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Chapter 30. Fleet Marriage Registers. - John Ashton 1888

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There are several instances of Committal to the Fleet for meddling with Marriages. One or two will suffice:--1731. "Thursday, the Master of the Rolls committed a Clergyman to the Fleet for marrying a young Gentleman about 17 years of Age at Eaton School, and intitled to an Estate of L1500 per Annum, to a Servant Maid: and at the same time committed the person who gave her in Marriage. His Honour had some days since sent as Prisoner to the Fleet, the Person who pretended to be the Youth's Guardian, and who had given a Bond to indemnify the Parson."

1735. "Two Sisters were committed to the Fleet prison, by an order of the high Court of Chancery, for drawing a young fellow into marriage, he being a ward of the said Court."

Dec. 28, 1734. "Last Saturday Night Mr. D---- late Valet de Chambre to a certain Noble Lord near Soho Square, went away, as was suspected, with his Lordship's Niece, a young Lady not yet of Age, and a Coheiress to a very large Estate. It seems they took a Hackney Coach soon after they got out of Doors, and upon strict Enquiry, the Coachman was found out, who declared that he took a Gentleman and a Lady up at such a Place, and set them down at the Fleet, and by the Description he gave it appeared to be the two Lovers, who may therefore be supposed to have been married and bedded that Night. A Warrant was immediately obtained for apprehending the Supposed Bridegroom, and he was accordingly taken in Bed with his Lady, at a house in Queen Street near Guildhall, on Wednesday Morning last, and immediately carried to Poultry Compter, and the Lady was carried off by her Friends. In the Afternoon he was examined, and afterwards re-committed to the same Prison. So that it seems he is to suffer for endeavouring to get himself a _Rich Wife_, which is a Practice followed by all the young _Gentlemen_ of _Quality_ in England; but the Difference is, _That this young fellow has married, or endeavoured to marry an Heiress without the Consent of her Friends, whereas the other generally marry or endeavour to marry Heiresses without their own Consent._ It has since been found out that they were married by a Roman Catholic Priest."

There was a faint-hearted protest on the part of the Fleet authorities, against the Marriages, but I can find no attempt at prosecution, other than for marrying without a stamped licence, in spite of the following advertisement:--

"September, 1743. WHEREAS the Methods hitherto taken to prevent clandestine Marriages at the Fleet have prov'd ineffectual, though legal Notice hath been given by the Warden of the Fleet to such of his Tenants in whose houses it is reputed such Marriages have been suffer'd, to quit the Possession thereof; therefore, and as such Warning cannot immediately have the desir'd Effect, this Publick Notice is given, that, whoever shall make it appear to the Warden's Satisfaction that any of his Prisoners, shall at any time hereafter clandestinely marry, or be, in any manner however, concern'd in any clandestine Marriage, or suffer such Marriages to be performed in his, hers, or their Houses, or Lodgings, such Person or Persons making such Discovery, shall receive a Guinea Reward from the Turnkey of the said Prison.


There were several people of fortune married by Fleet parsons _vide Grub Street Journal_, September 18, 1735, "Married yesterday Will Adams, Esqr., to Miss Eleanor Watkins, a beautiful young lady, with a fortune of L15,000." And in the _Gentleman's Magazine_, May 6, 1735, "Married the Lord Robert Montagu, to Mrs. Harriet Dunch of Whitehall, with a fortune of L15,000."

Somewhat of a curiosity is recorded in "Notes and Queries," 4 series, vol. xii. p. 295. "I have before me an engraved medal, bearing the following inscription, about which I should be glad of information. 'May y^e 3, 1761. Thos. Wisely Maried Sarah Boswell in the Fleet Prison.'" This, in all probability, was a half-crown with one side made smooth, and the above engraved upon it.

There is no doubt but that, with a duly stamped licence and until they were specially done away with by Lord Hardwicke's Act of 1753, these marriages were legal; still there is an instance recorded in the _General Evening Post_, June 27/29, 1745, in which a Fleet marriage was ruled to be illegal. "Yesterday came on a cause at Doctor's Commons, wherein the plaintiff brought his action against the defendant for pretending to be his wife. She, in her justification, pleaded a marriage at the Fleet the 6th of February, 1737, and produced a Fleet Certificate, which was not allowed as evidence. She likewise offered to produce the minister she pretended married them, but he being excommunicate for clandestine marriages, could not be received as a witness. The Court thereupon pronounced against the marriage, and condemned her in L28, the costs of the suit."

The Registers in which these marriages were entered have mostly had an eventful and chequered career. Many have, doubtless, disappeared for ever, and it is extremely probable that some are in private hands, one being in the Bodleian Library. They were to be bought by any one interested in them, and the present collection cannot be considered as being at all perfect. We learn the adventures of some of them through the evidence of a Mrs. Olive, who produced one at a trial at Shrewsbury in 1794. This woman was originally a servant to Joshua Lilly, and used to "ply" or tout for him, and at his death married one Owens, who succeeded to one of Lilly's marriage houses, and who, probably, bought his Registers from his representatives. At this Trial she said: "My first husband was Thos. Owens. I had the Register Books of Fleet Marriages in my possession from my Marriage in 1761 till I went to America eleven years ago. I then sold them to Mr. Panton. My husband Owens died about 1773. My husband made a will. I had the possession of the books myself, as my husband had other business. I heard my husband say he purchased these books. He had a Marriage House in Fleet Lane. I used the books to grant certificates upon parish affairs."

After her Marriage with Olive she still made use of these Registers, for we read in an Advertisement that "All the original Register Books containing the marriages solemnized at the Fleet, May Fair, and the Mint, for upwards of one hundred years past, may be searched by applying to George Olive, at the Wheat Sheaf, in Nicholls Square, near Cripplegate. The great utility of these Collections prevents any encomiums."

About 1783 a Mr. Benjamin Panton bought of Mrs. Olive some five or six hundred of these books, weighing more than a ton, and used to produce them occasionally on trials at law, and they were always accepted as evidence.

At his death in 1805 he left these to his daughter, who still utilised them as her father had done, as a handbill shows. "All the original Register Books of the Marriages in the Fleet, May Fair, and Mint, are now in the possession of M. Panton (Register Keeper), No. 50, Houndsditch, by whom they are examined, and Certificates of Marriages granted."

In 1813 she sold them to a Mr. William Cox, who, in 1821, sold them to the Government for L260 6s. 6d., and the following letter shows us what became of them.

"WHITEHALL, _April_ 25, 1821.

"SIR,--It having been judged expedient to purchase a set of books containing the original Entries of Marriages solemnized in the Fleet Prison, and Rules thereof, from the year 1686 to the year 1754. I have been honoured with his Majesty's commands to desire that you will receive the said books from Mr. Maule the Solicitor to the Treasury, and give him a receipt for the same, and deposit them in the Registry of the Consistory Court of London.

"I have the honour to be, Sir,

"Your most obedient humble Servant,


"The Registrar of the Consistory Court of London, or his Deputy."

Here they remained until the abolition of the Court in 1840, by Act of Parliament, 3 and 4 Vic. cap. 92, when they were declared inadmissible as evidence in law. Sec. 6 says, "And be it enacted That all Registers and Records deposited in the General Register Office by virtue of this Act, except the Registers and Records of Baptisms and Marriages at _The Fleet_, and _King's Bench_ Prisons, at _May Fair_, at the _Mint_ in _Southwark_, and elsewhere, which were deposited in the Registry of the Bishop of _London_ in the Year One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty One, as hereinafter mentioned, shall be deemed to be in legal Custody, and shall be receivable in Evidence in all Courts of Justice, subject to the Provisions hereinafter contained."

And Section 20 provides thus, "And be it enacted, That the several Registers and Records of Baptisms and Marriages performed at the Fleet" (&c., &c., as in Section 6) "shall be transferred from the said Registry to the Custody of the Registrar-General, who is hereby directed to receive the same for safe custody." And it recapitulates that they shall not be received as evidence at law.

They are kept at Somerset House, where they can be examined for a small fee. A great number of them are memorandum books, and Burn, when he examined them at Doctors Commons, in 1833, did not much like his job. "It is to be wished that they were better arranged and indexed. There are several very large indexes, which only requires a little time and attention to ascertain to what Registers they refer. The Pocket books also, might be bound together, and preserved from dust and dirt; and if Government would give about L300 these objects might be attained. It was a labour of many months to go through so many hundreds of dusty, dirty, and sometimes ragged books."

The entries in the pocket-books are quainter than those in the registries, as they are the first impressions, and the others are polished up. We find from them that it was not infrequent to antedate the Registers, and Lilley did so on one occasion, "there being a vacancy in the Book suitable to the time." And, again, "These wicked people came this day, Peter Oliver, of St. Olave's, carpenter, and Elizabeth Overton, would have a certificate dated in 1729, or would not be married if it was not to be dated to this time--went to Lilley's and was married."

Perhaps the most extraordinary entries in these books are those of two women going through the ceremony of marriage with each other--

"20 May, 1737. J^{no} Smith, Gent. of S^t James West^r Batch^r & Eliz. Huthall of S^t Giles's Sp^r at Wilsons. By y^e opinion after Matrimony, my Clark judg'd they were both women, if y^e person by name John Smith be a man, he's a little short fair thin man, not above 5 foot. After marriage I almost c'd prove y^m both women, the one was dress'd as a man, thin pale face, & wrinkled chin."

"1734 Dec. 15. John Mountford of S^t Ann's Sohoe, Taylor. B., Mary Cooper. Ditto. Sp. Suspected 2 Women, no Certif."

"1 Oct. 1747. John Ferren, Gent, Ser. of S^t Andrew's Holborn B^r and Deborah Nolan. D^o Sp^n. The supposed John Ferren was discovered after y^e Ceremonies were over, to be in person a woman."

There is one entry, "The Woman ran across Ludgate Hill in her shift." In the _Daily Journal_ of November 8, 1725, a woman went to be married in that sole garment, at Ulcomb, in Kent; and in the Parish Register of Chiltern All Saints in October 17, 1714, it says: "The aforesaid Anne Sellwood was married in her Smock, without any clothes or head gier on." This was a vulgar error, but the idea in so acting was that the husband was not liable for any of his wife's pre-nuptial debts.

The candidates for matrimony were occasionally not over-honest, as--"Had a noise for foure hours about the Money." "N.B. Stole a Silver Spoon." "Stole my Cloathes Brush." "N.B. Married at a Barber's Shop next Wilsons viz., one Kerrils for half a Guinea, after which it was extorted out of my pocket, and for fear of my life delivered." "They behaved very vilely, and attempted to run away with M^{rs} Crooks Gold Ring."

But then, again, these Fleet parsons had customers of a higher grade, as "Dec. 1, 1716. Dan Paul, S^t James's, Capt^n in y^e Horse Guards." "March y^e 4^{th} 1740. William--and Sarah--he dress'd in a gold waistcoat like an Officer, she a Beautifull young Lady with 2 fine diamond Rings, and a Black high Crown Hat and very well dressed." "Nov. y^e 24, 1733 att y^e Baptized hed Tavern to go to M^r Gibbs for to marry him in y^e countrey--Wife worth L18,000." "Septr^5, 1744 Andrew Mills, Gent. of the Temple, & Charlotte Gail lairdy of S^t Mildred, Poultry at M^r Boyce's, King's head. N.B. One gentleman came first in a merry manner to make a bargain w^{th} the Minister for the marriage, and immediately came the parties themselves, disguising their dress by contrivances, particularly buttning up the coat, because the rich wastecoat should not be seen, &c."

The Church of England Marriage Service was generally used, but, in one instance, as shown by a pocket-book, it was somewhat modified, as when the ring is given the Trinity is not mentioned, but the words are altered to "from this time forth for evermore. Amen;" and when the couple promise to hold together "according to God's holy ordinance," it was rendered "according to law." There seems to have been but one example of the officiating Clergyman administering the Sacrament at a Marriage, and that was done by the Rev. W. Dan, who describes himself as "priest of the Church of England." "October 2^{nd} 1743 John Figg, of S^t John's the Evang^s Gent. a Widower, and Rebecca Woodward, of Ditto, Spinster, at y^e same time gave her y^e Sacrament."

The Scandal of Fleet Marriages remained unchecked until 1753, when the Lord Chancellor brought forward and passed "An Act for the better preventing of clandestine marriages"--26 Geo. III. cap. 33--which, in its different sections, provides that the Banns of Matrimony are to be published according to the rubric, &c., the marriage to be solemnized in one of the churches where the banns had been published. Marriage by licence could only take place in the church or chapel of such parish, &c., where one of the parties should have resided for four weeks previously.

This was the death-blow to the Fleet Marriages, as any contravention of the law was made punishable by transportation "to some of his Majesty's plantations in America for the space of fourteen years, according to the laws in force for the transportation of felons."

The Act came into force on March 26, 1754, but people took advantage of the Fleet Marriages until the last moment, and that in great numbers, for in one Register alone there is a list of 217 weddings celebrated on the 25th of March!

The last Fleet Wedding is recorded in the _Times_ of July 10, 1840: "Mr. John Mossington, aged 76, and a Prisoner in the Fleet, more than 15 years, was, on Wednesday, married to Miss Anne Weatherhead, aged 62, at St. Bride's Church. The Lady had travelled 36 Miles to meet her bridegroom, who is, without exception, one of the most extraordinary men in this County. He takes his morning walks round the Fleet prison yard, which he repeats three or four times a day, with as much rapidity as a young man could do of the age of 20. The Road from Farringdon Street to the Church, was lined with Spectators who knew of the event, and the Church was equally filled to hear the Ceremony performed. The Courtship first commenced 41 years ago, and Mr. Mossington has now fulfilled his promise."


[Illustration: MAP OF THE FLEET.]