Clandestine or irregular marriages in England prior to the 1753 Marriage Act (which came into force on 25 March 1754) are best known to have taken place in the area around the Fleet Prison in London. Marriages there were numerous and surviving records from series RG7 at The National Archives are available to view via Ancestry, Findmypast and The Genealogist.
For more on the history of irregular or clandestine marriages in England, with a particular focus on the records of marriages in the area of the Fleet Prison, I strongly recommend listening to this podcast recorded in 2013 by Audrey Collins for The National Archives. One of the points made in the podcast is that unusual marriage patterns elsewhere in the country might provide a clue to the presence of a vicar in the area at the time who might be conducting such marriages. One such vicar was the Reverend Emanuel COLLINS …
“A DISGRACE TO HIS CLOTH”
An article published in the Bristol Mercury on 28 January 1884 – available via The British Newspaper Archive or Findmypast -claims that Bedminster was at one time known as the Gretna Green of the west: “thanks to the then rector of the parish, the Rev. Emanuel Collins, A.M., mixing up the business of the world and the flesh with the care of souls and keeping a public house, known, we believe, as “the Marlborough,” at which he performed the marriage ceremony for the modest fee of “a crown a couple”. These clandestine marriages became so flagrant here that they were as notorious as those of “Gretna Green” itself, and ancient records tell us that the abuse of the sacred ordinance at the Bedminster tavern was brought under Parliamentary notice when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 was passed.”
Another article, in the Bristol Mercury on 30 January 1892, notes that in F. Farley’s Journal on 27 July 1758 the sale by auction of the Duke of Marlborough public house at Bedminster – in the occupation of Emanuel COLLINS – was announced and notes that “Collins is reported to have made a shameless living by celebrating irregular marriages at his public-house. The Act rendering such unions illegal passed in 1754, and his abandonment of the tavern soon after lends support to the tradition. In 1762, Collins, who styled himself M. A. of Oxford, published some poetical effusions under the title of “Miscellanies,” in which the depravity of his mind is only too clearly revealed.”
Bristol Past and Present, published, in 1882, describes Emanuel COLLINS as “a low, obscene writer, a disgrace to his cloth ; kept a public house wherein he would marry people for a crown“, while John Chilcott’s 1826 work New Guide to Bristol, Clifton and the Hotwells claims that COLLINS was “a most turbulent and reprehensible character, but a severe satirist” and goes on to say he was educated at Bristol Grammar School, later keeping his own school at Shannon Court; his Miscellanies in Prose and Verse are said to be “caustic in the extreme.”
COLLINS was also known to the Bristol-born poet Robert Southey and references are made to him in The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, edited by Charles Cuthbert Southey and published in 1849. Robert Southey described the Miscellanies as “in no respect creditable to the author, and, on the score of decency, highly discreditable to him.” Southey’s uncles had attended a school run by Emanuel COLLINS, “one of the strangest fellows that ever wore a cassock … clever and profligate” and Southey accuses him of “gross and scandalous misconduct”, saying that “he afterwards kept something so like an alehouse, that he got into a scrape with his superiors.”
Burke’s ‘A genealogical and heraldic dictionary of the landed gentry of Great Britain and Ireland‘ (1849) describes Emanuel COLLINS as “a man of wit and humour, as well as considerable literary attainments“; there is no mention here of his apparent penchant for conducting clandestine marriages. Although the marriages that took place at the Duke of Marlborough may have been irregular or clandestine, they were still conducted by a vicar, even if he may have been one who – according to John R. Gillis in For Better, for Worse: Bristol Marriages, 1600 to the Present (1985, Oxford University Press, p. 94) – “further supplemented his income by providing cakes and ale.”
Whilst the late Victorian newspapers focus solely on COLLINS as being morally reprehensible, the earlier accounts of Chilcott, Southey and Burke suggest perhaps some grudging admiration of COLLINS’ intellect, despite his perceived moral short-comings and maybe provide a more balanced representation of his character. There are certainly numerous sources here which point the finger at Emanuel COLLINS for conducting irregular marriage ceremonies, however finding evidence for this is another matter …
THE PARISH REGISTER OF ST. JOHN’S, BEDMINSTER
Emanuel COLLINS, the eccentric, sharp-witted and morally questionable vicar who allegedly conducted marriage ceremonies at the Duke of Marlborough public house was not the vicar of the local parish. From 1744, the Prebendary of Bedminster and Redcliffe was Thomas BROUGHTON, whose literary contributions – unlike those of COLLINS – were sufficient to warrant an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. BROUGHTON’s achievements included writing librettos for Handel, contributing articles to Biographia Britannica and translating the work of Voltaire. It is unlikely that this scholarly vicar was unaware of COLLINS’ practices; perhaps the “mild, cheerful and liberal temper” and promotion of “Christian virtue at its most generous” attributed to him provided for some degree of tolerance for the irregular marriages taking place in his parish.
To what extent were the marriage recorded in the parish register during this period entirely valid and legal? Polly Morris, in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, gives the example of Margaret HOBBS and her older half-brother, John HOBBS, who lived together at Hemington after the death of their father, Richard, in 1747 in a paper discussing marriage within the prohibited degrees in Somerset. They were cited to Wells Court in 1754 and accused of committing “adultery, incontinence, or fornication” and admitted to having had a ‘bastard’ child, with Margaret subsequently required to perform penance at Hemington. The churchwardens subsequently instigated an incest cause against the couple, who were alleged to have married at Bedminster in July 1751, but no proof of the marriage was provided and the case did not proceed. There is a marriage (by licence) for John HOBBES and Margret HOBBES documented in the parish register at Bedminster on 30 October 1752 which seems likely to be a record of the event in question, albeit a year or so after the alleged date. This can be found in the ‘Bristol, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812’ record set on Ancestry.
The parish register for St. John records whether marriages were by licence or by banns and this reveals something quite interesting. From January 1749/50 to December 1753 there were 181 marriages recorded in the parish register; 44 by banns and 137 by licence. From January 1755 to December 1758 there were just 85 marriages recorded; 64 by banns and 21 by licence.
So we see that either side of the year in which the Marriage Act was enacted, there is a marked difference in both the number of marriages in the parish and the split between marriages by licence and marriages by banns. That this can be attributed to the Marriage Act becomes even clearer when we consider marriages in 1754. Prior to the Act coming into force on 25 March 1754, there were 23 marriages in Bedminster; 4 by banns and 19 by licence. For the remaining nine months of the year, after the Act was in force, there were only 15 marriages recorded in the parish register; 12 by banns and 3 by licence.
The parish register also records the officiating minister at each marriage during this period. COLLINS’ name, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not feature, but there are also very few entries for marriages conducted by BROUGHTON. The majority of the marriages for this period attributed to the curates Samuel GILES or Humphrey Brent COOPEY.
THE PARISH REGISTER OF ST. MARY, REDCLIFFE
Until 1852, St. Mary, Redcliffe was a daughter church of St. John, Bedminster and shared the same clergy. Consulting the marriage register there shows that BROUGHTON did not concern himself with conducting marriages there very often either, leaving the majority once again to the curates.
From January 1749/50 to December 1753 there were 233 marriages recorded in the parish register at St. Mary, Redcliffe, however of these 146 were by banns and only 87 by licence. From January 1755 to December 1758 there were 143 marriages recorded; 96 by banns and 47 by licence.
So although the daughter church sees a similar reduction in the total number of marriages recorded after the Marriage Act, the split between marriages by banns and marriages by licence remains quite constant. In 1754 there were 13 marriages prior to the Act coming into force; 11 by banns and 2 by licence. For the remainder of that year there were 17 marriages, of which 12 were by banns and 5 by licence.
If we compare the 48 month period from January 1749/50 to December 1753 with the 48 month period from January 1755 to December 1758 for both parishes in terms of percentage split between banns and licences, it is evident that, while the daughter church St. Mary, Redcliffe remains fairly consistent, there is a remarkable shift at St. John, Bedminster.
St. Mary Redcliffe records marriages with 62.7% banns / 37.3% licences in the pre Marriage Act period, compared with 67.1% banns / 32.9% licences in the post Marriage Act period.
St. John, Bedminster, by contrast, has 24.3% banns / 75.7% licences in the pre Marriage Act period, compared with 75.3% banns / 24.7% licences in the post Marriage Act period.
WHAT CONCLUSIONS CAN BE DRAWN FROM THIS?
These two churches were the responsibility of the same clergy. St. Mary, Redcliffe is in central Bristol; the church recently featured in the first episode of series 3 of A House Through Time. St. John, Bedminster, by contrast, at that time catered for a market town in Somerset which was yet to undergo the expansion and subsequent shift to being a suburb of Bristol that would come in the nineteenth century. The church is no longer extant, having been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. So there were, no doubt, different demographics in these two parishes. Bedminster was not a wealthy town, but did attract people from the villages of north Somerset as a marriage venue. This, however, does not seem to be a sufficient explanation for the number of marriages by licence that took place there before the 1753 Marriage Act.
Could it be, perhaps that the marriages conducted by Emanuel COLLINS at the Duke of Marlborough have been entered in the parish register at St. John, Bedminster? It seems unlikely but is perhaps not entirely outside the realms of possibility. I would be reluctant to promote that hypothesis as fact, however, without further research, which would almost certainly require a visit to Bristol Archives (closed at the time of writing). It would be an interesting study to research the couples who married at Bedminster during this period, whether they were of that parish or from elsewhere and what, if anything, about their circumstances might provide a clue to the preference for marriage by licence.
In the meantime, if you have a marriage in your family tree that took place by licence at Bedminster prior to the 1753 Marriage Act coming into force, you might perhaps wish to consider the possibility that the ceremony was in fact conducted by Emanuel COLLINS at the Duke of Marlborough pub, with cake and ale for the wedding breakfast.
Is that the end of the matter? One might think so, but Bedminster wasn’t done with clandestine marriages just yet …
Although we do not have names and details of individual households to consult from the 1811 census, there is still some data available which proves quite enlightening. The Parish Register Abstract for the Hundred of Hartcliffe and Bedminster in 1811 – available via Google Books – notes that the number of marriages proportionate to population size elsewhere in Somerset at this time would mean we might expect 35 or 36 marriages per year at Bedminster, but that the average number taking place there each year at this time is 139. The footnote says that: “this receives full explanation from the remarks of the Clergymen of the northern part of Somersetshire, most of whom complain of the practice of clandestine marriages at Bedminster.” What could be happening here?
To find out more, read Part 2 …