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Keith's written description of a Fleet Marriage is graphic, but a contemporary engraving brings it even more vividly before us. This was published Oct. 20, 1747, and gives an excellent view of the Fleet Market as it then was. It is called "A FLEET WEDDING, Between a brisk young Sailor, and his Landlady's Daughter at Rederiff."
"Scarce had the Coach discharg'd it's trusty Fare, But gaping Crouds surround th' amorous Pair; The busy Plyers make a mighty Stir! And whisp'ring cry, d'ye want the Parson, Sir? Pray step this way--just to the PEN IN HAND The Doctor's ready there at your Command: This way (another cries) Sir, I declare The true and ancient Register is Here. Th' alarmed Parsons quickly hear the Din! And haste with soothing words t'invite them in: In this Confusion jostled to and fro, Th' inamour'd Couple knows not where to go: Till slow advancing from the Coache's Side Th' experienc'd Matron came (an artful Guide) She led the way without regarding either, And the first parson spliced 'em both together."
[Illustration: THE SAILOR'S FLEET WEDDING ENTERTAINMENT.]
The Context to this is a companion Engraving of "THE SAILOR'S FLEET WEDDING ENTERTAINMENT," which most aptly illustrates Keith's description, but the poetry attached to it will scarcely bear modern reproduction.
But, if a poetical account of a Fleet Wedding is needed, it may be found in "THE BUNTER'S WEDDING."
"Good people attend, I'll discover, A Wedding that happen'd of late, I cannot tell why we should smother, The weddings of poor more than great; 'Twixt Ben of the Borough so pretty, Who carries a basket, 'tis said, And dainty plump Kent street fair Kitty, A Coney Wool Cutter by trade.
The guests were all quickly invited, Ben order'd the dinner by noon, And Kitty was highly delighted, They obey'd the glad summons so soon: An ox cheek was order'd for dinner, With plenty of porter and gin, Ben swore on the oath of a sinner, Nothing should be wanting in him.
Joe the sandman, and Bessy the bunter, We hear from St. Giles's did prance, Dick the fiddler, and Sally the Mumper, Brought Levi the Jew for to dance. Tom the Chanter he quickly was present, And squinting black Molly likewise, With Billy the Dustman quite pleasant, And Nell with no nose and sore eyes.
Ned the drover was also invited, Unto this gay wedding to come, From Smithfield he came quite delighted, Before that the market was done. And Fanny the pretty match maker, A sister to young bunting Bess, She wished the devil might take her If she was not one of the guests.
Dolly the rag woman's daughter, From Tyburn road she did stride, And Jenny the quilter came after Whose nose it stood all of one side; There was Roger the chimney sweeper, No soot he would gather that day, But, because he would look the compleater, His soot bag and brush threw away.
There was bandy leg'd sheep's head Susan We hear from Field Lane she did hie, And draggle tail'd Pat with no shoes on, Who pins and laces doth cry; Ralph the grinder he set by his barrow, As soon as he heard of the news, And swore he would be there to-morrow, Atho' he'd no heels to his shoes.
Sam the grubber, he having had warning, His wallet and broom down did lay, And early attended next morning, The bride for to give away; And Peggy the mop yarn spinner, Her Cards and her wheel set aside, And swore as she was a sinner, She'd go and attire the bride.
Nan the tub woman out of Whitechapel, Was also invited to go, And, as she was 'kin to the couple, She swore she the stocking would throw; So having all gather'd together, As they appointed to meet, And being all birds of a feather, They presently flocked to the Fleet.
But when at Fleet Bridge they arrived, The bridegroom was handing his bride, The sailors [_? plyers_] they all to them drived, Do you want a Parson? they cry'd; But as they down Fleet Ditch did prance, What house shall we go to? says Ben, Then Kitty, in raptures, made answer Let's go to the Hand and the Pen.
Then into the house they did bundle, The landlady shew'd them a room, The landlord he roar'd out like thunder, The parson shall wait on you soon: Then so eager he came for to fasten, He staid not to fasten his hose, A fat bellied ruddy fac'd parson, That brandy had painted his nose.
But before (he) the couple did fasten He look'd all around on the men, My fee's half a crown, says the parson,-- I freely will give it, says Ben: Then Hymen he presently follow'd And the happy knot being ty'd The guests they whooped and hollow'd, All joys to the bridegroom and bride.
Like Malt horses home they all pranced, The bride she look'd not like the same, And thus thro' the City they danced; But, when to the Borough they came, The bride to look buxom endeavour'd, The bridegroom as brisk as an eel; With the marrow bones and cleavers, The butchers they rang them a peal.
And, as they were homewards advancing, A-dancing, and singing of songs, The rough music met them all prancing, With frying pans, shovels, and tongs: Tin Canisters, salt boxes plenty, With trotter bones beat by the boys, And they being hollow and empty, They made a most racketting noise.
Bowls, gridirons, platters, and ladles, And pokers, tin kettles did bruise, The noise, none to bear it was able, The warming pans beat with old shoes: Such a rattling racketting uproar, Had you but have heard it, no doubt, All hell was broke loose you'd have swore, And the devils were running about.
The Mob they all hollow'd and shouted, In the streets as they passed along, The people to see how they scouted, Together in clusters did throng; They made all the noise they was able, And thus they were ushered in, But e'er they all sat down to table, They each had a glass of old gin.
Dinner being decently ended, The table was cleared with speed, And they to be merry intended, So strait did to dancing proceed; But Harry the night man so jolly, With madness he almost cry'd, And all the night sat melancholy, For he had a mind for the bride."
There are four more verses, but they are not worth transcribing--besides, there is a very good prose account of the doings at the Fleet, which, certainly, bears the impress of truth. It is in No. 270 of the _Grub Street Journal_, Feb. 27, 1735:--
"Sir, There is a very great evil in this town, and of dangerous consequence to our sex, that has never been suppressed, to the great prejudice, and ruin, of many hundreds of young people, every year; which I beg some of your learned heads to consider of, and consult of proper ways and means to prevent for the future: I mean the ruinous marriages that are practised in the liberty of the _Fleet_, and thereabouts, by a sett of drunken, swearing parsons, with their Myrmidons that wear black coats, and pretend to be clerks, and registers to the Fleet. These ministers of wickedness ply about Ludgate Hill, pulling and forcing people to some pedling alehouse, or brandy shop, to be married, even on a sunday, stopping them as they go to church, and almost tearing their cloaths off their backs. To confirm the truth of these facts, I will give you a case or two, which lately happened:--
"Since midsummer last, a young lady of birth and fortune, was deluded and forced from her friends, by the assistance of a very wicked, swearing parson, married to an atheistical wretch, whose life is a continual practice of all manner of vice and debauchery. And, since the ruin of my relation, another lady of my acquaintance had like to have been trapanned in the following manner:--
"This lady had appointed to meet a gentlewoman at the Old Play-house in Drury Lane; but extraordinary business prevented her coming. Being alone, when the play was done, she bade a boy call a coach for the City. One drest like a gentleman helps her into it, and jumps in after her. 'Madam,' says he, 'this coach was called for me: and since the weather is so bad, and there is no other, I beg leave to bear you company; I am going into the City, and will set you down wherever you please.' The lady begged to be excused; but he bade the coachman drive on. Being come to Ludgate hill, he told her his sister, who waited his coming, but five doors up the Court, would go with her in two minutes. He went, and returned with his pretended sister, who asked her to step in one minute, and she would wait upon her in the coach.
"Deluded with the assurance of having his sister's company, the poor lady foolishly followed her into the house, when, instantly, the sister vanish'd; and a tawny fellow in a black coat and black wig appeared. 'Madam, you are come in good time, the doctor was just a going.' 'The doctor,' says she, horribly frighted, fearing it was a madhouse; 'What has the doctor to do with me?' 'To marry you to that gentleman: the doctor has waited for you these three hours, and will be payed by you or the gentleman before you go.' 'That gentleman,' says she, recovering herself, 'is worthy a better fortune than mine.' And begged hard to be gone. But doctor WRYNECK swore she shou'd be married; or, if she wou'd not, he would still have his fee, and register the marriage from that night. The lady, finding she could not escape without money or a pledge, told them she liked the gentleman so well, she would certainly meet him to-morrow night, and gave them a ring as a pledge: which, says she, 'was my mother's gift on her deathbed, injoining that if ever I married, it should be my wedding ring.' By which cunning contrivance, she was delivered from the black doctor, and his tawny crew.
"Some time after this, I went with this lady, and her brother, in a coach to Ludgate Hill, in the day time, to see the manner of their picking up people to be married. As soon as our coach stopt near Fleet Bridge, up comes on of the Myrmidons. 'Madam,' says he, 'you want a parson.' 'Who are you?' says I. 'I am the clerk and register of the Fleet.' 'Show me the Chapel.' At which comes a second, desiring me to go along with him. Says he, 'That fellow will carry you to a pedling alehouse. Says a third, 'Go with me, he will carry you to a brandy shop.' In the interim, comes the doctor. 'Madam,' says he, 'I'll do your jobb for you presently.' 'Well, gentlemen,' says I, 'since you can't agree, and I can't be married quietly, I'll put it off 'till another time,' so drove away."
Some of the stories of Fleet Marriages read like romances, yet they are all taken from contemporary accounts. Here, for instance, is a fact, scarcely to be believed nowadays:--"Jan. 5, 1742. On Tuesday last two Persons, one of Skinner Street, and the other of Webb's Square, Spittle Fields, exchang'd Wives, to whom they had been married upwards of twelve Years; and the same Day, to the Content of all Parties, the Marriages were consummated at the Fleet. Each Husband gave his Wife away to the other, and in the Evening had an Entertainment together."
Or this from the _Whitehall Evening Post_, July 24, 1739:--"On Tuesday last a Woman indifferently well dress'd came to the sign of the Bull and Garter, next Door to the Fleet Prison, and was there married to a Soldier; in the afternoon she came again, and would have been married to a Butcher, but that Parson who had married her in the Morning refused to marry her again, which put her to the Trouble of going a few Doors further, to another Parson, who had no Scruple."
Here is another story indicative of the Manners and Morals of those days:--Oct. 1739. "Last Week, a merry Widow, near Bethnal Green, having a pretty many Admirers, not to be over Cruel, she equally dispensed her Favours between two, who were the highest in her Esteem. The one, a Butcher, meeting the good Woman, took the Advantage of the others Absence, and pleaded his Cause so successfully, that they tuck'd up their Tails, trudg'd to the Fleet, and were tack'd together. Home they both jogg'd to their several habitations, the Bridegroom to his, and the Bride to her's. Soon after came another of her Admirers, an honest Weaver, who, upon hearing of the Melancholy News, had no more Life in him for some time than one of the Beams of his Loom; but, recovering himself a little from the Surprize he was seized with a sudden Delirium, swore his Loom should be his Gibbet, and he'd hang himself pendant at the End of his Garter, if he also was not tack'd to his comfortable Rib: The good Widow, considering that the Butcher had not bedded with her, and desirous of preventing Murder, consented, and away she jogg'd to be coupled to the Weaver. On their return home, to Bed they went, and the Butcher coming to see his dear Spouse, found her in Bed with the Weaver; upon which a Quarrel ensued, and the Butcher being the best Man, she left the Weaver and went to the Butcher, being willing to please them both, as well as she could."