Fleet Prison - Encyclopedia

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FLEET PRISON, an historic London prison, formerly situated on the east side of Farringdon Street, and deriving its name from the Fleet stream, which flowed into the Thames. Concerning its early history little is known, but it certainly dated back to Norman times. It came into particular prominence from being used as a place of reception for persons committed by the Star Chamber, and, afterwards, for debtors, and persons imprisoned for contempt of court by the court of chancery. It was burnt down in the great fire of 1666; it was rebuilt, but was destroyed in the Gordon riots of 1780 and again rebuilt in 1781-1782. In pursuance of an act of parliament (5 & 6 Vict. c. 22, 1842), by which the Marshalsea, Fleet, and Queen's Bench prisons were consolidated into one under the name of Queen's prison, it was finally closed, and in 1844 sold to the corporation of the city of London, by whom it was pulled down. The head of the prison was termed "the warden," who was appointed by patent. It became a frequent practice of the holder of the patent to "farm out" the prison to the highest bidder. It was this custom which made the Fleet prison long notorious for the cruelties inflicted on prisoners. One purchaser of the office was of particularly evil repute, by name Thomas Bambridge, who in 1728 paid, with another, the sum of £3000 to John Huggins for the wardenship. He was guilty of the greatest extortions upon prisoners, and, in the words of a committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the state of the gaols of the kingdom, "arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons, and destroyed prisoners for debt, treating them in the most barbarous and cruel manner, in high violation and contempt of the laws of this kingdom." He was committed to Newgate, and an act was passed to prevent his enjoying the office of warden or any other office whatsoever. The liberties or rules of the Fleet were the limits within which particular prisoners were allowed to reside outside the prison walls on observing certain conditions.

Fleet Marriages

By the law of England a marriage was recognized as valid, so long as the ceremony was conducted by a person in holy orders, even if those orders were not of the Church of England. Neither banns nor licence were necessary, and the time and place were alike immaterial. Out of this state of the marriage law, in the period of laxness which succeeded the Commonwealth, resulted innumerable clandestine marriages. They were contracted at first to avoid the expenses attendant on the public ceremony, but an act of 1696, which imposed a penalty of £too on any clergyman who celebrated, or permitted another to celebrate, a marriage otherwise than by banns or licence, acted as a considerable check. To clergymen imprisoned for debt in the Fleet, however, such a penalty had no terrors, for they had "neither liberty, money nor credit to lose by any proceedings the bishop might institute against them." The earliest recorded date of a Fleet marriage is 1613, while the earliest recorded in a Fleet register took place in 1674, but it was only on the prohibition of marriage without banns or licence that they began to be clandestine. Then arose keen competition, and "many of the Fleet parsons and tavern-keepers in the neighbourhood fitted up a room in their respective lodgings or houses as a chapel," and employed touts to solicit custom for them. The scandal and abuses brought about by these clandestine marriages became so great that they became the object of special legislation. In 1753 Lord Hardwicke's Act (26 Geo. ii. c. 33) was passed, which required, under pain of nullity, that banns should be published according to the rubric, or a licence obtained, and that, in either case, the marriage should be solemnized in church; and that in the case of minors, marriage by licence must be by the consent of parent or guardian. This act had the effect of putting a stop to these clandestine marriages, so far as England was concerned, and henceforth couples had to fare to Gretna Green.

The Fleet Registers, consisting of "about two or three hundred large registers" and about a thousand rough or "pocket" books, eventually came into private hands, but were purchased by the government in 1821, and are now deposited in the office of the registrar-general, Somerset House. Their dates range from 1686 to 1754. In 1840 they were declared not admissible as evidence to prove a marriage.

Authorities.-J. S. Burn, The Fleet Registers; comprising the History of Fleet Marriages, and some Account of the Parsons and Marriage-house Keepers, &c. (London, 1833); J. Ashton, The Fleet: its River, Prison and Marriages (London, 1888).

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