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Chapter 28. Fleet Prison Parsons. - John Ashton 1888

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Of James Starkey, who married from 1718 to 1730, very little is known, except that he had run away to Scotland, and could not be produced when wanted at a trial in the Old Bailey. And also of Robert Cuthbert, 1723-30--very little is known except through the medium of his pocket books, and they recount his love of horse flesh, and the prices he paid for his mounts.

Of Thomas Crawford, 1723-1748, we hear something from a letter in that curious _melange_ of News, the _Grub Street Journal_, June 10, 1736:--

"Gentlemen, Having frequently heard of the many abominable practises of the Fleet, I had the Curiosity, May 23, to take a view of the place, as I accidently was walking by.

"The first thing observable was one J--- L----,[156] by trade a Carpenter (whose brother, it is said, keeps the sign of the B---- and G----r),[157] cursing, swearing, and raving in the street in the time of divine service, with a mob of people about him, calling one of his fraternity (J. E.),[158] a Plyer for Weddings, an informing rogue, for informing against one of their Ministers for profane cursing and swearing, for which offence he paid three pounds odd money: the hearing of which pleased me very well, since I could find one in that notorious place which had some spark of grace left; as was manifested by the dislike he shewed to the person that was guilty of the profanation of God's sacred name.

"When the mob was dispersed, I walked about some small time, and saw a person, exceeding well-dress'd in flower'd morning gown, a band, hat and wig, who appeared so clean that I took him for some worthy divine, who might have, accidentally, be making the same remarks as myself; but upon inquiry was surpris'd at being assured he was one T---- C---- [159] a watchmaker, who goes in a Minister's dress, personating a Clergyman, and taking upon him the name of Doctor, to the scandal of the Sacred function. He may be seen any time at the Bull and Garter, or the Great Hand, and Pen and Star, with these words under written. '_The old and true Register_' near the Rainbow Coffee House.--T. S."

Peter Symson, who married 1731-1754, describes himself in his handbill, as "educated at the University of Cambridge, and late Chaplain to the Earl of Rothes."

His "Chapel" was at the Old Red Hand and Mitre, three doors from Fleet Lane, and next door to the White Swan. As were most of his fellows, he was witness in a bigamy trial in 1751. He was asked,

"Why did you marry them without license?

"_Symson._ Because somebody would have done it, if I had not. I was ordained in Grosvenor Square Chapel by the Bishop of Winchester--the Bishop of Lincoln. Can't say I am a prisoner in the Fleet. Am 43 years old. Never had a benefice in my life. I have had little petty Curacies about L20 or L30 per year. I don't do it for lucre or gain.

"_Court._ You might have exposed your person had you gone on the highway, but you'd do less prejudice to your country a great deal. You are a nuisance to the public; and the gentlemen of the jury, it is to be hoped, will give but little credit to you."

When Keith of Mayfair was committed to the Fleet, Symson married for him from 1750 to 1754.

There was another Fleet Parson named William Dare, 1732-1746, who had such a large connection that he employed a Curate to help him; but then, his marriages were 150 to 200 a month.

James Lando is somewhat shrouded in mystery, for it is possible that he was identical with the gentleman who is described at the end of one of the Fleet Registers as "John Lando, a French Minister, in Church Street, Soho, opposite att a French pastry or nasty Cook's. His Landlord's name is Jinkstone, a dirty chandler's shop: he is to be heard of in the first flower next the skye."

He really was a "Chaplain of the Fleet," for he was Chaplain on board H.B.M.S. _Falkland_ from May 29, 1744, to Jan. 17, 1746. He had a house in Half Moon Court, the first house joining to Ludgate, which was at the Corner of the Old Bailey. This he called St. John's Chapel, and here he not only solemnized marriages, but taught Latin and French three times a week.

An advertisement of his states that "Marriages with a Licence, Certificate, and a Crown Stamp, at a Guinea, at the New Chapel, next door to the China Shop, near Fleet Bridge, London, by a regular bred Clergyman, and not by a Fleet Parson, as is insinuated in the public papers; and that the town may be freed (from) mistakes, no Clergyman being a prisoner in the Rules of the Fleet dare marry; and to obviate all doubts, this Chapel is not in the verge of the Fleet, but kept by a Gentleman who was lately on board one of his Majesty's men of war, and likewise has gloriously distinguished himself in defence of his King and Country, and is above committing those little mean actions that some men impose on people, being determined to have everything conducted with the utmost decency and regularity, such as shall be always supported in law and equity."

Burn gives a list of others who married in the Fleet, but does not pretend it to be exhaustive. Still, the list is a long one.

Bates... Becket, John 1748 Buckler, Sam. 1732 to 1751 Brayfield, Sam. 1754 Bynes, Benj. 1698 to 1711 Barrett, Mich. 1717 " 1738

Colton, James 1681 to 1721 Callow, Jos. 1752 Clayton 1720 Colteman 1688 Draper 1689 to 1716 Denevan, Francis 1747 " 1754 Davis, Wm. 1718 Evans, John 1689 to 1729 Evans, Ed. 1727 Farren, John 1688 Gower, Henry 1689 to 1718 Hodgkins, Thos. 1674 " 1728 Hanson, Anthony 1731 " 1732 Jones, John 1718 " 1725 Loveday, Wm. 1750 Morton 1720 Marston, Edward 1713 to 1714 Marshall, John 1750 Murry, D. 1719 Nodes 1753 Oswald 1712 Oglesby 1728 to 1740 Privavaul Patterson 1732 Ryder, Thos. 1722 to 1743 Roberts, Edward 1698 Reynolds, E. 1749 Rogers, Nehemiah 1700 to 1703 Shadwell, Ralph 1733 " 1734 Shaw, James 1723 Sindrey, Richard 1722 to 1740 Stacy, Edmund 1719 Shelburn, Anthony 1722 to 1737 Stainton, John 1730 Simpson, Anthony 1726 to 1754 Stanhope, Walter 1711 Standly 1747 to 1750 Skinner, Nathaniel 1716 Town, I. 1754 Tomkings 1740 Tarrant, John 1688 " " 1742 to 1750 Townsend, Jacob 1754 Vice, Jo. 1689 to 1713 Wagstaffe, James 1689 " 1729 Wise, J. 1709 Wilkinson 1740 Williams, Wm. Walker, Clem. 1732 to 1735 Wodmore, Isaac 1752

Which of these is the one referred to in the _Gentleman's Magazine_ for April 1809? "I should be much obliged to you also, Mr. Urban, if you, or any of your numerous and intelligent correspondents, could acquaint me with the name of a tall black clergyman, who used to solicit the commands of the votaries of Hymen at the door of a public-house known by the sign of the Cock in Fleet Market, previously to the Marriage Act."

Before dismissing the subject of Fleet parsons, reference must be made to the Rev. Alexander Keith of Mayfair Chapel, who has a claim to be noticed here, as he was an inhabitant of the Fleet. The Chapel in Mayfair was built somewhere about 1736, to meet the wants of the increasing neighbourhood, which was then becoming fashionable, after the abolition of the fair in Brook-field, and the first incumbent was the Rev. Alexander Keith, who claimed to have been ordained priest by the Bishop of Norwich, acting on Letters Dimissory from the Bishop of London, in June, 1731. He also stated that at the time of his appointment as preacher in the Chapel, he was Reader at the Roll's Chapel. He did a roaring trade in irregular marriages, and it was at Mayfair Chapel that the Duke of Hamilton espoused the youngest of the beautiful Miss Gunnings, "with a ring of the bed curtain, at half an hour past twelve at night."

He had also a private chapel of his own, as we read in an advertisement of his, April, 1750. "Several persons belonging to Churches and Chapels, together with many others, supposing the Marriages at May Fair New Chapel to be detrimental to their interest, have made it their Business to rave and clamour, but in such a Manner, as not to deserve to Answer, because every Thing they have said tends to expose their own Ignorance and Malice, in the Opinion of People of good Sense and Understanding. We are informed, that Mrs. Keith's Corpse was removed from her Husband's House in May Fair, the Middle of October last, to an Apothecary's in South Audley Street, where she lies in a Room hung with Mourning, and is to continue there till Mr. Keith can attend her Funeral! The way to Mr. Keith's Chapel is thro' Piccadilly, by the End of St. James's Street and down Clarges Street, and turn on the Left Hand. The Marriages (together with a Licence on a Five Shilling Stamp, and Certificate) are carried on as usual, any time till Four in the Afternoon, by another regular Clergyman, at Mr. Keith's little Chapel in May Fair, near Hyde Park Corner, opposite the great Chapel, and within ten Yards of it. There is a Porch at the Door like a Country Church Porch."

His wife died in 1749 whilst he was in the Fleet prison, which accounts for his inability to attend her funeral. Why he was imprisoned is as follows. By advertising, and other means, his Marriages at Mayfair were very popular, and interfered greatly with the Vested Interests of the neighbouring clergy, one of whom, Dr. Trebeck, rector of St. George's, Hanover Square, brought a lawsuit against him, in the Ecclesiastical Court. He defended himself, but unsuccessfully, for a sentence of excommunication was promulgated against him on Oct. 27, 1742.

Two could play at that game, so Keith excommunicated, at his Chapel in Mayfair, his bishop, the judge who condemned him, and the prosecutor, Dr. Trebeck, but none of them seem to have been any the worse for the operation. Such, however, was not the case with Keith, for, on Jan. 24, 1743, a decree was issued for his apprehension. This did not take effect till April, 1743, when he was committed to the Fleet; the marriages at Mayfair being continued, as we have seen, by Symson and Denevan.

He lay in the Fleet about fifteen years, and in 1753, when Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act was being discussed, he thence issued a pamphlet of thirty-two pages, with his portrait attached, entitled, "Observations on the Act for preventing Clandestine Marriages." In it he gives what seems to be "a plain, unvarnished tale" of Fleet Marriages. "As I have married many thousands, and, consequently, have on those occasions seen the humour of the lower class of people, I have often asked the married pair how long they had been acquainted; they would reply, some more, some less, but the generality did not exceed the acquaintance of a week, some only of a day, half-a-day, &c.... Another inconveniency which will arise from this Act will be, that the expence of being married will be so great, that few of the lower class of people can afford; for I have often heard a Flete parson say, that many have come to be married when they have but half-a-crown in their pockets, and sixpence to buy a pot of beer, and for which they have pawned some of their cloaths.... I remember once on a time, I was at a public-house at Radcliffe, which was then full of Sailors and their girls, there was fiddling, piping, jigging, and eating; at length one of the tars starts up, and says, 'D--m ye, Jack, I'll be married just now; I will have my partner, and'.... The joke took, and in less than two hours ten couple set out for the Flete. I staid their return. They returned in coaches; five women in each coach; the tars, some running before, others riding on the coach box, and others behind. The Cavalcade being over, the couples went up into an upper room, where they concluded the evening with great jollity. The next time I went that way, I called on my landlord and asked him concerning this marriage adventure; he first stared at me, but, recollecting, he said those things were so frequent, that he hardly took any notice of them; for, added he, it is a common thing, when a fleet comes in, to have two or three hundred marriages in a week's time, among the sailors."

The Marriage Act was passed, and came into force on March 26, 1754. On the 25th Sixty-one Couples were married at Mayfair Chapel.

It was a death blow to the Reverend Alexander, although he tried to laugh it off, if Horace Walpole may be believed. In a letter to George Montagu, Esqr. (June 11, 1753), he says: "I shall only tell you a _bon mot_ of Keith's, the marriage broker, and conclude. 'G--d d--n the Bishops,' said he (I beg Miss Montagu's pardon), 'so they will hinder my marrying. Well, let 'em, but I'll be revenged: I'll buy two or three acres of ground, and by G--d, I'll under bury them all.'"

This may have been true, but it was mere bravado, for he appealed from his prison to the benevolent, as we see by the following advertisement. "_To the Compassionate._ By the late Marriage Act, the Rev. Mr. Keith, from a great Degree of Affluence, is reduc'd to such a deplorable State of Misery in the Fleet Prison, as is much better to be conceiv'd than related, having scarce any other thing than Bread and Water to subsist on. It is to be hoped he will be deemed truly undeserving such a Fate, when the Publick are assured, that not foreseeing such an unhappy Stroke of Fortune, as the late Act, he yearly expended almost his whole Income (which amounted to several Hundred Pounds per Annum) in relieving not only single distress'd Persons, but even whole Families of wretched Objects of Compassion. This can be attested by several Persons of the strictest Character and Reputation, as well as by Numbers who experienced his Bounty. Mr. Keith's present calamitous Situation renders him perhaps as great an Object of Charity himself, as all Circumstances consider'd, as ever in his better Days partook of his own Assistance, or that of others equally compassionate; and is indeed sufficient to awaken Humanity in the most uncharitable. Any Gentleman or Lady may be satisfied of the above by applying to Mr. Brooke, Engraver, facing Water Lane, Fleet Street, by whom Donations from the Publick will be received for the Use of Mr. Keith."

[Footnote 156: Joshua Lilly, who kept one of the Hand and Pen houses, and said that he had been appointed Registrar of Marriages, by the Lord Chancellor, and had paid L1,000 for the post. He did not marry people, but kept presumable Clergymen to do so. He is mentioned several times in the Registers and Pocket-books. Once, at all events, he was in danger of the judgment seat, as Ashwell writes in one of his pocket-books: "N.B. On Sunday, November y^e 6, 1740, at y^e hour of 9, in my house declared that, if he had not come home out of y^e country, being fled for punishment, having Cut of his hair (to prevent being known), y^t y^e indictment for marrying James Hussey to Miss Henrietta Arnold, he had (been) ruin'd but y^t he swore it off and y^e attorney promis'd to defend him, and it cost him only a treat of 10/; had I staid, says the s^d Joshua Lilley, where I was, viz.----, the indictment would have stood good against me, but my taking y^e side of the prosecutor, y^e young ladies, I have got safe off." In a Register is a notice relating to him. "June y^e 13th, 1744. Whereas one Joshua Lilley, being a noted man for having more marriages at his house than the generality of y^e people could have, he the said Joshua Lilley keeping several plyars, as they are call'd, to gett these weddings, I have put his marriages down in a separate book, but findend ill-convenience arise thereby, fro' this 13th instant, do insert it w^{th} y^e rest." And one of his handbills describes him as "I. Lilley, at y^e Hand and Pen, next door to the china shop, Fleet Bridge, London, will be perform'd the solemnization of marriages by a gentleman regularly bred att one of our Universities, and lawfully ordain'd according to the institutions of the Church of England, and is ready to wait on any person in town or countrey."]

[Footnote 157: This was John Lilley, who kept a public-house, called the Bull and Garter. In 1717 he was found guilty, and fined five pounds, for acting as Clerk at a Fleet Marriage. He was a turnkey at the Fleet Prison, and in his house he had a room for solemnizing marriages--which he called a Chapel--issuing certificates bearing the City Arms, and purporting to be the Lord Mayor's Certificates.]

[Footnote 158: Probably John Evans, who married from 1689 to 1729, both at the King's Bench and Fleet.]

[Footnote 159: I am unable to identify these initials.]

[Illustration: A FLEET WEDDING.]