1700: Scenes from London Life

1700: Scenes from London Life

by Maureen Waller

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781568582160
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 01/28/2002
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.08(h) x 1.19(d)

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Chapter One


Thousands of Londoners had no idea whether they were legally
married, nor even what might constitute a legal marriage

* * *

Thirty-four years after the Great Fire, the worshippers at St Paul's still gaze up at an open sky. Within a decade, Wren's completed dome will cast a shadow over the grim Fleet Prison, the ominous building where debtors count out their days. At the foot of Ludgate Hill lies the Fleet Ditch, wide enough for a coal barge to sail north to Holborn, if it can tackle the stinking sewage, discarded guts and offal, drowned puppies and dead cats sliding down its muddy channel towards the Thames. Passing the brawling concert of fishwives and stall-holders gathered around the Fleet Bridge, we come to a warren of alleyways known as the Rules of the Fleet. Here, forty marriage-houses do a busy trade.

    Now and again, a clergyman's anxious face peers out through the grimy panes, cracked and warped, under a sign depicting a man's hand joined with a woman's advertising 'Marriages Perform'd Within'. Working as brothers in business, clergy and tavern keepers send out the 'plyers', urchins and street people, to tout for their strange trade. The women are particularly persistent, tugging and pulling at the sleeves of those who pass. 'Sir, will you be pleased to walk in and be married?'

    What fairer request could there be? A couple eager to accede is invited with due courtesy to step inside. Perhaps they will be in the most famous marriage-house of all,the Hand and Pen by the Fleet Bridge. Ushered through the ubiquitous fug of beer fumes and pipe smoke, they are chaperoned by a blowsy landlady clutching a register through to a private room set up as a chapel to await the parson. It is late in the afternoon and darkness already permeates the smoky sky. A glance at the hands of the chapel clock, though, and each partner sees that they are stuck permanently at nine o'clock, for weddings are legal only if performed within the canonical hours of 8 a.m. to noon.

    The couple waits patiently for the parson to appear. Perhaps this will be James Colton, deprived of his living by the Bishop of London for ill practices, but carrying out his illicit marriage trade with impunity. Or it could be Nehemiah Rogers, a Fleet prisoner who 'goes at large ... a very wicked man, as lives for drinking, whoring, swearing, he has struck and boxed ye bridegroom in ye chapple, and damned like any com'on souldier'.

    Whoever the parson, he will come armed with fake certificates, properly carrying the royal arms, but lacking an official stamp, with blank spaces where the names should already have been written. The certificates are kindly supplied by Bartholomew Bassett, clerk to Robert Elborrow, elderly incumbent at the Fleet Prison's own chapel; indeed, for a small consideration Bassett will also enter the marriages in the Fleet register, so that they may be deemed thoroughly official.

    Bassett's business acumen is hardly out of place. The Fleet, after all, is a commercial concern, and ideally placed to take advantage of that handy piece of legislation of 1694-6 which taxed marriages at a specific rate, imposing a stamp duty on every licence and certificate issued. In the last few years, the Fleet has gained the lion's share of the clandestine marriage trade, undermining the competition which traditionally claimed exemption from ecclesiastical jurisdiction: the so-called 'peculiars', the churches of St James' Duke's Place, St Pancras and Holy Trinity Minories. Bassett is raking in well over £200 a year at the Fleet, subletting the prison cellar to unbeneficed clergymen to perform marriages without banns or licence, unfazed by the 1696 Act which imposed a £100 fine for such an offence. Since some of these clergymen are confined to the Fleet for debt anyway, they have nothing to lose. Certainly, Bassett is happy to supply them with whatever they require.

    Clandestine marriages flout the basic requirements of the Church of England as laid down in the canons of 1604. These assert that a marriage must be performed publicly in the parish of one of the parties, after due publicity has been given to it by the reading of banns on three successive Sundays. Alternatively the couple can procure a licence from a reputable ecclesiastical authority bearing a fully paid government stamp. Yet for all its shadiness, clandestine marriage is the preferred option of thousands of Londoners. In this year of 1700, 2,251 marriages — perhaps a third of all marriages — will be celebrated in the sordid surroundings of the Fleet. The eager participants pour in from the populous and impoverished outlying parishes of Stepney, Whitechapel, Cripplegate Without, Aldgate and St Giles-in-the-Fields. A few even arrive from as far afield as Hertfordshire and Essex. Some of these spouses-to-be will describe themselves as gentlemen, professional and clerical people; but the vast majority are craftsmen, labourers, coachmen, boatmen, tradesmen, innkeepers and itinerants, attracted by the Fleet's promise of marriage on the cheap.

    Some harbour darker motives. An uncle wishes to wed his niece, so he goes to the Fleet; a woman has succumbed to the charms of her brother-in-law, so they go to the Fleet. They are joined by servants and apprentices, forbidden to marry by the terms of their employment; by widows unwilling to surrender their jointure or trading privileges on remarriage; by defiant or desperate couples judged by parish authorities to be too poor to marry; and by sailors disembarking at the port of London for a hasty marriage — or marriages. In fact, almost every walk of life comes to rub shoulders at the Fleet, to partake in the growing business of clandestine marriage.

    Once the parson appears, some minutes are spent haggling over his fee, before the coins are placed on the open prayer book: 2s 6d is the norm, out of which the parson will tip the plyer 6d and pay the landlord a small fee for the use of the room. A certificate and register entry will bump the cost up to 7s 6d. This is a week's wages for a working man, but at a third of the cost of a regular marriage is still deemed to be good value. The landlord's apparent generosity in the room-hire is disingenuous. He stands to profit from the rowdy celebration of drinking and dancing that follows, the sale of bride cakes at 6d each, and from the charge of a shilling or so for the hire of a bed for those unable to delay consummating their union.

    Since clergy and tavern-keepers have such a thriving business here, some are even going into partnership, with the parson on the payroll at £20-£30 a year and the landlord pocketing the fees extracted from the bridegroom. Sometimes the bridal party fails to reach agreement on the price, an argument ensues and blows are struck. Some unfortunate couples underestimate the cost and have to leave unmarried. Mostly a compromise is reached. The wedding ring may be pawned to clinch the bargain, or perhaps the couple will forgo the certificate and leave 'half-married'. Cheapness is as much an imperative as speed and secrecy in a Fleet marriage: 'without loss of time, hindrance of business, and the knowledge of friends'.

    With drink on his breath, his shabbiness emphasised by a soiled surplice, and the Book of Common Prayer in hand, the parson skips through an abridged version of the marriage service. The canons demand it in full, but this is no time to be a jobsworth. The formalities dispensed with, he makes a note of the details in his pocket book, later to be transcribed into a register; unless, of course, he is being paid to keep the marriage a secret and the surnames out of the register. Entries may be inserted or removed by the unscrupulous, or totally falsified so that a marriage may be pre-dated and a pregnancy legitimised. There are many omissions from the register, and the parson's pocket book is highly revelatory: 'N.B. they had liv'd together four years as man and wife; they were so vile as to ask for a certifycate antidated' and, 'N.B. the woman was big with child, and they wanted a certifycate antidated; and because it was not comply'd with, they were abusive with a witness.'

    Tampering with entries in the registers for births, marriages and deaths is an offence carrying a £100 penalty under an Act of 1689, but it is carried on with impunity, especially by the obliging Bassett who 'antidates as he pleases'. Under a pretext of legality, the marriage-house also keeps a register, which is open to even greater abuse. Such registers have no legal status but can do a powerful amount of damage. One such landlady 'offered ... a marriage certifycate for a young woman that happened to be with child, and was hunted by the parish offices, and she said, for half-a-guinea it might be enter'd backwards in the book, and would skreen her from the anger of her friends'. Anybody, so it seems, may have a certificate at her house for half-a-crown, and have their names entered in her book, for as long time past as they please. Should a clandestine marriage founder, the lack of reliable evidence and the eagerness of witnesses to perjure themselves for a few pence will prove a headache for the courts.

In 1700 the laws and customs relating to marriage were so chaotic and contradictory that thousands of Londoners had no idea whether they were legally married, nor even what might constitute a legal marriage. There was a hazy notion that vows taken before witnesses, such as 'I, John, do take thee, Hannah, to be my wife' followed by consummation, meant that the couple was 'married in the eyes of God'. For many this, together with the acceptance and approval of their neighbours, was more than enough. In ecclesiastical law these 'spousals' were regarded as binding and irrevocable. The common law, however, conferred property rights only on those who had gone through a public ceremony. In practice, this meant a husband could not claim any of his wife's property, she could not claim her rights as a widow, nor could the children of the union claim inheritance as legal heirs,

    To complicate matters further, since canon law and common law were not marching in step, a ruling made in a common law court could be overturned in the ecclesiastical court of appeal. To the general public, this was an incomprehensible legal quibble — and of little concern to those who had no property. A conditional promise made 'per verba in futuro' to the effect that 'I, Hannah, will marry thee, John, if my father gives his consent' was not a binding contract, unless the words were followed by immediate consummation, which was taken to mean consent in the present.

    For most ordinary people, what was significant was the giving of tokens to their intended, especially a ring or a coin split in two, the acceptance of which was popularly believed to imply a formal contract. 'We're contracted,' exclaims one of Farquhar's characters in The Inconstant. 'Contracted! Alack a day, poor thing. What, you have changed rings or broken an old broad piece between you!' But the Church did not recognise such gifts as relevant and a verbal contract without witnesses was unlikely to be upheld, as one disappointed young man discovered after his beloved had married someone else:

the said Stephen told how the said Mary Russell, that she was the first woman he had ever courted, that he had settled his affections upon her, and hoped she would not deceive him, to which she answered that she would not deceive him or to that effect; then the said Stephen Wilson put a ring upon the said Mary Russels finger ... said I give you this ring as a contract of marriage between ye and me, and that you'l have no other man, to which the said Mary Russel replied I promise to marry you Mr Wilson and no other man.

Some of the confusion could be traced back to the Middle Ages. A church wedding for the performance of the sacrament of marriage was a fifteen-century innovation. At the Reformation marriage ceased to be a sacrament, although it remained a spiritual act and therefore indissoluble. It was generally assumed that the presence of a priest made a marriage official. The Anglican Church had neglected to update the old medieval marriage laws in England when Catholic Europe had done so at the Council of Trent in 1563. The Republic had confused the issue in the 1650s by introducing the concept of civil marriage, so making the Church's involvement seem dispensable in the popular mind. The Restoration had swiftly ended that experiment and the Anglican Church had regained its ascendancy, but this left the vast body of nonconformists to make their own arrangements. They married in their own chapels or meeting-houses. The marriage legislation of 1694-6 added a new dimension. For the first time the state had a vested interest in the formal performance of marriage because of the taxes it accrued from it. Resentment at state interference and a natural inclination to defy authority and beat the system, especially in the avoidance of the standard 5s tax on licences and certificates, encouraged an increasing number of Londoners to marry behind the state's back, in the vicinity of the Fleet.

    Despite the state's official disapproval, a clandestine marriage was still regarded by the Church as valid and indissoluble as long as it fulfilled certain basic requirements. The couple must not be too closely related through blood or marriage. The male must be over the age of fourteen, the female over twelve, and both had to be over twenty-one if the consent of a parent or guardian was not forthcoming. Given the ease with which clandestine marriage was carried out and the dubious nature of the paperwork, the whole system was inevitably open to abuse. It was common for a woman seeking to legitimise her bastard child and avoid the shame of a public whipping to make a hasty marriage to a stranger at the Fleet. Wife-swapping certainly took place, some of it quite brazen:

On Tuesday last two persons, one of Skinner Street, and the other of Webb's Square, Spittle Fields, exchang'd wives, to whom they had been married upwards of twelve years; and the same day, to the content of all parties, the marriages were consummated at the Fleet. Each husband gave his wife away to the other, and in the evening had an entertainment together.

One clergyman confided in his pocket book his suspicion that a couple he had just married had both been women — and indeed there is evidence of such unions. A foreign visitor to London, César de Saussure, noted in amazement another form of abuse:

A woman when she marries is freed from her debts. And in order to benefit by this law cases have been known of women up to their ears in debt, and on the point of being thrown into prison, going to the Fleet, and there finding some bachelor prisoner who, in return, for a payment of three guineas or so, will agree to marry her, that is to say, to go through a marriage ceremony. A priest is called, who marries the couple forthwith, neither licence nor publication of banns being necessary for a marriage in the Fleet. A bottle of beer or wine is drunk, the priest gives a marriage certificate, and the newly married bride departs and never sees her husband again. When the creditors come to be paid, she produces her marriage certificate, and she cannot be arrested, having a husband; neither can they make him responsible for his wife's debt, he being a prisoner already. This extraordinary abuse is permitted by the laws.

Many still believed that if a woman married in her shift her husband could not incur her debts; sadly, this did not stand up in law. The law courts were full of suits involving clandestine marriages, but the secrecy of the proceedings made it difficult to prove a clandestine marriage had taken place if it ran into trouble and one of the partners was trying to repudiate it. Bigamy posed a particular problem. 'Hence, too, happen polygamies, easily conceal'd, and too much practised,' wrote the Frenchman Henri Misson, a keen observer of English customs, The law eventually caught up with one such offender and dealt with her severely:

Mary Stokes, alias Edwards, was tried for marrying two husbands; the first named Thomas Adams, to whom she was married on the 15th of July, five years ago at St James' Dukes Place, the second was one Sebastian Judges, to whom she was married 5th of November last, at the same place; The evidence to prove both the marriages, swore it plainly against her, that she had married one William Brown besides, and that she stay'd with Judges but one night, and ran away in the morning; and she stayed 8 days with Adams; afterwards she was married to one William Carter, which made 4 in all; after that she was taken at the Red-Lyon in Bishopsgate Street; She said that she was advised that she might safely marry another husband, having been convicted before for marrying two husbands about half a year ago. Upon the whole it appeared, that she was an idle kind of a slut, for she would get what money she could of them, and then run away from them; she was found guilty of felony.

    Mary Stokes was condemned to death.

    But despite the complications and pitfalls, clandestine marriage remained immensely popular. One of its more sinister sides was that it provided a golden opportunity for the enticement or abduction of heiresses. 'Hence comes the matches between footmen and young ladies of quality, who you may be sure live no very easy life together afterward,' Misson comments. Drink and drugs were useful tools in a kidnapping, and several young heiresses and wealthy widows woke up to find themselves in bed with some stranger, having been subjected to a forced marriage and raped while unconscious.

    Daniel Defoe deplored 'the arts and tricks made use of to trepan and as it were kidnap young women away into the hands of brutes and sharpers [which] were very scandalous, and it became almost dangerous for any one to leave a fortune to the disposal of the person that was to enjoy it and when it was so left, the young lady went always in danger of her life'. Although young women in London were given an extraordinary amount of freedom to go out and about in the town, an heiress, he wrote, 'was watched, laid wait for and as it were besieged by a continual gang of rogues, cheats, gamesters and such like starving crew, so that she was obliged to confine herself like a prisoner to her chamber'. If she ventured outside, she might be 'snatched up, seized, hurried up into a coach and six; a fellow dressed up in a clergyman's habit performing the ceremony and a pistol clapt to her breast to make her consent to be marry'd'.

    One such unlucky heiress, worth £200 a year and £600 ready cash, was 'decoyed away from her friends ... and married at the Fleet chapel against her consent'. The search was on for the perpetrators 'who have used the young lady so barbarously, that she now lyes speechless'. As long as Bassett and his friends were in business, such marriages could be accomplished. It was only the 1753 Marriage Act that finally put an end to their devious work.

Even within what might be seen as 'regular marriage', people often tried to get around the law. All classes of society resented the reading of banns prior to a wedding, seeing this as an unwarranted interference in their private business. 'To proclaim banns is a thing nobody now cares to have done; very few are willing to have their affairs declar'd to all the world in a public place, when for a guinea they may do it snug, and without noise,' wrote Misson, 'and my good friends the clergy ... are not very zealous to prevent it. Thus, then, they buy what they call a licence, and are marry'd in their closets, in the presence of a couple of friends, that serve for witnesses; and this ties them for ever.'

    An increasing number of Londoners felt uncomfortable at the public nature of a wedding by banns. These weddings had to take place in the full glare of publicity during divine service, between the hours of 8 a.m. and noon on a Sunday, this being the day when the whole population was supposed to attend church. It was often public knowledge that the bride or groom had enjoyed sex — 'bundling', or heavy petting, being a widespread custom — with more than one partner before marriage. Such couples wanted to avoid the nudges and guffaws of those in the congregation who knew of past indiscretions. Those entering into a blatantly mercenary match might have wished to avoid the embarrassment of public comment.

    Parish fees were posted on tables displayed in the churches, and those for marriage were to be laid on the prayer book with the ring during the ceremony. A licence, which required a sworn statement from parties under twenty-one that they had the consent of parents or guardians, was considerably more expensive. In the Archdiocese of Canterbury, into which many of the London parishes fell, it cost 10s for a licence to marry without banns outside one's parish of residence, and 20s to do so outside the canonical hours. Dean Humphrey Prideaux deplored the venality of the diocesan administrators who encouraged the practice of ignoring the canons in order to extract fees from the sale of licences. However, it suited the new fashion for 'persons of quality, and many others who imitate them ... of being marry'd very late at night in their chamber'.

    Of course, as Misson observed, there were some who enjoyed the ostentation of a big public wedding:

When those of a middling condition have a mind to be so extravagant as to marry in publick (which very rarely happens) they invite a number of friends and relations; everyone puts on new cloaths, and dresses finer than ordinary; the men lead the women, they get into coaches, and so go in procession, and are marry'd in full day at church. After feasting and dancing, and having made merry that day and the next, they take a trip into the country, and there divert themselves very pleasantly.

The bride of 1700 never wore white. If she could afford them, brightly coloured silks were preferred. Her garters, which played an important part in the bedding ceremony, would be elegant silk sashes tied below the knee. Blue was popular, perhaps because of its residual associations with the Virgin Mary, but red or white garters were also worn. Bridesmaids and guests sported gilded rosemary and bay. Rosemary, carried to weddings as well as funerals, was dipped in scented water. The bridal path would be strewn with rushes.

    In The Ten Pleasures of Marriage, Aphra Behn pokes fun at a fashionable couple and the enormous expense of their wedding. The wife enjoys such a lavish shopping spree that 'it is no wonder that all womankind are so desirous of marriage, and no sooner lose their first husbands, but they think immediately of a second'. She continues:

because it was impossible to invite every one to the wedding, this sweet Venus must be led abroad, and shewed to all her husbands friends and acquaintance; yea, all the world must see what a pretty couple they are, and how handsomely they agree together. To which end they trick and prick themselves up daily in their best apparel; garnishing both the whole city and streets with tatling and pratling; and staring into the houses of all their acquaintance to see whether they are looked at.

The notion of the 'honeymoon' — the month a newly married couple might spend alone together — was becoming established.

    For the majority of 'middling' Londoners, whom Misson liked to observe, their weddings were much more low-key, thereby avoiding much expense and trouble:

The bridegroom, that is to say, the husband that is to be, and the bride, who is the wife that is to be, conducted by their father and mother, or by those that serve them in their room, and accompany'd by two bride men and two bride maids, go early in the morning with the licence in their pocket and call up Mr Curate and his clerk, tell him their business; are marry'd with a low voice, and the doors shut; tip the minister with a guinea, and the clerk a crown; steal softly out, one one way, and t'other another, either on foot or in coaches; go different ways to some tavern at a distance from their own lodgings, or to the house of some trusty friend, there have a good dinner, and return home at night as quietly as lambs.


Table of Contents

1 Marriage9
2 Childbirth45
3 Childhood62
4 Disease81
5 Death108
6 The Home124
7 Fashion153
8 Food and Drink177
9 Coffee-houses, Clubs, Alehouses and Taverns195
10 Amusements217
11 The Working City234
12 The Poor257
13 Huguenots and Other Strangers265
14 Religion and Superstition282
15 Prostitution and Vice293
16 Crime and Punishment307

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