Meet the Collection: Clandestine Marriages

by Helen Young

Meet the Collection: Clandestine Marriages at Morden College Chapel, Blackheath

Morden college is a very fine building in Blackheath built by Sir John Morden c1695 as a charity to house 40 Levant merchants in their old age. The first chaplain for the chapel at Morden College was appointed in February 1701, but the chapel at Morden College has a more secret claim to fame. It was used in the first half of the 18th century to perform a very large number of marriages.

Considering the local population at the time and the presence of parish churches at Greenwich, Deptford, Charlton and Woolwich. The number of marriages at the chapel was exceptional, people came from far and wide to be married there and it has been described as " a kind of Gretna Green for Kent", people even came down from London. Between 1714–1759 no less than 437 marriages were solemnized at the chapel. In 1752 there were 42 marriages and 1753 there were 41 marriages, the chapel was offering Clandestine marriages!

Marriages conducted by an ordained clergyman, but without banns or licence, usually away from the parish of the bride or groom were known as clandestine marriages. Clandestine marriages were done in private and were popular for many reasons, because of disapproval by the family of the proposed marriage, cost, not needing to obtain parental consent, and to conceal pregnancies.

But this all came to an end on 25 March 1754, clandestine marriages were made illegal by Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act; the wedding ceremony now had to take place in a Church and couples had to be 21 years of age to marry without the consent of their parents, previously the age had been 16. Records show the trustees of the College made a grant of an extra £6 to the Chaplain, John Plymley, " to make up for loss of fees arising from clandestine marriages, now stopped by Act of Parliament." The living for the Chaplain at Morden College was good by all accounts, and although John Plymley would have shared the Chaplain's fees for these marriages with the rector of Charlton, as Morden College was in his parish, it would still have been a very nice side line! Clergymen who disobeyed the law were liable for 14 years transportation, so another good reason to stop.

Couples were still able to travel to other areas where the act did not apply such as in Scotland (Gretna Green), or to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

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