By Guest Blogger Adrian Teal
In spite of the ease with which the randy young bucks who populate my Gin Lane Gazette could secure the services of a prostitute, there seems to have been a ubiquitous urge to find a girl to hurry up the aisle in the Georgian era. Until the middle of the 18th century, there was a thriving industry of clandestine, ‘quickie’ marriages, which Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1754 was designed to ban. Under the existing system, a couple could be joined in matrimony by the simple expedient of exchanging vows before witnesses. Many an eligible heiress was cajoled to the altar by a false-hearted adventurer on the make, and many innocents who were too young to marry without parental consent later regretted having themselves shackled together in wedlock. Parish officers sought to make the bastard children of the poor the concern of other local administrations by arranging nuptials of the parents in next-door parishes, and countless drunken sailors and their sweethearts staggered up to a parson to plight their troths.
With Hardwicke’s legislation threatening to end this freedom, there was a stampede of London’s citizens in the direction of amenable and avaricious clergymen, who would happily conduct an express wedding ceremony for a quart of gin. The purlieus of the Fleet Prison were infamous as the base from which these parsons operated, and their shotgun couplings became known as ‘Fleet Weddings’. The day before the Act was enforced, 45 couples were joined in Fleet ceremonies by 11 o’clock in the morning, and nearly a hundred pairs were married before the day was over.
A little later in the century, you could always do a moonlight flit to Gretna Green in the Scottish borders, if you were determined to marry your girl a safe distance from parental interference. Scottish law permitted ‘irregular marriages’, which meant that as long as they were conducted before two witnesses, practically anyone could perform marriage ceremonies. This included the local blacksmiths, who were nicknamed ‘anvil priests’. Richard Rennison was perhaps the most famous, and he presided over more than 5,000 ceremonies. Less well-known than Gretna Green’s smithy, however, was an English equivalent located in the Peak District.
In the churchyard of Peak Forest, near Chapel-en-le-Frith, stand the ruins of a chapel. Christian, the royalist Countess of Devonshire (who was born on Christmas Day, hence the name) ordered the chapel’s construction in the 17th century, and she eventually passed on its management to the local clergy. This put it beyond the jurisdiction of the Church, and the clergyman presiding was authorised to approve wills and issue marriage licenses off his own bat. He even had a seal of office to prove it. He made a tidy profit, as couples seeking a hurried wedding ceremony began to flock his way. He was often dragged out of bed in his nightshirt by furious parents in hot pursuit of amorous fugitives. By 1754 there were two ceremonies a week, netting him £100 per annum.
For those who had married in haste and were repenting at leisure, redress was very difficult to come by. The aristocracy could arrange a legal separation, but divorce was a protracted, expensive, and complicated business, and for the ‘lower orders’, it was nigh-on impossible. One solution was to hold a wife sale. This method of dissolving a marriage entailed the wife being led by a halter around her neck, and tethered to a post or fence in a public place. She was then auctioned to the highest bidder. Often, the purchaser was known to both parties, and before the sale there was probably a fair degree of collusion between the vendor, the wife, and the new ‘husband’ about the price and desired outcome.
Henry Brydges (1708-1771), Marquess of Carnarvon, and later the 2nd Duke of Chandos, contracted his second marriage by such means. He married a former chambermaid called Anne Wells, who came from Newbury in Berkshire. They had first met a few years before, when the Duke and a friend were dining at The Pelican, on the London road at Newbury. A commotion in the inn’s yard caught their attention, and they were told that a harsh husband was going to sell his long-suffering wife, who was being led by a halter in the traditional fashion. The Duke was captivated by her looks and her stoicism, whipped out his purse, and bought her. He married her at Keith’s Chapel, Mayfair, on Christmas Day, 1744.
This chapel was run by the notorious minister Alexander Keith, who conducted innumerable clandestine weddings. In one year, Keith married 723 couples for a one-guinea fee, and he was excommunicated on Episcopal orders. In retaliation, Keith ‘excommunicated’ the angry bishop. He was committed to the Fleet Prison, but continued plying his trade. He coerced four Fleet parsons into conducting weddings on his behalf, and put his name on the marriage certificates. He even advertised his services in the newspapers, and married about 6,000 couples.
The first person to place a lonely hearts advertisement in their local newspaper is thought to have been a lady called Helen Morrison. In 1727, she ran a notice requesting approaches from potential husbands in the Manchester Weekly Journal. This approach was to become common practise as the century progressed, and the advertisements of 18th-century singletons range in their tone from charming or importunate, via brusque, to downright cold and clinical. In Miss Morrison’s day, however, the world was unprepared for what it saw as her scandalous immorality and forwardness, and she was locked up in a lunatic asylum for four weeks.
Adrian Teal is an author and artist. Visit his site Teal Cartoons here and read Adrian’s Huffington Post columns here. To read about Adrian’s take on 18th century cartoons, click here.