The Churchwardens of Hingham v. The Churchwardens of Snettisham, 1713
The Churchwardens of Hingham v. The Churchwardens of Snettisham, 1713
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents a case study on forced marriage by the parish in England, focusing on the case Churchwardens of Hingham v. Churchwardens of Snettisham which was filed in 1713. This case involved mentally retarded Margaret Cooper and an idle fellow Edward Buck, who were supported financially by the Snettisham and the Hingham parishes, respectively. The churchwardens of Hingham claimed that Edward was forced to marry Margaret in order to transfer to them the financial responsibility for the couple.
If the cost of maintaining the bastard children of the poor was a constant source of anxiety for parish officers in the early eighteenth century, so also was the maintenance of the mental defectives of the parish. This problem occurred less frequently, but it was likely to be of longer duration. One case, regarding the maintenance of a retarded woman and her bastard child, involved an attempt to solve both problems through a forced marriage.1
In the summer of 1713 there was living in the tiny hamlet of Snettisham in central Norfolk a mentally retarded young woman called Margaret Cooper, generally known as Peg. She was, it appears, capable of looking after herself, doing housework, minding children, and running errands, but not much else. She could not earn her own living and apparently had no relatives, so the parish was obliged to pay her 1s. 6d. a week for her support.
In the same village was ‘a loose idle fellow’, named Edward Buck, who had been born and grew up in the nearby parish of Hingham, and who worked as a servant and assistant to a thatcher on the usual one-year contract. He had generally a bad reputation in the village, especially where women were concerned. The seventh of July 1713 was a day of public festivities to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, which at last put an end to the interminable wars with France. Mary Lacy, ‘a poor foolish wench, was overtaken with drink that day’, and lay down under a hedge in a pasture in the nearby village of Larling to sleep it off, ‘with her clothes turned up above her knees’. She was found in this exposed position by Edward Buck, who seized his chance and tried to rape her. But he was interrupted and dragged off by the owner of the pasture, who happened to be going by.
Later that month a farm-worker who lived in the house where both Buck and Peg Cooper lodged went up to the former's chamber after dinner at about 12.30 in the afternoon. There he found Peg ‘lying flat on (p.89) her back upon the bed with her petticoats up to her middle and Edward Buck upon his knees by her with his breeches down’. Under questioning, Peg said that he ‘had put a long thing into her’, and that he had done the same two weeks before. Immediately after the discovery, Buck leapt to his feet and ran away, thereby breaking his contract with his master the thatcher.
After looking for Buck in vain for two or three days, the thatcher got a warrant from a JP to warn all parish constables in the vicinity to be on the look-out for him, and to arrest him for deserting his service before his time had expired. On 29 December he at last discovered that Buck was working as an itinerant chimney-sweep. He personally arrested him, and handed him over to the Snettisham constable to be kept in custody overnight, before being taken before a JP the next morning.
In the mean time, Peg had several times said that she was pregnant, although there was no clear evidence that she knew what the word meant or, if she did, that she was telling the truth. But the rumour was enough to alarm the churchwardens and overseer of the poor of the village, who now feared that they would have to assume the cost of upkeep of Peg's baby as well as that of its mentally defective mother. Overnight, under the leadership of Parson Neech, who had been vicar of the parish for forty years, they hatched a plot to rid themselves once and for all of this burden on the parish poor-rate.
The next morning, 30 December, Buck was brought before Justice Harvey to be punished for running away from his master the thatcher. But the parish officers led by Parson Neech also turned up with a second charge of fathering the child of Peg Cooper—a fact which Edward could hardly deny. He was told that he had three options: he could find sureties for payment of maintenance for Peg and her child; he could marry her and thereby become legally liable to support her and her child; or he would be sent to gaol. When Buck asked for time to send to his home village of Hingham some miles away to see what they would do for him, he was told that there was no messenger available. He admitted he could not provide sureties, and so was faced with the option of marriage or gaol. Alone and penniless, without friends or money, and under heavy pressure from Parson Neech and the parish officers, Edward soon caved in and agreed to marry Peg. His only stipulation was that he should have some respectable clothes for the occasion, instead of the sooty rags of a chimney-sweep which he was wearing, and that he should be given a little money. His master promised some old clothes, and the agreement to marry was ratified before the justice.
Everything had evidently been carefully prepared. Parson Neech was (p.90) too crafty to run the risk of marrying them clandestinely himself, or to let it be done in the parish church of Snettisham. So Buck was promptly hurried off to New Buckingham, a village a few miles away, where a minister—probably the curate—was waiting to marry them, although he had neither read the banns nor obtained a licence. The ceremony went off satisfactorily, although Peg had to be prompted in her responses now and then. Thus when asked her name, she replied Teg’, which Parson Neech translated as Margaret.
After the wedding, Peg was taken back alone to the local alehouse, while Buck was hurried off a few miles to go before two JPs, one of whom was the influential Sir Edward Bacon, to determine his legal place of settlement. This was agreed to be Buck's birthplace of Hingham, so a warrant was made out and signed by the JPs, ordering the removal thither of Edward and his new wife. Buck and his captors then returned to the alehouse at New Buckingham, where the Snettisham officials treated the bride and groom to a dinner, before being publicly put to bed in the usual manner. The only memorable incident was that ‘some idle young people falling upon the bed and upon his wife, he [Buck] fell into a great passion and said “What do ye mean to do? Consider the condition my wife is in.”’ He at least was convinced that Peg was pregnant.
Early the next morning the overseer of the poor of Snettisham woke up Buck and Peg and took them off to Hingham, after first paying Buck 2s. 6d. which was due to Peg as her last allowance from Snettisham. When the party got to Hingham, they dumped Edward and his pregnant retarded wife on the authorities there, showed them the settlement order signed by the two JPs and the certificate of marriage, and returned home in triumph.
Not unnaturally, the authorities of Hingham were outraged by this trick played on them by the hamlet of Snettisham, and within a couple of months had started litigation in the Norwich Consistory Court. The two churchwardens and the overseer of the poor of Hingham, along with Edward Buck, sued Parson Neech and the churchwardens and the Overseer of Snettisham, along with Margaret Cooper. The object of the suit was to obtain a nullity of the marriage on the double grounds of coercion and idiocy. They claimed first that Edward had acted under duress by having been offered the choice of marriage or gaol and had been given no opportunity to look for sureties; and second that Margaret was so mentally deficient that she was unable to understand the meaning of marriage.
There is no doubt that Edward was pressured into consent, and also no doubt that Peg was mentally retarded. The clinching evidence of her (p.91) Forced Marriage by the Parish incapacity came from a local parson who was asked by the Hingham authorities to examine her. He testified that she could not tell a half-crown piece from a half-penny piece, she could not count her fingers, and she could not tell the day of the week. He concluded that she was ‘a very fool or idiot’, incapable of understanding the meaning of marriage. Who won this battle is unknown, since the sentence book is defective, but the case for nullity sounds a strong one. It seems likely that Peg ended up back at Snettisham and that Buck went free. Parson Neech and his friends may have been been a little too clever.2
(1) Norfolk CRO, CC Records, Con/45, 59, 62; Dep/56, fos. 253–67.
(2) An even more gruesome episode occurred in 1723—again in Norfolk—in which in order to get rid of her, an idiot female child was passed from parish to parish like a football—from St Mary's Norwich to Hingham, from Hingham to Guist, from Guist to Gunthorpe, and from Gunthorpe back again to Guist. The two last transfers were only accomplished by an illegal farce of a marriage of an under-age imbecile to a man whose sole object was to lay hands on a wife of some sort in order to claim settlement, and therefore poor relief, in another village. See Ibid. Con/45; Dep/58.