‘In 1666, during the Great Fire of London, it burned down on the third day of the fire, the prisoners fleeing in the last moments.’

Fleet Prison was a notorious London prison by the side of the River Fleet. The prison was built in 1197, was rebuilt several times, and was in use until 1844. They demolished it in 1846. It was the most infamous and largest of England’s medieval prisons. It was the Kings own prison, were anyone who held debts to the King would be sentenced. During the 18th century, Fleet Prison was mainly used for debtors and bankrupts.

It usually contained about 300 prisoners and their families. For the well off, Fleet Prison was the prison of choice, to such an extent that if sentenced to another prison for debt or other misdemeanours, they would claim to owe the King money to try to get transferred to Fleet.

What made Fleet so attractive to the rich was the famed ‘Liberty of the Fleet.’ If an inmate could afford to pay the Warden, they didn’t even have to stay in the Prison, but could live in an area outside the walls. For all intents and purposes, these were private dwellings, and it was illegal for the Warden to enter without permission of the prisoner. The Fleet also allowed prisoners to even travel abroad and go about their business while paying the Warden. This was ended in 1697.

This was such a problem for Parliament they passed a law in the 17th century. If you tried to transfer to Fleet after being sentenced, you would have to complete your first sentence. In the original prison, you were sentenced too, before you would be transferred to the Fleet Prison.

The vicinities surrounding Fleet Prison were a popular place to marry in secret from about 1613 until 1754. But why was this? Firstly, there was a considerable demand for covert marriages for a number of reasons, such as parents forbidding marriage or one of the couple wishing to hide a previous marriage.

The only problem stopping these marriages from taking place was that legal marriage was only possible through either banns or license. The first method meant they would make the imminent marriage public, and the latter method was expensive. Neither method was therefore particularly suitable. What was required was somewhere to perform the ceremony without breaking the law, and without costing a fortune.

The streets surrounding Fleet Prison were such a place. They had one particularly rare quality in that they were outside the jurisdiction of the Church, giving them the name the Rules of the Fleet, known as the ‘Liberties of the Fleet.’

This led to the situation where clergymen in the prison, who needed money to pay off their debts and be released, who were free to wander about within a small area which was exempt from the laws of the Church.

It didn’t take them long to realise they could pay their way out of prison by marrying secretive couples, without breaking any Church law. The word slowly got around, and eloping couples began to pay to be married in the prison chapel, or in alehouses, and other places of ill-repute within the Rules.

By the eighteenth century, thousands of marriages were taking place this way. Comprising as many as half of the total marriages in London during the 1740s. A truly shocking statistic. Yet it was entirely legal, because the only absolute necessity for a marriage to take place was the presence of a Church of England clergyman.

The boundary of the Liberties of the Fleet included the north side of Ludgate Hill, the Old Bailey to Fleet Lane and along it until the Fleet Market, and ran alongside the prison to Ludgate Hill.

During the 1740s, up to 6,000 marriages a year were taking place in the Fleet area. Compared with 47,000 in England as a whole. One estimate suggests that there were between 70 and 100 clergymen working in the Fleet area between 1700 and 1753. It was not merely a marriage centre for criminals and the poor, however: both rich and poor availed themselves of the opportunity to marry quickly or in secret.

The practise finally ended in 1754, following the introduction of Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, which banned marrying outside an Anglican church unless you were a Jew or Quaker. As with any other church, the chapels mentioned above were required to keep records of each marriage, and some of these still survive today. However, if your ancestors were married in an alehouse, it may be a different story!

In 1666, during the Great Fire of London, it burned down on the third day of the fire; the prisoners fleeing in the last moments. After the fire, the warden of the prison, Sir Jeremy Whichcote, purchased Caron House in Lambeth in order to house the prison’s debtors. Whichcote then rebuilt the prison on the original site at his own expense.

There is suspicion that many illicit matches took place against the will of one or other of the parties. But judging from the number of unions made it seems more likely that the ability to marry without parental consent might well have been the more common motivation.

Crime Fiction Books by Paul Asling:

MY NOVELS WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH, CRY, AND HAVE YOU GRIPPED. I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers. 

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