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Lamberton Toll Marriages 1804-1816 & 1849-1855

There is not much one can say, by way of introduction, about the marriage registers of the two "border priests", George Lamb and George Sharpe, neither of which appears to have survived. However, according to G.S. Crighton's note on Irregular Border Marriages (SOG Leaflet No.10, 1982), Alexander Loughton of Tweedmouth may once have owned both registers. The copy of the indexes at Northumberland County Record Office (Acc. No. 3361) attributes the indexes to Alexander Lauton and notes his date of death as the 3rd of February 1908; but it offers no clues as to the fate of the original registers.

All we have to work with then are two lists of names with page references. There is no cross-referencing of brides and grooms, and no dates are given in the indexes. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that the marriages were recorded in the original registers in the order they were performed, or at least in rough chronological order shortly after each event.

The indexes are presented in two forms: the first is a strict alphabetical listing of all the individuals named in each index, followed by a page number; the second listing mentions all the individuals again, page by page. The point of the second listing is merely to provide some further clues as to the possible identity of the second party!

The index to George Lamb's register names 1,852 individuals on 38 pages spanning the period 1804 to 1816. That amounts to 926 marriages over almost twelve years or, if you prefer, almost eighty marriages a year, or one marriage every four or five days on average. The work was no less irregular than the marriages, and prison - even transportation - was an occupational hazard. George Lamb avoided transportation in 1807 but at the Berwick Quarter Sessions of January that year he was sentenced to serve six months imprisonment. The Newcastle Courant provided details of the crime, but not the names of the parties married:

Mr Geo. Lamb, schoolmaster, an old man, said to have been formerly a dissenting minister, was committed for want of sureties, in order to take his trial at next sessions, for an offence against the marriage act, in marrying a couple lately in a private house in Berwick; which if proved against him, will subject him to a sentence of transportation for 14 years. [Newcastle Courant 18/10/1806]

At Berwick sessions, yesterday se'nnight, George Lamb for obtaining money on the false pretence of marrying people in Berwick, contrary to law, was sentenced to six months imprisonment. [Newcastle Courant 24/1/1807]

George Lamb died on the 22nd of February 1816 aged 68, and was buried at Berwick two days later. The Berwick Advertiser noted his death:

Same day [on Thursday last, in this town], Mr George Lamb, aged 68. [For?] many years he has acted as PARSON at Lamberton Toll to those who had not time or patience to [wait?] for the regular celebration of the hymeneal bond. [Berwick Advertiser 24/2/1816]

George Sharpe remains a dark horse. The index to his register mentions 873 [sic] individuals on 33 pages spanning the period 1849 to 1855. The odd number of names leads me to doubt the accuracy of the index to both his and George Lamb's register. What is clear, however, is that Sharpe was one of several individuals to enter the trade following the death of Henry Collins in 1849. The Berwick Advertiser remarked of the scramble to fill Collins' shoes:

THE HIGH PRIEST AT THE TOLL.- The death of Mr Collins seems to have broken the spell of monopoly, for instead of a single sucessor there are now to our knowledge no fewer than eight persons offering their services to the public, willing to perform the marriage ceremony on the shortest notice possible. One of these officiators told us that he had this week been oppressed with the amount of business, and he believed he should be obliged to procure an "ass" to convey him to Scotland and home again. Another showed to us a published announcement of his having commenced business, in which he states that he will be ready for his duty "by night or by day." Such industry and accomodation may well put the sons of Levi to the blush. [Berwick Advertiser 13/1/1849]

Whether or no George Sharpe died in 1855 or simply retired from the trade is uncertain, but the days of irregular border marriages were numbered. As early as 1849 the Berwick Advertiser carried this report on the subject:

BORDER MARRIAGES.- Our attention has been called to the statement made by the Rev. Mr Blair of Mordington, in the General Assembly last week, on the subject of irregular marriages, in which that gentleman says that there were on an average 2000 marriages of that character celebrated each year. It is plain that Mr Blair does not limit himself to the district in which he resides in stating the number to be so immense, but to what extent of Scotland his remark applies, whether to the whole or merely to the borders, we are at a loss to decide. A fourth part of the number stated will, we think, be nearer the average of "Toll" or "irregular" marriages that take place annually on the border extending from this to Coldstream. We are credibly informed that the annual average of marriages at Lamberton, which is the most popular place, is about 300, and that Mordington and the other tolls together do not exceed 200 - in all 500. If Coldstream be included and the entire border thence to the neighbourhood of Carlisle, the number may perhaps be brought to somewhat near 2000. This, however, is making a very large allowance for the number of marriages at Gretna Green, as in the district which stretches between the Tweed and the Esk the custom is scarcely known and could seldom be practiced, as in the adjoining part of England the country is so wild and thinly populated that there is scarcely anybody to get married. [Berwick Advertiser 16/6/1849]

Six months later the Berwick Advertiser carried a similar report:

IRREGULAR MARRIAGES.- A meeting of the Ministers and office bearers of the various congregations of Berwick was held in the Rev. Mr Dunlop's vestry on Monday evening the 17th instant, to take into consideration the practice of clandestine marriages which prevails in this and other towns along the Border. Besides a considerable number of elders and deacons there were present the following Ministers:- Messrs Miller and Drummond of the church of Scotland; Messrs Peden, Cairns, and Dunlop of the United Presbytarian church; Mr M'Lelland of the English Presbytarian church; Mr Robson of the Baptist church. Mr Peden was called to the chair. Excuses for absence were sent by the following Ministers:- Mr Kirkwood, Baptist; Mr Murdoch, of the English Presbytarian Church; Mr Bowman, Wesleyan; Mr Shiels, of the Primitive Methodist Church; and Mr Knowles, Independent. Regretting their necessary absence, they expressed their sympathy with the object of the meeting, and their willingness to co-operate with their brethren in any common measures that might be agreed upon for the attainment of their object. The practice of Toll marriages, as they are generally called, was regarded by the meeting as a serious evil fraught with the most disastrous consequences, and requiring special efforts for its suppresion. It was ascertained that there were persons in all their congregations who had been guilty of the disgraceful conduct in question, and who had thereby brought scandal upon religion. It was found also that such delinquents were subjected to discipline according to the rules of the church to which they belonged. It was ultimately agreed to call in a special manner the attention of their respective congregations to this practice, so deeply to be lamented, to warn them against falling into it, and to exercise discipline still more diligent upon those who offend in this respect. A committee was also appointed to draw up an address on the subject, that it may be published and circulated throughout the district. Feeling that this was all they could do in their ecclesiastical capacity, they next agreed to take measures when the proper time arrived to get up a public petition by the inhabitants of the town to Parliament, praying them to enact a law prohibiting all clandestine and dishonourable forms of marriage. [Berwick Advertiser 29/12/1849]

However, it was six years before the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1856 was passed, and the trade in irregular border marriages continued unabated in the meantime. Again, the Berwick Advertiser was able to comment on proceedings:

HEY TO THE WEDDING!- On Saturday morning no less than seven couples arrived by the 9.20 train at the Tweedmouth station from Northumberland, "bound for the border" on matrimonial errands. So large an amount of business caused no little stir among the officials waiting for employment. [Berwick Advertiser 14/12/1850]

With trade as brisk as this few will doubt the remarks of Peter Anderson Graham who, in his Highways and Byways of Northumbria, published in 1920, wrote the following:

A jeweller who is now in a large way of business in another part of the country told the present writer that he served his time in Berwick-on-Tweed and is, indeed, a freeman. He recollected that on market days and holidays the firm for which he worked would sell from twelve to eighteen wedding rings in a morning for use at Lamberton Toll. He also remembered the famous notice stuck in the window of the toll-house: "Ginger beer sold here and marriages performed"!

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