25th March 1754. Fleet Marriages.
The Marriage Duty Act of 1695 was to supposedly end the practice of irregular marriages and clergy were penalized if these took place without banns or a licence.
However a legal quirk meant that those in the environs of the Fleet Debtors’ Prison, London could still get wed often in the local taverns which issued their own certificates.
However their days were numbered when Today in 1754 the Clandestine Marriage Act came into force which outlawed irregular practices including Fleet and King’s Bench, Prison Marriages.
These marriages were cheaper than the Church and also avoided the control that employing Masters and Poor Law Authorities exerted over them, but importantly control of the parents, which was to cause problems over inheritance.
There were tens of thousand of these illegal marriages between 1694 and 1754, which forced the authorities to take action and so were completely outlawed under Lord Chancellor, Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, which also now allowed Quakers and Jews to perform the service.
Many of the Fleet weddings were really performed at the Chapel of the Fleet Prison, but as the practice extended it was found more convenient to use other places around the Prison. 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 for the purpose.
‘In some instances the tavern-keepers kept a parson on their establishment at a weekly salary of 20 shillings, while others, upon a wedding party arriving, sent for any clergyman thay (sic) might please to employ and divided the fee’.(1)
By the 1740.s over half of London marriages were undertaken by the ‘Fleet Parson’; St George’s Chapel, Mayfair catered for the aristocracy. However as most upper-class wedding were arranged on an financial agreement, there obviously wasn’t the same demand for irregularity.
The casual nature of weddings didn’t survive the Hardwicke Act and the Victorian notion of ‘living in sin’ was a strong deterrent to irregular practices right into the 20th century.
wikipedia.org/Pic of wedding.
georgianengland/Pic of certificate.
(1) As recounted in Edmund Fillingham King.’Ten Thousand Wonderful Things’ c 1853.