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The Fleet prison was first built around 1080, in the reign of William Rufus. It was used mainly as a prison for political prisoners during the mediaeval and early modern periods but had become the main debtor's prison in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the features of the Fleet were the so-called "Fleet Marriages." These were clandestine marriages, carried out without a licence and conducted by clergymen imprisoned in the Fleet for debt. Two clergymen who were tried for the offence were the Rev. John Grierson and the Rev. Mr Wilkinson. They were tried under the terms of the Marriage Act of 1754, which was brought in to abolish the practice.
Ludgate was also a debtor's prison
0ne of the most disgraceful customs observed in the Fleet Prison in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the performance of the marriage ceremony by disreputable and dissolute clergymen. These functionaries, mostly prisoners for debt, insulted the dignity of their holy profession by marrying in the precincts of the Fleet Prison at a minute's notice, any persons who might present themselves for that purpose. No questions were asked, no stipulations made, except as to the amount of the fee for the service, or the quantity of liquor to be drunk on the occasion. It not unfrequently happened, indeed, that the clergyman, the clerk, the bridegroom and the bride were drunk at the very time the ceremony was performed.
These disgraceful members of the sacred calling had their "plyers," or " barkers," who, if they caught sight of a man and woman walking together along the streets of the neighbourhood, pestered them with solicitations, not easily to be shaken off, as to whether they wanted a clergyman to marry them. Mr Burn, a gentleman who published a curious work on the Fleet Registers, had in his possession an engraving (published about 1747) of A Fleet Wedding between a Brisk Young Sailor and Landlady's Daughter at Rederiff.
"The print," he wrote, "represents the old Fleet market and prison, with the sailor, landlady and daughter just stepping from a hackney-coach, while two Fleet parsons in canonicals are contending for the job. The following verses were in the margin:-
"Scarce had the coach discharg'd its trusty fare
) But gaping crowds 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 'em in:
In this confusion jostled to and fro,
Th'enamour'd couple know not where to go,
Till, slow advancing from the coach's side,
Th'experienc'd matron came (an artful guide)
She led the way without regarding either,
And the first Parson splic'd 'em both together."
The Belle Sauvage Inn was within the Rules of the Fleet One of the most notorious of these scandalous officials was a man of the name of George Keith, a Scottish minister, who, being in desperate circumstances, set up a marriage office in Mayfair, and subsequently in the Fleet, and carried on the same trade which has since been practised in front of the blacksmith's anvil at Gretna Green. This man's wedding business was so extensive and so scandalous that the Bishop of London found it necessary to excommunicate him. It was said of this person and "his journeyman" that one morning, during the Whitsun holidays, they united a greater number of couples than had been married at any ten churches within the bills of mortality. [Note 1]
Keith lived till he was eighty-nine years of age, and died in 1735. The Rev. Dr Gaynham, another infamous functionary, was familiarly called the Bishop of Hell.
"Many of the early Fleet weddings," wrote Mr Burn, "were really performed at the chapel of the Fleet; but as the practice extended, it was found more convenient to have other places, within the Rules of the Fleet [Note 2] (added to which the Warden was forbidden, by Act of Parliament, to suffer them), and thereupon many of the Fleet parsons and tavern keepers in the neighbourhood fitted up a room in their respective lodgings or houses as a chapel! The parsons took the fees, allowing a portion to the plyers, etc.; and the tavern-keepers, besides sharing in the money paid, derived a profit from the sale of liquors which the wedding-party drank.Some of these scandalous members of the highest of all professions were in the habit of hanging signs out of their windows with the words "WEDDINGS PERFORMED CHEAP HERE." Keith, of whom we have already spoken, seems to have been a barefaced profligate; but there is something exceedingly affecting in the stings of conscience and forlorn compunction of one Walter Wyatt, a Fleet parson, in one of whose pocket-books of 1716 are the following secret (as he intended them to be) outpourings of remorse :-
In some instances the tavern-keepers kept a parson on the establishment, at a weekly salary of twenty shillings! Most of the taverns near the Fleet kept their own registers, in which (as well as in their own books) the parsons entered the weddings."
"Give to every man his due, and learn ye way of truth.But this very man, whose sense of his own disgrace was so deep and apparently so contrite, was one of the most notorious, active and money-making of all the Fleet parsons. His practice was chiefly in taverns, and he was known to earn nearly sixty pounds About £6,625 in modern money in less than a month. With such facilities for marriage, and such unprincipled ministers, it may easily be imagined that iniquitous schemes of all sorts were perpetrated under the name of Fleet weddings. The parsons were ready, for a bribe, to make false entries in their registers, to antedate weddings, to give fictitious certificates, and to marry persons who would declare only the initials of their names. Thus if a spinster or widow in debt desired to cheat her creditors, by pretending to have been married before the debt was contracted, she had only to present herself at one of the marriage-houses in the Fleet and, upon payment of a small additional fee to the clergyman, a man could instantly be found on the spot to act as bridegroom for a few shillings, and the worthless chaplain could find a blank place in his register for any year desired, so that there was no difficulty in making the necessary record. They would also, for a consideration, obliterate any given entry. The sham bridegrooms, under different names, were married over and over again, with the full knowledge of the clerical practitioners.
This advice cannot be taken by those that are concerned in ye Fleet marriages; not so much as ye Priest can do ye thing yt it is just and right there, unless he designs to starve.
For by lying, bullying, and swearing, to extort money from the silly and unwary people, you advance your business and get ye pelf, which always wastes like snow in sunshiney day.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The marrying in the Fleet is the beginning of eternal woe.
If a clerk or plyer tells a lye, you must vouch it to be as true as ye Gospel, and if disputed, you must affirm with an oath to ye truth of a downright damnable falsehood, Virtus laudatur & algetr." [Note 3]
" May God forgive me what is past, and give me grace to forsake such a wicked place, where truth and virtue can't take place unless you are resolved to starve."
Outer court of the Belle Sauvage
If, in other instances, a libertine desired to possess himself of any young and unsuspecting woman who would not yield without being married, nothing was easier than to get the service performed at the Fleet, without even the specification of names; so that the poor girl might with impunity be shaken off at pleasure. Or if a parent found it necessary to legitimatise his natural children, a Fleet parson could be procured to give a marriage certificate at any required date. In fact, all manner of people presented themselves for marriage at the unholy dens in the Fleet taverns - runaway sons and daughters of peers; Irish adventurers [Note 4] and foolish rich widows; clodhoppers and ladies from St Giles's; footmen and decayed beauties; soldiers and servant-girls; boys in their teens and old women of seventy; discarded mistresses "given away" by their former admirers to pitiable and sordid bridegrooms; night-wanderers and intoxicated apprentices; men and women having already wives and husbands; young heiresses conveyed thither by force and compelled, in terrorem , to be brides, and common labourers and female paupers dragged by parish officers to the profane altar, stained by the relics of drunken orgies and reeking with the fumes of liquor and tobacco! Nay, it sometimes happened that the "contracting parties" would send from houses of vile repute for a Fleet parson, who could readily be found to attend even in such places and under such circumstances, and there unite the couple in matrimony!
Of what were called the "Parish Weddings" it is impossible to speak in terms of sufficient reprobation. Many of the churchwardens and overseers of that day were in the frequent practice of "getting up" marriages in order to throw their paupers on neighbouring parishes. For example, in The Daily Post of the 4th of July, 1741, is the following paragraph :-
"On Saturday last the churchwardens for a certain parish in the City, in order to remove a load from their own shoulders, gave forty shillings, and paid the expense of a Fleet marriage, to a miserable blind youth, known by the name of Ambrose Tally, who plays on the violin in Moorfields, in order to make a settlement on the wife and future family in Shoreditch parish. To secure their point they sent a parish officer to see the ceremony performed. One cannot but admire the ungenerous proceeding of this City parish, as well as their unjustifiable abetting and encouraging an irregularity so much and so justly complained of as these Fleet matches. Invited and uninvited were a great number of poor wretches, in order to spend the bride's parish fortune." In the Grub Street Journal for 1735 is the following letter, faithfully describing, says Mr Burn, the treachery and low habits of the Fleet parsons:
1 ["Bills of Mortality:" These were the published of the number of deaths each week in the 109 London parishes. The also expression provided a convenient definition the geographical extent of London, and is used here in that sense.] Back
1 ["Rules of the Fleet:" This referred to a defined area in the streets and alleys around the fleet prison in which the prisoners were allowed to roam freely.] Back
3 [ "On Saturday last a Fleet parson was convicted before Sir Ric. Brocas of forty-three oaths (on the information of a plyer for weddings there ), for which a warrant was granted to levy L4, 6s. on the goods of the said parson but, upon application to his Worship, he was pleased to remit 1s. per oath upon which the plyer swore lie would swear no more against any man upon the like occasion, finding he could get nothing by it."-Grub Street Journal, 20th July, 1732.] Back
4 ["Irish Adventurers:" These were Englishmen, many of them ex-soldiers, who "adventured" or invested money in one of the various schemes to sell land in Ireland and raise money for the crown. They frequently lost all their money and goods in the venture. Captain Blood, who tried to steal the Crown Jewels, was one such.] Back