history of social reform in Canada. In 2020 she was awarded a major research grant from Canada's Social Sciences and Research Council to undertake comparative research on Australian legal history, focusing on the regulation of marriage through both civil and criminal law. Her current project concerns the prosecution and punishment of bigamy.

Please note that the School of History Seminar Series will run in-person only from now on.

Date & time

Wed 26 Apr 2023, 4.15–5.30pm


RSSS Lectorial 1, Ground Floor (Level 1), RSSS Building, ANU, 146 Ellery Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601


Mélanie Methot


School of History


Filip Slaveski


Updated:  20 April 2023/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications