Apr 25th, 2009 by Andy Funnell
Before 1754, marriages in the “Union of Crowns” which became the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 were regulated by ecclesiastical law which required that banns be pronounced on three separate Sundays or a special licence obtained.
However, many couples sought a quick marriage with no questions asked. In the Fleet area of London, or Fleet Ditch, was the notorious Fleet Prison where debtors and those condemned for contempt of court were jailed. Conditions at the time were such that, even in prison, members of the middle and upper classes could benefit from better conditions than the “riff-raff”. They could even find lodgings outside of the prison.
In 1668, a Reverend Elliott was suspended from his office at St. James’s, Duke Place, London for three years for having conducted weddings without observing the rules of the Church. He served 15 months of his sentence. During this period, furtive weddings were performed at the Fleet Chapel. His reinstatement did not put a stop to the practice. A Reverend Jeronimus Alley continued to perform clandestine marriages there for 15 years. The Bishop of London finally put a stop to this, but the “business” was born!
“Though the canons required weddings to take place in parish churches and between certain hours of the day, a marriage might be solemnized at night, in a secular building, and even without the assistance of a clergyman, and yet be as valid a union, for all civil purposes, as any wedding performed with banns or license by half a dozen bishops in a cathedral” stated Jeaffreson (1872, 2:130).
The fine of £100 faced by clergyman found guilty of irregular practices and a tax on marriage licences oriented the trade in favour of the Fleet parsons, who would marry couples in taverns, their homes, “marrying houses” established for the purpose and even a barber’s shop. Some employed touters to accelerate their trade.
Some of these establishments actually kept records from which it is estimated that in the heyday of the wedding business, up to 100 Fleet parsons were performing marriages and between 1700 and 1754, they were not less than 70 with around 50 performing simultaneously throughout the period.
Of course, these marriages were not only used by “honest” couples but also served as a basis for blackmail and all sorts of scams. “Loose” women would marry drunken men who were subsequently relieved of their purse or accused of bigamy. Others devised more elaborate schemes.
In September 1732, the Grub Street Journal relates that one John Funnell, a poor boy who sold fruit on Fleet Bridge found himself before the Court for such an affair. A plyer and clerk for Weddings at the Bull and Garter named Oates was bound over to appear at the next Sessions for hiring him, for the sum of half-a-guinea, to impersonate a certain John Todd and to marry a woman in his name. To make sure of the success of this piece of villainy, Oates had provided a blind parson to perform the ceremony.
Lord Hardwick’s marriage act in 1754 put a stop to theses practices by declaring null and void any marriage which was not solemnized in a church or public chapel with due publication of the banns or special licence.
His bill was not easily passed and compromises had to be made, notably an exemption for Scotland which led to the establishment of Gretna Green.
Marriage customs of the world by George Monger
England and the English in the Eighteenth Century by William Connor Sydney
The history of the Fleet marriages by John Southerden Burn
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