In today’s world we all expect vital records like births, deaths and marriages to be there. However marriages today are not how they always were. In the beginning, marriages were public commitments to a person and upheld more by the community knowing a couple was together. However the ability to abuse this system meant that changes had to be made. The history of marriages and the laws regarding them have evolved over time. Marriages come into their most formal state after World War One when many women were claiming pensions. Fleet street marriages are a part of this evolution.
Fleet prison and it’s surrounds provided a way for couples to get married quickly and secretly without breaking the law. Fleet prison was a debtors prison (residing on what is now Farringdon Street in London) and outside the jurisdiction of a church. This meant that the rules of the church did not apply. So there was no need for the reading of banns over three weekends which was costly and time consuming. It also meant that clergy that were in the debtors prison could earn money to pay off their debts by providing their services to marrying couples without the church rules applying. This arrangement started around 1613 in secret, however by the 1740’s it is reported that almost half the marriages in London at the time were being conducted in Fleet Street.
The demand for secret marriages was very high. Reasons would have ranged from illegitimate births, avoiding other marriage partners finding out, underage couple wanting to marry, the list could go on. The public spectacle of having banns read out in church three weekends in a row would have stopped all attempts of getting married. Although the area around the Fleet Prison was surrounded by poor and criminals, people rich and poor found marrying this way as quick and less costly. It was also made easier by the fact that many ale houses offered their premises for the weddings too.
In 1753, laws were introduced to keep records of marriages in a parish. The laws also stopped the clergymen under threat of transportation of doing any more weddings. Although this law coming in was to stop the abuse of the marriage system, it is said that it didn’t help much. However with the more official recording of the marriages, it certainly helped future generations find records of their ancestors marriages. Records were kept of the weddings by the priests, and are still available through the National Archives or the subscription website of BMD registers. If your ancestors married in an alehouse you won’t be so lucky to find records.
National Archives – http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
BMD Registers – http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk/help/aboutRG7.htm
Tips – The registers cannot be taken as all true. Some dates and names would have been changed depending on the couple’s circumstances. Also before 1752, the Julian calendar operated where the New Year started on the 25th March, so need to take this into account when working out dates. The Fleet Prison chapel was the original place to get married in secret. However other popular churches to get married in where St James at Duke’s Place in Aldgate, Holy Trinity in the Minories and Keith’s chapel. So worth checking if those churches have some of their original records on site.
It is interesting to see an institution that you are brought up believing was the only way, hasn’t always been that way. Many more different laws were passed to tighten up the restrictions on marriage in the UK. And more laws were passed allowing marriages to be dissolved. Today, marriage laws are changing in the world with gay marriages being allowed. It’s only with looking back through history that we can see an evolution.