From the Thorley Archives

Thorley's Fleet Marriages

Browsing through a book entitled 'Fleet Marriages of Hertfordshire People to 1754', I was curious to know what were Fleet marriages, what was so special about Fleet marriages that merited this catalogue and, in particular, were there any Thorley names to be found amongst the approximately 4,000+ entries?

Amongst these Hertfordshire entries there are seven who claimed Thorley as their parish of residence -

William Edwards, widower, cordwainer (shoemaker), of Sawbridgeworth, married Mary Green, widow, of Thorley, 29th July 1729.

Jeremiah Flack, widower, husbandman (farmer), of Thorley, married Rebecca Roberts, spinster, of Sawbridgeworth, 9th November 1732.

Thomas Keniel, widower, Thorley, married, Anne Bevan, spinster also of Thorley, 29th December 1729 at the Rainbow (tavern).

Thomas Payn, widower, miller of Thorley, married Martha Hudgell, spinster, 1st June 1752.

Samuel Sabin, widower, dealer of Thorley, married Sarah Grout, widow, of Ware, 23rd January 1739.

Obadiah Siggs, bachelor, of Thorley, married Elizabeth Page, spinster, Sawbridgeworth, 5th October 1734 at Stationers Arms, Ludgate Street.

Fleet marriages were irregular ceremonies that took place in an area centred on the Fleet prison in London during the later 1600s and first half of the 1700s. They were speedy marriages of convenience carried out by ordained clergymen who had no parochial allegiance to the Bishop of London. Often they were debtor prisoners themselves who were allowed to live within close proximity of the Fleet Prison.

'Rules of the Fleet' marriages were initially carried out in the prison chapel but as the practice became more popular then other local 'chapels' were set up in nearby taverns, coffee house, chambers and shops. Parsons' fees were charged according to prevailing market forces of urgency and necessity for a quick wedding service, often with only 24 hours notice. Occasionally, Fleet parsons were prepared to travel into the surrounding countryside - with the added bonus of travelling expenses. No banns or licences were required but a record was kept by an accompanying register keeper and hence many of these records now survive in The Public Record Office. Strangely, unlike parish registers of that period, these records contain details of occupations, marital status and home locality and are therefore of interest to those trying to track down their family history in counties surrounding London.

Whilst many of the customers for these services were fortune hunters, ladies with debts, sailors, soldiers and the aristocracy with an eye to the main chance, recent research has shown that the majority were couples marrying with the intention of making their marriage last. Popular tabloid belief, especially in Victorian novels, concentrated on the fraudulent or bigamous happenings but it is doubtful that the incidence of these was any more common than in the rest of the country at that time. The Marriage Act of 1753, regulating banns, licences and places of solemnisation of marriages, brought to an end this unconventional practice in a corner of London.

With acknowledgements to: - Fleet Marriages of Hertfordshire People to 1754, Jack Parker, Published by Hertfordshire Family & Population History Society 1999

Bill Hardy
May 2003

From the Archives