I became curious when I discovered that one of my ancestors was married in Fleet Prison. The Fleet Prison was a notorious London prison mainly used for debtors. I know I have convicts in my family tree that were transported to Australia, but I didn’t think any of them found true love in prison. When I took a deeper look, I found out a lot about marriage in England.
In England, people generally married in the home parish of the bride or groom. Banns of marriage (public announcements of an impending marriage), simply called banns, were announced on three consecutive Sundays before the couple could be married. Couples could also obtain a license to be married in their parish. Marriages outside of the church were known as “irregular” or “clandestine” marriages. The area around Fleet Prison did not operate under the same laws as the church so the clergy in debtors’ prison or around the prison could perform marriages without residency requirements, waiting periods, or parental consent.
Sometimes, unscrupulous men would pass themselves off as clergy just to earn a little extra money. At one time, more than 6,000 marriages per year took place at Fleet Prison, but the Marriage Act of 1753 put an end to the clandestine marriages. After that time, couples went to Scotland, often Gretna Green, for a quick marriage.
If you want to learn more about Fleet Prison, check out Lost London [an A-Z of Forgotten Landmarks and Lost Traditions]. For genealogical records pertaining to clandestine marriages, try searching in The Fleet Registers by John Southerden Burn. Findmypast (in-library use only) contains banns, marriages, and clandestine marriages in England.
While my ancestor’s story is certainly not unique, it’s a fascinating part of history. Maybe my ancestors really did find true love.
Where did your ancestors find true love?
Midwest Genealogy Center