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.’
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.
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My 7 x great grandfather Gregory Wright, a gentleman who ran a successful stable and coach business, featured in two court trials. The first trial took place on 22 February 1752 at the London Sessions where Gregory gave the following evidence.
‘Gregory Wright on his Oath Saith That On or about the Fourteenth of January Instant Two Coach Door Glasses was discovered to be Stolen out of a Coach House at the Bell and Tunn Inn, Fleet Street. Aforesaid the property of William Chamberlain, esq.’
The report continued with the suggestion that the thief tried to sell the coach glasses for twenty shillings, approximately £120 in today’s money.
The second trial, for perjury, took place on 8 April 1752 at the Old Bailey. Trials in those days were usually brief affairs, over in a matter of minutes. However, this trial received a number of witnesses and ran for some time. Details from the Old Bailey website https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/
‘Thomas Ashley, was indicted for wilful and corrupt perjury on the trial of Joseph Goddard in swearing he met Simons the Jew near Brentford-turnpike, and asked him to drink a pint of beer, that he then took hold of his beard in a joke, that the Jew held up his staff and struck him, that after that he throw’d the Jew in a ditch and scratched him in the bushes, and flung a stone which fell on his head and broke it three weeks before, Sept. 11.’
Henry Simons gave evidence through an interpreter and insisted that no one had harmed him, therefore suggesting that Thomas Ashley had committed perjury at Joseph Goddard’s trial. In his evidence, Henry Simons mentioned the Rose and Crown, an inn later owned by my Brereton ancestors.
Lettice Sergeant also gave evidence and mentioned the Rose and Crown, ‘on this side of the turnpike on Smallbury-green’. She lodged there ‘from the latter end of April to Michaelmas Day.’ She stated that Ashley was drunk, that insults were offered, but that no violence took place.
Gregory Wright gave evidence. He stated, ‘I live at the Temple-Muse, Fleet-street, White Fryars, on the 21st of August last, I set out from my house after one o’clock, for Newberry-Fair by myself, till I came on the other side Hammersmith, there Mr. Pain and Mr. Mercer overtook me; we lay at Maidenhead that night; we continued in company till we came to Newberry; upon out going between the Coach and Horses, on the other side Brentford, and the Rose and Crown Alehouse, before we came at the Turnpike, I saw one man pursuing another; we might be about two hundred yards from the Rose and Crown Alehouse; I saw it was a Foreigner by his dress, that was pursued, which made me anxious to enquire what was the matter; the man behind called out stop Thief! stop Thief! which I believe to be the prisoner at the bar; when the Jew got to us, he got between Mr. Pain’s horse and mine; the drunken man, the pursuer, scrambled up near, we kept him back, the drunken man said he is a rogue and a villain; we desired he’d tell us what he had done; he said he has drank my beer and ran away, and would not pay for it; said I if that he all, let the poor man go about his business, and what is to pay, I’ll pay it; no said he, he would not, and made a scuffle to come at the Jew; I took particular notice of the Jew, he made signs holding his hand up to his beard, we said he should desist; then he (Ashley) said to me, you have robbed me, said I if this is the case you are a villain, and if you say so again I’ll horse-whip you; we stopped him there till the Jew got near to the houses at Brentford; he was very near turning the corner where the bridge is; I believe on my oath, the Jew was at least two-hundred yards off; I turned myself on my horse, half britch, to see whether he was secure, the drunken man swore and cursed, and used many bad words; there came a woman and took hold on him, she seem’d to be his wife, she desired him to go back: he fell down, then Mr. Pain said, the man (Simons) is safe enough; the last woman that gave evidence told me nothing was the matter, that the Jew did nothing to him, he had drank none of his beer, but refused it, and that he made an attempt to pull him by the beard, with that we advanced towards the Crown Alehouse, I, and I believe Mr. Pain, stopt with me; there was the woman that was examined first, I asked her what was the matter, she said no thing at all; I said if there is anything to pay for beer that that poor Jew has drank, I am ready to pay for it; she said the Jew did no harm to the man, nor drank none of his beer.’
Question: ‘Had there been a stone throw’d?’
Gregory Wright: ‘I saw none throw’d, and believe the man was so drunk that he was not able to pursue or over-take him: I saw the woman at the door the time they were running, they crossed the road backwards and forwards; the Jew kept, it may be, fifteen or twenty yards before him, I kept my eye upon them from the first of the calling out stop thief!’
On his cross examination Gregory Wright said, ‘When we first heard the alarm, we believed the Jew might be within fifty yards of the alehouse, and the others about two-hundred yards from the Rose and Crown alehouse; that they were nearer that than the Coach and Horses; that they met the Jew about two-hundred yards on this side of the Rose and Crown alehouse; that we saw no blood or mark at all on the Jew, that he made no such complaint or sign to his head, but said my beard, and sign’d to it.’
Other witnesses agreed that although the mood was threatening no violence took place and that on the whole the community were protective of Henry Simons.
Question to Mr. Wright again. ‘How came you to know of this trial to give your evidence?’
Gregory Wright. ‘I was waiting at the door of the grand jury last sessions, to find a bill against a person (the stolen coach glasses); as I was leaning over the rails, I heard Lettice Sergeant talking about the affair of this Jew; the Jew I observed looked me out of countenance; I asked his interpreter what he look’d at me so hard for, he said he believed he knew me. The woman said she was come to support the cause of this poor unhappy man, and added, that in August last there were four gentlemen coming on the road when he was pursued, and he has made all the enquirey he can to find them out, and can’t find any of them; said I what time in August? she said the 21st; I look’d at the Jew, and saw he was the same man; I ask’d his interpreter whether he was pursued by any man, he said yes, he was; I said to the woman, I know the men, by which means I was brought to the grand jury about this affair; this bill and mine were in together.’
Question to Mr. Wright. ‘Did you, or any of you, tell this witness the drunken man had thrown the Jew into the ditch?’
Gregory Wright: ‘When this witness said so, it gave me a shock: we neither of us told him so. I saw Ashley down: there were none but women at that man’s house when we came there.’
Other witnesses, including thirteen-year-old Edward Beacham supported the testimony offered by Gregory Wright, while Martha James stated that Thomas Ashley was drunk, and that ‘I never saw a man so drunk in my life.’
Sentence: Thomas Ashley, to stand once in the pillory at the gate of the Sessions House for the space of one hour, between the hours of twelve and one, and imprison’d during twelve months, after which to be transported for seven years.
This trial offers an insight into the local community, the legal system and Gregory’s character. He was protective of Henry Simons and was willing to meet any expense incurred by Simons at the inn. Gregory was obviously a kind and principled man; an ancestor to be proud of.