Records at the Guildhall Library
I soon found the entries in the baptismal register of St Nicholas Cole Abbey for Lydia and Britannia Wollstonecraft. Their parents had married in the parish church of St Mildred, Bread Street, by licence. A copy of the relevant page in the register follows. It is interesting to note the very shaky signature of "Ed Wollstonecraft" who witnessed the marriage.
The bonds and allegations relating to the London marriage licences are held at the Guildhall Library also, with those relating to this marriage at reference Ms 10091/106A1078. Edward Bland Wollstonecraft was described as "of St Botolph, Bishopsgate, a bachelor of twenty-five years of age" and Lydia Cooke, "of St Mildred, Bread Street, a spinster and a minor of twenty years". Lydia’s father, Osmond Cooke, gave his consent to the marriage.
Shortly after the documents relating to this licence, are those of the marriage of Lydia’s brother, who, like his father, was called Osmond. Described as of St Mildred, Bread Street, a bachelor of twenty-six years of age, he was marrying Mary Bleasdale who was just eighteen years old.
I found the entry in the baptismal register for Edward Bland, son of Charles and Britannia Wollstonecraft, baptised on 29th March 1736, at St Botolph, Bishopsgate. However, I wanted to find the names of Charles’ parents. From the accounts of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, I knew he was in some way related to Edward Wollstonecraft, Mary’s grandfather, and I hoped to be able to establish precisely how.
I could find neither Charles’ marriage nor his baptism recorded in the IGI. Not finding any relevant entry in the marriage register for St Botolph, Bishopsgate, I tried Boyd’s Marriage Index and found the following:
"Woolsoncraft, Chse and Britannia Wood Fleet, 1732".
A variation in spelling could occur when the minister writes down, phonetically, what he has heard the bride or groom say to him.
It seems that theirs was a "Fleet Marriage". These were clandestine, irregular marriages. Before Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, it was possible for such marriages to take place, not within the conditions laid down by Ecclesiastical Law, but under English Common Law, whereby each spouse simply expressed their consent to each other and exchanged vows. Marriage Duty Acts were passed in 1694 and 1695 in an attempt to put an end to this practice and thereby imposed a fine on clergymen who performed such ceremonies. However, these acts only covered areas under the bishops’ jurisdiction and some clergy were not deterred by the threat of a fine, particularly those already imprisoned for debt. Amongst other places, Fleet Prison was outside such jurisdiction and it is not surprising to find that the majority of these irregular and clandestine marriages took place in the Prison Chapel there. They became known as Fleet Marriages and were later conducted in other places in the vicinity of the prison, including taverns.
They were very popular and couples came to that part of London from near and far to take advantage of the relaxed conditions. Without the necessity of reading banns, the marriage could be kept secret and performed without due notice. This suited many people, including seamen who might only be ashore for a short time. Brides and grooms residing in different parishes avoided the additional expense of banns being read in both. Similarly, if one of the spouses were under the age of twenty-one, parental permission would not be required.
With so many marriages being conducted in this way, it has been estimated that, throughout the country, in the first half of the eighteenth century a third of all marriages were ‘irregular’.
It was necessary to record the marriages and clergymen jotted down the details in notebooks with some entries being copied into registers. The majority of these records can be viewed on microfilm at the Public Record Office, under their reference RG 7 with two registers in PROB 18. There are altogether 833 rolls of microfilm.
However, the researcher should be warned that it can be extremely difficult to locate a particular entry. Only a few of the registers are indexed and somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million marriages and some baptisms are recorded in the Fleet Registers, mainly between 1690 and 1754. A large number of the entries were duplicated making an estimated vast number of 400,000 entries. The microfilms of these records are not necessarily in date order but simply in the order by which the notebooks and registers were kept and, with over seventy ministers conducting such marriages, there are many registers and many notebooks.
I was fortunate to find this marriage recorded in Boyd’s Marriage Index but even knowing the year the marriage took place, I have not yet been able to find the entry in the register or notebook.
I managed to find in the baptismal register for St Botolph, Bishopsgate, the entry for Charles, the son of Edward and Jane Woolstonecraft, baptised on 22nd August 1715. Although over the course of nearly 300 years the writing has become faint, it is nevertheless quite legible.
Charles must have been only about seventeen years old when he married Britannia and would have needed his parents’ permission. This might have been the reason why he chose to have a 'Fleet’ marriage.
"Ed Wollstonecraft" who witnessed Edward Bland’s marriage must have been his grandfather, then aged about seventy-two years.
Charles seems to have married three times but the children born in his later marriages all died in infancy.
Figure 10: Descendants of Charles Wollstonecraft
Similarly, I traced nine children of Edward and Jane baptised between 1713 and 1723 and, tragically, all died before they were five years old apart from two, Charles and Elizabeth Ann. Jane Wollstonecraft’s burial on 24th January 1732/33 is recorded in the register for St Botolph, Bishopsgate, with her age given as 48 years. 1
At St Katherine by the Tower, a year later on 15th January 1733/34, Edward Wollstonecraft married again. His bride was Mary Cranwell, the widow of Boniface Cranwell. She already had a son by her previous husband and he was called William.
Just two days after Edward Bland Wollstonecraft was baptised, a son was born to Edward and Mary on 31st March 1736. Less than four weeks later on 25th April 1736, he was Christened at St Mary’s, Spitalfields, and given the name of Edward John Wollstonecraft. Edward John was later to become the father of Mary Wollstonecraft, possibly naming his eldest daughter after his mother. Edward and Mary do not appear to have had any other children and Mary died when Edward John was only ten years old. She was buried on 8th February 1746/47 at St Botolph, Bishopsgate.2
A few days later on 11th February 1746/47, Mary’s will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and can be seen at the Public Record Office under reference PROB 11/753, quire 58. She mentioned her husband by name as well as her two children, William Cranwell, by her former marriage, and Edward John Wollstonecraft. Amongst her bequests, she left £60, a leasehold house in Long Lane and a gold watch to her elder son. To Edward John she left £30.
According to the records of the Fleet Marriages, Edward took another wife, Mary Bird, on 28th September 1751. The entry in the marriage register has been indexed by J S Burn in his History of the Fleet Marriages, 2nd edition published in 1834,3 and by Boyd in his Marriage Index. This enabled me to find the details on the rolls of microfilm at the Public Record Office under their reference, RG 7/258, f 59.4
From the information in the parish registers, a tree can be drawn showing two generations of Edward’s family as follows:
Figure 11: Descendants of Edward Wollstonecraft
It would appear that the surviving sons of Edward Wollstonecraft, namely Charles and Edward John, were half-brothers. That would make the relationship between Edward Bland Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft half-cousins.
I wanted to establish whether any other member of the Wollstonecraft family had been named "Edward Bland Wollstonecraft". I particularly wanted to see any records concerning Mary Wollstonecraft’s brother, Edward, to confirm whether he had been given a middle name.
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