WE’RE GOING TO THE PRISON AND WE’RE… GONNA GET MARRIED
17th century records published today on Ancestry.co.uk reveal nearly 900,000 ‘quickie’ weddings and baptisms
- Records detail marriages from London’s Fleet Prison – the ‘Las Vegas’ marriage capital of its day
- Digitised collection reveals the last of England and Wales’ unregulated wedding ceremonies
- Money, prenuptial pregnancy and insurance scams all reasons behind no-questions-asked nuptials
Forget Las Vegas, new research has revealed London’s Fleet Prison as the original home of the shotgun wedding – in the 1700s at least.
The findings from Ancestry.co.uk, the UK’s favourite family history website[i], were uncovered through analysis of the Clandestine Marriage and Baptism Registers 1667-1754, which reveal the details of nearly 900,000 unlicensed ceremonies that took place across the capital.
The digitised records, originally held at The National Archives, cover a period (pre-1754) when couples could marry quickly, in much the same way as they do in Las Vegas today.
Outside the jurisdiction of the church, the area around the Fleet Prison became a mecca for these so called clandestine marriages, with disgraced clergymen and criminals offering speedy services to anybody willing to pay a small fee. Such was the appeal of these ceremonies, that during this time over half of all London weddings took place in premises surrounding Fleet Prison.[ii]
Like Sin City today, the area around the prison was a popular place to tie the knot with cheap food, lots of drink and a raucous atmosphere. The vicinity was known as the ‘rules’, and was also famed for its lively coffee houses, taverns and hotels filled to bursting with excited wedding guests.
People married in clandestine ceremonies for a whole host of reasons. These include, speeding up the inheritance process, concealing a bigamous relationship or even validating an accidental prenuptial pregnancy. Some interesting cases that appear in the records include:
- Henry Fox and Lady Caroline Lennox – Fox was a well-known Whig politician, widely tipped for the role of Prime Minister. He appears in the records in 1744 after eloping with Lady Caroline Lennox, who was eighteen years his junior – much to the disapproval of her parents
- Richard Leaver and Alice Allington – Despite already being married, Richard wed Alice at the Hand and Pen tavern in Fleet lane in 1737 following a heavy night of drinking. Corresponding court records reveal that after waking he asked, “Who are you?” “My dear, we were married last night at the Fleet,” came her reply
- James George Hamilton and Elizabeth Gunning – In a case of true romance, Hamilton met society belle Elizabeth on the 14th of February 1752, fell in love and married her in a secret ceremony at the May Fair Chapel that very same night
This practice was all but stopped following the implementation of The Hardwicke Act of 1753, which required couples to have a formal ceremony of marriage. This effectively ended the underground ‘quickie marriage’ trade, with the union of Henry Charles Haymarket and Sarah Macknaile in March 1754 appearing as the last one of its kind in these digitised records.
In addition to Fleet Prison, records from King’s Bench Prison, The Mint and the May Fair Chapel are included within the collection. Baptism records also feature and can be searched by name and baptism date.
Miriam Silverman, UK Content Manager, from Ancestry.co.uk comments: “With the wedding season well and truly upon us, it seems crazy to think of tying the knot as anything other than a special celebration involving your nearest and dearest.”
“By choosing to take their vows outside the institution of the church, many of these 17th century clandestine weddings were shrouded in secrecy. Now is the perfect time for people to go online and uncover more about the details of their own ancestors’ nuptials.”
To search for your ancestors in the Clandestine Marriage and Baptism Registers 1667-1754 collection and millions of other marriage and baptism records, visit www.ancestry.co.uk