Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a Penny Wedding

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THE ancient parish church of St. Mildred-in-the-Marsh is situate in about as mean and miserable a neighbourhood as can be imagined. It lies back but a little way from the shops and hucksters' stalls of a cheap and nasty market-place, and a shoeblack and a sweetstuf-seller have their unmolested stations on the steps of it. Out o' workers and hulkers lean their lazy shoulders against its pillars and smoke short pipes. If any one were to put to you the question at which of the London churches would you least like to be married, supposing you to be acquainted with the edifice in question, you would without hesitation reply "St. Mildred's-in-the-Marsh."
    Yet, strange to relate, the number of marriages there celebrated are as ten to one compared with any other church for miles round. At most other churches a wedding is an uncommon event happening on a week-day - a spectacle calculated to cause an obstruction of the Queen's highway, and to excite much curiosity and commotion. Likewise, in most poor neighbourhoods there appears to exist considerable doubt and uncertainty as to whether the solemnization of marriage is a sight to which the public are admitted. Half the number of persons who hang about the gates and jostle and elbow to catch a glimpse of the bride, would enter the sacred edifice if they were clear as to their right to do so, but what with the church being only partially open, and the proud and haughty [-289-] bearing of the bridegroom, who mounts the steps for all the world as if they were those of his own private mansion, and he was about to take up his blissful residence there for ever and ever, and the inhospitable and resentful countenance of the beadle, who scowls on the curious looker-on, and conducts himself generally as though he were the haughty one's footman, they are overawed, and meekly keep their places; only the more juvenile portion of the assemblage venturing to "take it out" of the bridegroom when he reappears, looking not unfrequently as though he had somehow mislaid his title to the family mansion, and would have given something considerable had he been permitted to escape, sheepish and perspiring, by a back way.
    There is none of this nonsense of affectation about the majority of the customers of St. Mildred-in-the-Marsh, however. Neither going in or coming out can they be justly accused of sheepishness; indeed, they are, as a rule, cool and businesslike, as though, having paid a deposit on the purchase of a donkey or a handsome barrow, they were just going in with their witnesses to settle the bargain. It is no doubt a very shocking thing to say, but there can be no doubt that many of them enter on the solemn contract with no more elevated thought or feeling or consciousness of the tremendous responsibility they are about to undertake, than would accompany a transaction of the kind mentioned; and, as may easily be imagined, the most disastrous consequences may ensue. Over-zeal is seriously to blame in this matter, of which the system pursued in the parish of St. Mildred furnishes an apt illustration.
    The court and alley dwellers of St. Mildred may be reckoned in thousands, and amongst them the standard of morality as regards the institution of matrimony is of exactly the height of a broomstick, and no higher. Not that they despise the ceremony, or are unwilling to engage in it, indeed - and as I have [-290-] had occasion ere now to point out, once consummated they are curiously proud of it, and go to the expense of buying a frame in which to display the certificate which vouches for the fact, hanging it against the most conspicuous part of the chamber - under the clock being the spot preferred; but the marriage fee daunts them. There are two shillings for the banns, and ten or twelve for the parson, and a shilling for the pew-opener, and another for the beadle-(it is curious how the class of persons alluded to reckon on these two shillings as part and parcel of the marriage fees), fourteen or sixteen shillings in all, and for what? The costermonger has never money to waste on what in his heathenish eyes appear as luxuries. At the best of times, which of course is in the fruit season, he never has a pound to "chuck away," as he expresses it. He is too business-like and speculative for such a thing to happen - too fond of investing and laying out his money to the best advantage. If his pinnacle of joy could not be attained without the intervention of the "gentleman who puts the banns up," and the parson and his clerk, the operations would he submitted to with manly resignation; but since the lady is of a business-like turn of mind, and economical too, and with very little persuasion can be brought to see that sixteen shillings invested in four bushels of damsons will of a certainty yield a more ready profit than the same amount laid out in a bit of paper no bigger than your hand, why, no more can be said about it-except, of course, that it discovers a frightful depravity of morals which cannot be too persistently preached against.
    Towards altering this detestable condition of affairs, certain good men of St. Mildred's have taken prompt and determined measures. They give the court and alley dwellers distinctly to understand that so far as they are concerned marriage fees are abolished, and that any Jack and Jill taking it into their heads have only to step round the corner, and give notice of banns - [-291-] without a penny to pay - and three weeks afterwards they may march into church, and be made man and wife, and no one, not even the beadle or the pew-opener, will ask them for a farthing And on the face of it, it would seem that such a scheme could not work otherwise than well, but in so serious a matter it is worth while to inquire somewhat deeper. Bad as the old system, "if you'll take me, why I'll take you," may be, there was this security about it since the pair concerned had no other after-hold on each other, it was scarcely likely that they would come together until the woman was tolerably well assured of the ability of the man of her choice to maintain her in something like comfort, while he, unless, as is scarcely likely, he exercised less discrimination over the transaction than he would over the purchase of a sieve of gooseberries, would take care to acquaint himself with some particulars of the lady's character and temper. As a rule, of the two contracting parties she would be found to observe the greatest amount of shrewdness and caution, since the law, having no sympathy with such illegitimate business, leaves her pretty much to her own devices, and after their left-handed marriage is consummated, however obstinate and brutal her left-handed husband may prove, she has no other weapons wherewith to control and keep him in order - always supposing her to be the weaker vessel in a physical sense, which possibly in this case is a rule subject to very many exceptions - but kindly influences and persuasion. Breaking in on this condition of things comes the house-to-house preacher, backed by the minister of the parish, offering to make any number of them who may feel inclined man and wife in the regular orthodox and legal fashion, without fee or reward, and no questions asked. "Don't say 'I am too shabby to appear at church to be married'"  - (this I know to be the language of a well-intentioned City missionary, while urging the matter to a shilly-shallying pair who, as I believe my friend had grounds for suspecting, meditated coming together after the old [-292-] and iniquitous method- "don't say 'How can Polly get married in her old print frock and with boots wanting soling and heeling; let her come as she is, and you come in your flannel jacket, you will be as welcome as if you came in silk and broadcloth." This may perhaps be no great temptation to hold out to the man, but since it without doubt is a temptation, it is as broad as it is long - and broader, as the Irish saying is. In Polly's case, while flash Jack, with his great throat encircled by a bird's-eye "Kingsman of irresistible pattern, and the latest and most "nobby" invention in smoked pearl buttons adorn ing his fustian jacket, is urging his suit, Polly may be thinking, "Ah it's all very well just now, Master Jackey; you're all a nice cove, and one as I should be proud on - if it lasted; but I've heard about your sort, and it ain't a lastin' sort. Bilin' hot love is werry well, only it has a way of bilin' over and puttin' the fire out, and then, my lad, it's no better than cold coffee for a gal so long as she likes to stay with you, and stand to the drinkin' of it." Or on the other hand, Jack may be a spooney big boy - (they mate at a frightfully early age in these parts) -  all promise and bad prospects; in which case Polly, although she may like him very well, will certainly refuse to take up with him - at present, at least ; she will wait awhile, until he has shown himself capable of earning as much money as his fellows. "If you're of the same mind then as now," says Polly, "why, I don't care if I do."
    As before remarked, at this juncture in comes the offer to splice them creditably and legally at no expense whatever, and it furnishes sufficient reason for Polly to give her instant consent, whether Flash Jack or Spooney Jack be her suitor. "If he takes me for better or worse," she argues as regards F. J., "why, he'll have to stick to me ; it'll grow natural for him to stick to me if he's my reglar husband, and I'll have more hold on him to manage him;" or, in the case of S. J., she will reason, "He ain't much now, poor fellow, but if I have him [-293-] all square and 'spectable and with the 'lines' to show for it, it'll make him look sharp ; anyhow, it's nobody's business but our own, and we'll rub along somehow, I'll warrant." And, to the delight of the good-natured conspirators who are the marriage-fees out of pocket, the bargain is struck and the banns published forthwith.
    And Polly and Jack, provided she is not too prone on most trivial occasions to shake in his face, with scornful spite, the "lines" that bind him, may get along tolerably well. If it were proper at all that the balance should be turned in his favour, no better weight could effect the purpose than that embodied in the Seventh Commandment. It is in cases where this urging to get married in a decent and Christian manner is directed at a pack of scarce-grown boys and girls where the great mischief is to be feared. Everybody knows how mightily anxious young folk are to embark on the matrimonial ocean, without a thought as to the necessary outfit in the vicissitudes of the voyage, or its aim even: in such cases this offer of a free passage is peculiarly attractive. It is possible that they may accept it in much the same spirit as they would a present of n ticket for the play or a trip to Hampton Court, availing themselves of it at least quite as much out of love of pleasure and novelty as love of one another. If this be so, then the mischief sown is incalculable. "But," I think I hear my well-meaning friend the City missionary exclaim, "you are arguing in the dark you have no idea of the profligacy which exists amongst these young folk, as you term them ; but indeed they are shockingly old in vice. It is not to the single and absolutely free that we appeal, but to those, old or young, who should be married and are not. Surely you can confer no greater act of charity on such people than to bring them together and tie them by honest and Christians means?" No doubt this is for the most part true, and probably a great deal more might be urged on the one side; but as regards the other side I would be permitted [-294-] to suggest that marriage is not invariably a cure for profligacy - and that before now it has been found inexpedient to couple together creatures of a kind simply on the broad principle that creatures of a kind should be coupled together, irrespective of their various vices and foibles; and further, although to hurry people hot from their beds of sin to engage in an experimental moral journey may be excusable - even though slightly injudicious - the holy altar of God's Church is scarcely an appropriate starting-post. And further still, in bringing about marriage between the young people such as Polly and Jack, who, youthful as they are, are steeped as high as neck in those vices which usually pertain to their elders, is it not possible that you are forging and rivetting Jack or Polly, as the case may be, to that very staple of iniquity by which he or she first fell, and from which either might presently have happily slipped away but for your interference? You may by your mistaken kindness have harmed both for that matter, since each in the first instance must have furnished ingredients that brought about the consummation you so deplore - ingredients which of themselves may be comparatively harmless, but which blended work wreck and ruin as surely as gunpowder. It is not unlikely that by-and-by, being free to do so, they might have parted company and returned to their original condition; but what if you weld them irrevocably?