Heritage: When a shotgun wedding in Barking cost just £2

The couple were married at St Margaret's Parish Church in Barking. Picture: Ken Mears

The couple were married at St Margaret's Parish Church in Barking. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Professor Ged Martin looks back 250 years at a shotgun wedding in Barking

The wedding breakfast was at the Bull Inn, pictured here much later in 1953. Picture: courtesy of Va

The wedding breakfast was at the Bull Inn, pictured here much later in 1953. Picture: courtesy of Valence House Museum - Credit: Archant

It’s around 250 years since Ann Knight was hustled to the altar at Barking’s ancient parish church, and told to love, honour and obey the father of her child.

Local historian Dr J.E. Oxley transcribed the details, but we don’t have a precise date.

Nowadays, women have an absolute right to decide how to respond to an unplanned pregnancy.

But in the 18th century, attitudes were different. Each parish was responsible for taking care of its own poor people. A single mother would hit local ratepayers in their pockets.

Barking was a huge parish. It included Ilford and stretched right up to Hainault Forest – that’s why Barkingside is so far from Barking town.

Ann lived at “ye forrist side”, a general name for the hamlets from Aldborough Hatch to Hainault.

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When Ann realised she was pregnant, alarm bells rang. She was pressured to name the father.

There was only one man in her life, John Ely, who worked for a local employer called Islip.

Ann had probably only allowed John to become her lover because she assumed he’d marry her.

But John Ely, it seems, wasn’t so keen when he was told to appear at St Margaret’s, Barking’s ancient parish church, and face up to his responsibilities.

Barking’s leading citizens were prepared to invest some cash in the wedding to spare the parish years of expense supporting Ann and her child.

John was rounded up the night before and – it seems – kept under lock and key, with his own personal jailer.

The parish accounts note an outlay of five shillings and sixpence three-farthings (about 28p) for “bear and Viktuals for the prisoner and his attendant”. Beer and victuals (basic rations) for a stag party with your minder – some send-off!

The bride was by now “very big with child”. The parish had hired a horse to collect John, but Ann’s pregnancy was too far advanced to expect her either to walk or ride.

Three shillings and sixpence was spent hiring a horse and cart to bring her to the church. I wonder if anybody hung ribbons on the cart?

The one person I’d criticise in this sad saga is the vicar of Barking. He ought to have checked whether the two young people frogmarched before him really wanted to tie the knot.

The Reverend Doctor Christopher Musgrave was a learned man, a Fellow of the celebrated All Souls College at Oxford.

Perhaps Musgrave had been away at Oxford the famous day in 1762 when a serious-minded sailor called James Cook had arrived to be married at St Margaret’s. He didn’t preside at that wedding.

The famous Captain Cook then sailed away to explore the coasts of New Zealand and Australia.

John and Ann must have felt they were embarking on their own unknown journey as they confronted one another at the altar.

“Dearly beloved” Dr Musgrave intoned, and soon the couple were pronounced man and wife.

In a generous spirit, the parish officers took the newlyweds across to the Bull Inn, where they treated bride and groom – and themselves – to a wedding breakfast, spending a lavish eight shillings and threepence (41p) on food and drink.

It had cost the ratepayers of Barking less than £2 to ensure that John Ely would become legally responsible for Ann and their child.

The largest outlay had been a ten shilling (50p) fee to Dr Musgrave, enough, no doubt, to ensure he turned a blind eye to this exercise in unholy bedlock.

Oh, and Ann was given a wedding ring. It cost one penny, and was probably a brass curtain ring.

Did Ann and John live happily ever after? Let’s hope so. Perhaps they produced a whole tribe of youngsters – so many that the ratepayers of Barking had to subsidise them after all.