An Odd Choice Of Church For A Wedding

I don't know how religious my great great grandfather was but the historical record would suggest that he wasn't very religious at all. His father, William Jarvis, didn't seem too religious either - he would baptize his children in batches, 2 or 3 at a time! That, to me, suggests that the Church Of England didn't feature prominently in his life. He treated it as an afterthought.

Prior to 1837, the only way to christen or name a child was through the church. It was the church that kept copious records of everything - births, baptisms, marriages, deaths. But civil registration was introduced on July 1st 1837, requiring all births, deaths and marriages to be registered with the government at a registry office. From that date on, for those who were not religious, it was possible to go through all the rites of passage of your life without ever having to enter a church.

Marriage, of course, is a rather unique celebration - it links two families and therefore requires a ceremony that satisfies both parties. My great great grandfather may not have been a religious man, but he married into a family that did indeed attend the church.

It was in 1847 that my great great grandfather, Charles Robert Owen Jarvis, met a man named Thomas Vaughan. Born in Hawley, Hampshire, Thomas Vaughan was a shipwright who had moved to London earlier in the 19th century as the shipbuilding industry boomed in the East End. Thomas lived at Limekiln Dock, just around the corner from Limekiln Hill where Joseph King plied his trade, and about 200 yards from where Charles lived with his mother.

Thomas Vaughan was the man tasked with teaching Charles the craft of building boats and ships. But beyond shipbuilding Thomas had another asset that interested Charles - his daughter Maria who had been born on November 10th 1832 in Limehouse.

Thomas Vaughan didn’t get to see his daughter Maria falling in love with Charles. He died on the February 24th 1852 of a bladder infection and erysipelas - a secondary acute skin infection generally caused by skin abrasions, dog bites, surgical incisions or eczema. He was buried on February 28th 1852 in the graveyard of St. Anne’s Church in Limehouse. His burial at St. Anne's signifies one thing in particular - it was his local parish church and therefore the place where, by Victorian tradition, his daughters would marry.

Courting in Victorian London was a ritual affair, advancing in gradations with the couple first speaking, then walking out together and finally keeping company after mutual attraction was confirmed. Most initial meetings took place at sunday service at church, or at church suppers that had been specially set up for the purpose.

Given that Charles knew Thomas Vaughan, it’s likely that he met Maria through his acquaintance with her father. But this was not your normal courtship. In October 1852, Maria announced she was pregnant with Charles’ child. An unmarried woman with a child was somewhat of a social outcast, so Charles was expected to do the right thing for Maria. The engagement was announced.

History reflects on the Victorian times as a period where social etiquette, morals and values were strictly adhered to and anything outside of it was scandalous, but that is actually far from the truth. By the mid 19th century, it has been said that a third of Victorian brides went to the altar pregnant and 8% of all children born had no father listed on their birth certificate. Pregnancy outside of marriage was common and although not socially acceptable, it was a fact of life.

Perhaps it was the shame of being pregnant and unmarried, but Charles and Maria decided that their marriage would not happen in their local parish church of St. Anne’s in Limehouse. It is not inconceivable that the local vicar at St. Anne’s declined to allow them to marry due to Maria’s pregnancy. For convenience, it would have been easy to choose a church nearby, such as St. Dunstans in Stepney (where Charles had been baptised), or All Saints Poplar (which would ultimately be where Charles's mother would be buried), but for reasons which cannot really be explained, they chose to marry outside of the borough of Tower Hamlets.

St Anne's Limehouse: This is where they should have married, as they lived in the parish,  But it was not to be.

The neighbouring borough of Islington was chosen instead and Maria and Charles now faced the issue that at least one of them needed to be part of a parish in order to undergo the ceremony in the parish church. So Maria and Charles cooked up a ruse - Maria stated that she lived at 24 Shepperton Street in Islington and Charles claimed to live at next door at 23 Shepperton Street so as to appear to be members of the local parish of St. Mary’s. It isn’t clear whether they actually ever stayed at those addresses, but in keeping with the church traditions of the time, Charles and Maria underwent the legal requirement of the reading of the Banns of Marriage, appearing for three consecutive sundays at St. Mary’s Church in Islington, 5 miles from Limehouse, to have their intention to marriage read out.

The inconvenience of choosing to marry five miles away from their home and work cannot be understated. There was no public transport, so the only way to get to Islington was to walk - a ten mile round trip. I took the walk myself and while pleasant, it's quite a hike. In truth, they could have just popped down to the local registry office and had a civil marriage ceremony without much ado, but they chose to marry in church. I suspect that it was Maria who insisted - her family had been much more strict with their religious beliefs.

The banns of marriage of my great great grandfather (first entry).  Both Charles and Maria claimed to be from the parish of St. Mary's in Islington.

For a Victorian girl, the day of her wedding was considered the most important event of her life. It was the day that her mother had prepared her for from the moment she was born. Maria knew no other ambition, even though she was pregnant. She would marry and she would marry well.

And so it was that on the March 6th 1853, my great great grandfather married six-month pregnant Maria Vaughan at St Mary’s Church in Islington.

It’s testament of a good education that both the bride and the groom signed their names to the marriage register. Charles’ signature appears big and bold, full of confidence and Maria’s is delicate and small. Their witnesses were Lucy Vaughan, Maria’s sister, and a friend of Charles named J Smith, who was not able to sign his own name. With the service over, Charles and Maria Jarvis journeyed back to Limehouse to live with Charles’ mother at 6 Rich Street.

Three months later, on June 14th 1853, Charles and Maria welcomed their first daughter, Elizabeth Christiana Ann Jarvis into the world. (It's an odd spelling, but that's what they named her - she would die 13 years later of cholera. After her death, they named a subsequent child Alice Christina Jarvis in her memory.).

So let's take a visit to where they married.

In May 2017, I took the tube to Angel to visit St. Mary's Islington. There has been a church at the site since the Norman Conquest and St. Mary's has the sad distinction of being the first church in London to be bombed during World War II. That bombing, on the third night of the London Blitz, destroyed the church and left only the tower and spire intact.

As I left Angel tube station, St. Mary's appears almost immediately in the distance and it is but a five minute walk. Once I arrived at the church, the first surprise is the sheer mass of plane trees surrounding it - it's like a forest in the middle of a city.

St. Mary's Church in Islington

Having been so extensively destroyed during the war, the interior is nothing like it used to be when my great great grandfather was alive, however it is a very pleasant environment.

Inside St. Mary's Church, Islington

The grounds of the church seemed very popular with families and provided some excellent views of the church itself.

Having visited the church, I then took a half-mile walk to where Shepperton Street used to be located. The actual street disappeared during a reconfiguration of the streets of Islington in the late 1800s, but modern-day Shepperton Road roughly lies where Shepperton Street used to be.

Shepperton Street is dead center of this turn of the century map.

Shepperton Road - close to where Shepperton Street was in 1853.

Back in the 1850s, Shepperton Street was a collection of lodging and boarding houses, but today its a rather pretty series of turn-of-the-century two-story homes.

Shepperton Road today.

The story of my great great grandfather's wedding still fascinates me. If I was given the chance to ask him ten questions, one of them would be about why he and his bride chose to marry in Islington when it would have been so much easier to marry closer to their homes and families in Limehouse. I'd also want to know whether he ever spent any time living in Shepperton Street in Islington, as he claimed when he registered his marital banns. I doubt he did - it would have played havoc with his ability to get to and from work. In those days, you simply lived where you worked because your only means of transport were your feet.

It's just one of the many enduring mysteries about my ancestors.

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