Marriages For Free

In 1852 the Reverend E.F. Coke was instituted as vicar of the parish of St. James the Great, Bethnal Green. Situated in the Bethnal Green Road and known locally as the Red Church from the colour of its brickwork, it was one of the ten new district churches built to servea poor and deprived working class area originally served by the old parish church of St. Matthew. Only a few years before the arrival of Mr. Coke another local incumbent had told a Commission of Enquiry that he would not bring his family 'to live among such a fornicating, gin swilling rabble!' Other Anglican parish priests in the area during that period would I think have expressed themselves more sensitively and elegantly. However there is no doubt that a living in Bethnal Green was no comfortable sinecure for a clergyman of the Church of England.

The new Vicar of St. James the Great, which is not to be confused with St. James the less which served a more up market area of Bethnal Green adjoining Victoria Park, was shocked to discover that many couples living together in his parish were unmarried. He decided that a major reason for such laxity was that, because of their poverty, many of his parishioners could not afford the wedding fee and so remained unmarried.

Determined to put an end to this unsatisfactory state of affairs, Mr. Coke decided to abolish Wedding fees at his church: by doing so he believed that unmarried couples would be encouraged to legalise their unions. Others contemplating marriage would not be deterred by the necessity of finding the customary fee.

At that time there was no standard level for "surplice fees". The statutory regulation of church fees began with the Church Building Acts of 1818-1884 whereby the Commissioners responsible for administering these Acts were empowered to fix a table of fees for any particular parish. In 1848 under the New Parish Act, the diocesan chancellor also acquired the powers to fix a table of fees for particular parishes. It would seem that a table of fees had not been fixed for St. James the Great, Bethnal Green and no doubt Mr. Coke charged the fees that were customary when he arrived in the parish.

However Mr. Coke was not inclined to abolish fees at his own expense, perhaps he could not afford to do so. Estimating that his fees should be £50 a year he set about raising a fund which would compensate him for his loss of income.

By dint of perseverance in advertising in The Times and elsewhere, he raised a sufficient capital sum which when invested, would produce the income that would enable him to abolish wedding fees at the Red Church. Other local incumbents were not at all pleased by their brother clergymans initiative in this matter. With the support of the Bishop of London a protest was made in The Times. Despite the protest Mr. Coke continued with his plan and marriages were solemnized free at St. James the Great from Easter 1865.

Of course no clergyman of the Church of England had any legal right, except by special license to marry a couple unless one of them resided in the parish. If the marriage was by Banns, then, these needed to be called three times in the Parish Church of each of the parties. There seems to be little doubt that the law was not complied with at the Red Church. It would seem that few questions were asked of those seeking marriage at the Parish Church of St. James the Great. The result was that people came in large numbers from other parts of London for a free wedding.

The writer of an article in a journal named "The Hour", in the issue of December 1875 wrote as follows: "We visited this church a few weeks ago in the decidedly dull marrying season, but even then the number of Banns published for the first, second or third time amounted to 80 as numerous by the way as the congregation, which consisted mainly of old women. No shamefaced youth or blushing maiden could we discover to be present as the names were read out. No information was given as to whether the party named was bachelor or spinster, widower or widow, nor whether they were of this parish. At that time the parish had a population of 4,500. The writer of the article estimated the number of marriages solemnized in the church at 1500 per annum. I found this figure hard to accept, but on reading a report made to the Bishop of London in 1868 by special commissioners appointed to obtain 'precice information', I found the facts to be as follows.

In 1864 the year preceding the introduction of free weddings there were 108 marriages. From January to Easter 1865 there were 28, in the remainder of that year 369 couples were married. In 1866 the number was 1105 and in 1867 the total was 1208. Clearly Mr. Coke did take the law into his own hands by marrying couples without proper residential qualifications.

At the time of which I am writing weddings in the churches of populous East London were often taken in batches, ten or a dozen at a time. At holiday times such as Christmas and Easter the number of couples could be higher. This practice certainly continued into the 1930s. When I was Rector of Poplar (1964­73) I met several parishioners who were married in this way. Before being too critical of the practice we need to remember that the permitted hours were shorter, working hours were longer and holidays for the poorer working people were for the most part non-existent. The ceremony itself would have been simple and without benefit of choir and organ. Very many weddings would have taken place at Christmas or Easter and only by marrying couples in groups could the numbers have been dealt with.

Today the Parish of St. James the Great, Bethnal Green no longer exists; the Red Church was declared redundant in 1982 and since then the building has been converted into flats. In 1981 the last complete year of its life, only one marriage took place in the church and in the years 1978 and 1979 two apiece.

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