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Fleet & other Irregular Marriage Registers

Nature of Source

Marriage registers from ceremonies conducted in and around the Fleet Prison in London, with many taking place in local taverns and coffee houses. As clergymen were often confined to the Fleet as debtors, they performed marriage ceremonies for other inmates for a fee without licence or other formalities. This practice was stopped in 1711, but clergy carried on conducting irregular but legal marriage ceremonies in nearby taverns. These so called 'marriage shops' could also be found in the grounds of the May Fair Chapel and the King's Bench prison and other centres such as the Holy Trinity, Minories and St. James, Dukes Place. The ceremonies were conducted by individuals who had taken holy orders without licence who could legally marry two people at any time and at any place. Although they ignored the official rules on using banns and licences the marriages were still legally valid. 

This led to an increase in these so called 'irregular' or 'clandestine' marriages. A marriage without banns or licence or conducted away from the parish of residence of both parties was considered 'clandestine' and a marriage that took place in one of the party's parishes without banns or licence or away from the parish of either party by banns or licence was considered 'irregular'. Whichever way was chosen, the union was in the eyes of the law a legally binding contract. It is estimated that in the 1740s over half of London's marriages took place in 'marriage shops' with about 800,000 people named in the marriage records and about 2400 people mentioned in baptismal records. Many nonconformists married in this manner often in their own meeting houses.

The authorities had lost control over the marriage registration process so the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke, pushed through much needed reforms The resultant Hardwicke Act of 1753 instantly closed the legal loopholes that allowed so many 'irregular' and 'clandestine' marriages to take place. From 1754, the process of marriage registration became easier for the clergy with the introduction of well laid out pre-printed registers and for the first time in separate volumes.

The legislation stipulated that marriage must take place in a licensed Anglican parish church in the bride or bridegroom's own parish and be recorded in a special book with a numbered space for each entry, to prevent fraud. Banns were read publicly on three separate Sundays, which allowed for objections to be raised possibly by parents of children under the age of 21 or previous spouses to call a halt to the proposed wedding. The legislation also allowed marriage by licence in a different parish to that of the couple's residence. The only exceptions allowed were for Quakers and Jews, so all other non conformists including Roman Catholics had to marry in an Anglican church.

As the Hardwicke's Act did not apply in Scotland, English 'runway' couples were able to obtain a valid marriage certificate in the Scottish border towns such as Ayton, Chain Bridge, Coldstream, Gretna Green, Halidon Hill, Ladykirk, Lamberton, Mordington, Norham and Paxton. Less well known areas for 'irregular' marriages were the coaching inns in the Canongate district of Edinburgh and South Leith marriages which are transcribed in Marshall’s Calendar of Irregular Marriages in the South Leith Kirk Sessions Records 1697-1818. The English Episcopal Chapels in Scotland during the 19th century also married English runaways.

In Scotland a marriage was considered 'regular' after the reading of banns and if the marriage ceremony was conducted by a minister of the established Church of Scotland. The 1834 Marriage (Scotland) Act extended 'regular' marriages by permitting dissenting clergy to conduct marriage ceremonies. If these requirements were not adhered to the marriage was deemed 'clandestine' and illegal but crucially could be valid in the eyes of the state. Under Scots Law a marriage was considered valid (but not legal) under certain conditions as follows:

§  Both parties declared themselves married in the presence of witnesses.

§  Marriage ceremony followed by sexual intercourse.

§  Simply living together with the status of man and wife - by habit and repute.

Irregular marriages in Scotland were abolished with the passing of the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1939 which introduced civil marriages with marriages only becoming legal and valid on production of a certificate proving publication of banns or a notice of intended marriage and if celebrated in an office of an authorised Registrar. Irregular marriages were unrecorded in the statutory marriage registers.

See also
Marriage Duty Act/Registration Tax

Where Found

The National Archives (RG 7, General Register Office: Registers of Clandestine Marriages and of Baptisms in the Fleet Prison, King's Bench Prison, the Mint and the May Fair Chapel. Indexes compiled by Beric Lloyd are available at TNA covering 1698-1754)

Period Covered

1611 - 1754

Genealogical Value

Names of the couple, marital status/condition, parish addresses of both parties and the groom's occupation

Further References

Benton, Tony. Irregular Marriages in London Before 1754: Society of Genealogists, 2000


Brown, Roger Lee. A History of the Fleet Prison, London: The Anatomy of the Fleet: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996


Chapman, Colin. Marriage Laws, Rites, Records and Customs: Was Your Ancestor Really Married?: Lochin Publishing, 1996


Gibson, Jeremy & Hampson, Elizabeth & Raymond, Stuart. Marriage Indexes for Family Historians: The Family History Partnership, 2007


Herber, Mark. Clandestine Marriages in the Chapel and Rules of the Fleet Prison 1680-1754, Francis Boutle, 1998 (Transcriptions by Mark Herber of Fleet Marriage Registers are also available on CD from S & N Genealogy Supplies)

 

Outhwaite, R.B. Clandestine Marriage in England 1500-1850: Hambledon Press, 1995

 


TNA Research Guide: Fleet Registers: clandestine marriages and baptisms in London 1667-1754

Websites

http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45111 (Extract from 'Old and New London: Volume 2' (1878) by Walter Thornbury entitled The Fleet Prison)
www.bmdregisters.co.uk/help/aboutRG7.htm#whatis (Guide to the Fleet registers held at TNA in RG 7)
www.hertsfhs.org.uk/hfphs42.html (Fleet Marriages of Hertfordshire People to 1754)

Online Databases

BMD Registers (Free searches with payment for full details)
www.ancestry.co.uk
(London, Clandestine Marriage and Baptism Registers, 1667-1754. Registers of clandestine marriages and of baptisms in the Fleet Prison, King's Bench Prison, the Mint and the May Fair Chapel extracted from TNA series RG 7)
www.familysearch.org (Historical Record Collections: Non-Conformist Record Indexes transcribed from TNA series RG 4-8 which includes the registers of the Fleet Prison; the King's Bench Prison; the Mint and the May Fair Chapel. The site incorporates the data formerly known as the International Genealogical Index and also data formerly sold on CD as the British Isles Vital Records Index. The former Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File can be found under the heading of 'Family Trees')
www.ancestry.co.uk (Gretna Green Marriage Registers, 1795-1895 taken from the Lang Collection held by The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies)
www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk (Marriages at Queen's Head Inn at Gretna Green, 1843-1862)

CD Roms

S & N Genealogy Supplies (London, Clandestine Marriages in the Chapel and Rules of the Fleet Prison 1680-1754 Volumes 1-3, transcribed by Mark Herber)