ONE 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."
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 FIeet, 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. 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 (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. 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." 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:--
"Give to every man his due, and learn ye the way of truth."
"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 & algetur."
"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."
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 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 narne 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. We read in a a journal of the time the following case:--
"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 he would swear no more against any man upon the like occasion, finding he could get nothing by it." -- Grub Street Journal, 20th July, 1732.
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. 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 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:--
SIR, -- There is a very great evil in this town, and of dangerous consequence to our sex, that has never been suppressed, to the great prejudice and ruin of many hundreds of young people every year, which I beg some of your learned heads to consider of, and consult of proper ways and means to prevent for the future. I mean the ruinous marriages that are practised in the liberty of the Fleet and thereabouts, by a set of drunken, swearing parsons, with their myrmidons, that wear black coats, and pretend to be clerks and registers to the Fleet. These ministers of wickedness ply about Ludgate Hill, pulling and forcing people to some pedling ale-house or a brandy-shop to be married, even on a Sunday stopping them as they go to church and almost tearing their clothes off their backs. To confirm the truth of these facts I will give you a case or two which lately happened.
Since Midsummer last a young lady of birth and fortune was deluded and forced from her friends, and, by the assistance of a wrynecked, swearing parson, married to an atheistical wretch, whose life is a continued practice of all manner of vice and debauchery. And since the ruin of my relation, another lady of my acquaintance had like to have been trepanned in the following manner. This lady had appointed to meet a gentlewoman at the Old Playhouse, in Drury Lane, but extraordinary business prevented her coming. Being alone when the play was done, she bade a boy call a coach for the city. One dressed like a gentleman helps her into it and jumps in after her. "Madam," says he, "this coach was called for me, and since the weather is so bad, and there is no other, I beg leave to bear you company. I am going into the City, and will set you down wherever you please." The lady begged to be excused; but he bade the coachman drive on. Being come to Ludgate Hill, he told her his sister, who waited his coming but five doors up the court, would go with her in two minutes. He went, and returned with his pretended sister, who asked her to step in one minute, and she would wait upon her in the coach. Deluded with the assurance of having his sister's company, the poor lady foolishly followed her into the house, when instantly the sister vanished and a tawny fellow in a black coat and black wig appeared. "Madam, you are come in good time; the Doctor was just a-going." "The Doctor!" says she, horribly frightened, fearing it was a madhouse; "what has the Doctor to do with me?" "To marry you to that gentleman. The Doctor has waited for you these three hours, and will be paid by you or that gentleman before you go!" "That gentleman," says she, recovering herself, "is worthy a better fortune than mine," and begged hard to be gone. But Doctor Wryneck swore she should be married, or if she would not, he would still have his fee, and register the marriage from that night. The lady, finding she could not escape without money or a pledge, told them she liked the gentleman so well she would certainly meet him to-morrow night, and gave them a ring as a pledge, which, says she, it was my mother's gift on her death-bed, enjoining that if ever I married it should be my wedding-ring." By which cunning contrivance she was delivered from the black doctor and his tawny crew. Some time after this I went with this lady and her brother in a coach to Ludgate Hill, in the daytime, to see the manner of their picking up people to be married. As soon as our coach stopped near Fleet Bridge, up comes one of the myrmidons. "Madam," says he, "you want a parson?" "Who are you?" says I. "I am the clerk and register of the Fleet." "Show me the chapel." At which comes a second, desiring me to go along with him. Says he: "That fellow will carry you to a pedling ale-house." Says a third: "Go with me; he will carry you to a brandy-shop." In the interim comes the Doctor. "Madam," says he, "I'll do your job for you presently!" "Well, gentlemen," says I, "since you can't agree, and I can't be married quietly, I'll put it off until another time," and so drove away. Learned sirs, I wrote this in regard to the honour and safety of my own sex; and if for our sakes you will be so good as to publish it, correcting the errors of a woman's pen, you will oblige our whole sex, and none more than, Sir, your constant reader and admirer,
Such were but a few of the iniquities practised by the ministers of the Fleet. Similar transactions were carried on at the Chapel in Mayfair, the Mint in the Borough, the Savoy, and other places about London; until the public scandal became so great, especially in consequence of the marriage at the Fleet of the Hon. Henry Fox with Georgiana Caroline, eldest daughter of the Duke of Richmond, that at length -- not, however, without much and zealous opposition -- a Marriage Bill was passed, enacting that any person solemnising matrimony in any other than a church or public chapel, without banns or licence, should, on conviction, be adjudged guilty of felony, and be transported for fourteen years, and that all such marriages should be void. This Act was to take effect from the 25th of March, 1754.
Upon the passing of this law, Keith, the parson who has already been alluded to, published a pamphlet entitled, Observations on the Act for Preventing Clandestine Marriages. To this he prefixed his portrait. The following passages are highly characteristic of the man:--
"'Happy is the wooing that is not long a-doing' is an old proverb, and a very true one; but we shall have no occasion for it after the 25th day of March next, when we are commanded to read it backwards, and from that period (fatal indeed to Old England!) we must date the declension of the numbers of the inhabitants of England."
"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, etc."
"Another inconvenience which will arise from this Act will be, that the expense of being married will be so great, that few of the lower class of people can afford; for I have often heard a Fleet parson say that many have come to be married when they have but had half-a-crown in their pockets, and sixpence to buy a pot of beer, and for which they have pawned some of their clothes."
"I remember once on a time, I was at a public-house at Ratcliffe, which then was full of sailors and their girls; there was fiddling, piping, jigging and eating; at length, one of the tars starts up and says: 'D-n ye, Jack, I'll be married just now; I will have my partner, and . . .' The joke took, and in less than two hours ten couples set out for the Fleet; I stayed 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 at 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."
He humorously concludes: "If the present Act in the form it now stands should (which I am sure is impossible) be of service to my country, I shall then have the satisfaction of having been the occasion of it, because the compilers thereof have done it with a pure design of suppressing my Chapel, which makes me the most celebrated man in this kingdom, though not the greatest."
In a letter to George Montagu, Esq., from Horace Walpole, is the following notice of Keith:--
STRAWBERRY HILL, 11th June, 1753,
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.'
The passing of the Marriage Act put a stop to the marriages at Mayfair; but the day before the Act came into operation (Lady Day, 17541) sixty-one couples were married there. In a letter to George Montagu, Esq., dated 7th July, 1753, Horace Walpole says: "Lady Anne Paulett's daughter is eloped with a country clergyman. The Duchess of Argyle harangues against the Marriage Bill not taking place immediately, and is persuaded that all the girls will go off before next Lady Day."
It would exceed the limits of this brief sketch were we to give the official history of the different scandalous ministers who thus disgraced themselves, and impiously trifled with one of our most sacred institutions. That some of these wretched adventurers merely pretended to be clergymen is certain; but it cannot be denied that many of them were actually in Holy Orders. Of this latter class were Grierson and Wilkinson, the subjects of our present notice; and, notwithstanding the heavy penalties imposed by the statute, they were not to be deterred from continuing the dangerous and unlawful traffic in which they had been engaged. Wilkinson, who was the brother of a celebrated comedian of the day, it would appear, was the owner of a chapel in the Savoy, and Grierson was his assistant; and, their proceedings having at length become too notorious to be passed over, proceedings were instituted against them. Grierson was first apprehended, and his employer sought safety in flight; but supposing that he could not be deemed guilty of any offence, as he had not actually performed the marriage ceremony -- a duty which he left to his journeyman -- he returned to his former haunts.
It was not long before he was secured however, and, having been convicted with Grierson, they were shipped off as convicts together to the colonies, in the year 1757.