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Dear Reader #103

Dear Reader,

Published on 5 June 2021, many thanks to everyone who has placed Operation Sherlock, Eve’s War book five, in the top thirty hot new releases.

Currently, I’m storyboarding The Olive Tree: Leaves, book three in my Spanish Civil War saga. This story centres on the Battle of Brunete (6–25 July 1937) and a race against time to evacuate children before the fascists controlled the northern Spanish ports.

Map credit: Wikipedia

Several branches of my family came from the West Country. This is Avon Street, Bath, Somerset 1880, a street that must have been familiar to some of them.

Mapping My Ancestors

Maps Five and Six: 1750 – 1800

New counties on Map Five are Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Cheshire. Various ancestors from these counties either moved to London or married someone from London during this period. 

On Map Six my Canadian ancestors emigrated to that country from Yorkshire and Durham while a branch of my family moved to Cheshire from the Netherlands, possibly in connection with the cloth trade. Several branches of my family established plantations in Barbados and one ancestor was ‘Born at Sea’. The exact location wasn’t recorded, but I suspect it was during a journey from the West Indies to Britain. More research required. Captains used to fire their guns to ‘encourage’ women to give birth, hence ‘son of a gun.’

My  7 x great grandmother Sarah Wildsmith was born in London in 1698 to affluent parents. On 23 October 1719 she married Philip Spooner, a ‘gentleman’. However, an air of mystery surrounds the marriage for it was a Clandestine Marriage, a Fleet Marriage, pictured.

A Fleet Marriage was an example of an irregular or Clandestine Marriage that took place in England before the Marriage Act of 1753. Specifically, it was a marriage that took place in London’s Fleet Prison or its environs during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

By the 1740s up to 6,000 marriages a year were taking place in the Fleet area, compared with 47,000 marriages 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. The social status of the couples varied. Some were criminals, others were poor. Some were wealthy while many simply sought a quick or secret marriage for numerous personal reasons.

Sarah and Philip’s marriage was recorded in the ‘Registers of Clandestine Marriages and of Baptisms in the Fleet Prison, King’s Bench Prison, the Mint and the Mayfair Chapel.’ I assume the couple were married in Mayfair Chapel. However, maybe not because in 1729 Philip found himself in a debtors’ prison.

Debtors’ prisons were a common way to deal with unpaid debts. Destitute people who could not pay a court-ordered judgment were incarcerated in these prisons until they had worked off their debt or secured outside funds to pay the balance. 

In England, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000 people were imprisoned for debt each year. However, a prison term did not alleviate a person’s debt; an inmate was typically required to repay the creditor in full before their release.

In England and Wales debtors’ prisons varied in the amount of freedom they allowed the debtor. Through his family’s financial support a debtor could pay for certain freedoms; some prisons allowed inmates to conduct business and to receive visitors while others even allowed inmates to live a short distance outside the prison, a practice known as the ‘Liberty of the Rules.’

A mid-Victorian depiction of the debtors’ prison

Along with the embarrassment for the family, life in these prisons was unpleasant. Often, single cells were occupied by a mixture of gentlemen, violent criminals and labourers down on their luck. Conditions were unsanitary and disease was rife.

Many notable people found themselves in a debtors’ prison including Charles Dickens’ father, John. Later, Dickens became an advocate for debt prison reform, and his novel Little Dorrit dealt directly with this issue.

More tragedy befell Sarah in 1729 when Philip died, possibly from gaol fever contracted at the prison. Gaol fever, was common in English prisons. These days, we believe it was a form of typhus. The disease spread in dark, dirty rooms where prisoners were crowded together allowing lice to spread easily.

Alone, and in financial difficulties, Sarah had to regroup and rebuild her life, which she did.

Sarah’s fortunes changed in 1731 when she married Gregory Wright, my direct ancestor. Gregory was also a ‘gentleman’ running a successful stable and coach business. Once again, the marriage was registered in the ‘Registers of Clandestine Marriages and of Baptisms in the Fleet Prison, King’s Bench Prison, the Mint and the Mayfair Chapel.’

Sarah’s Fleet Marriages raise the question: were her husbands in debt when she married them? With Philip Spooner this is a possibility because he did end his days in a debtors’ prison. However, the records suggest that Gregory Wright ran a successful coaching business and that debt was not an aspect of his life. Wealthy people participated in Fleet Marriages, especially if they sought secrecy or a quick marriage. It would appear that Sarah’s marriage to Gregory Wright fell into that category.

For Sarah and Gregory a child followed in 1739, my 6 x great grandfather William Wright, born in St Dunstan in the West, London. At last, Sarah had found contentment. However, drama followed in 1752 when Gregory featured in two trials at the Old Bailey. More about them next time.

As ever, thank you for your interest and support.

Hannah xxx

Bestselling psychological and historical mysteries from £0.99. Paperbacks, brand new in mint condition 🙂
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2 replies on “Dear Reader #103”

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