THE parish church of Stepney [i.e. St. Dunstan's, Stepney], otherwise Stebbon-heath, is one of the most venerable in the kingdom. Stowe asserts that some of its stones are from the walls of Carthage. Marriages are celebrated in this church at a very low figure, which circumstance renders it the resort of those children of Cockaigne who desire to be joined in the holy bonds, &c. Saint Monday, and Easter and Whit-Mondays, are the chief days for the splicing ceremonial. A Monday or twain back we had occasion to visit the church, to search the register; we arrived about ten o'clock. Having accomplished our investigation, and given an extra fee to the clerk, that worthy individual whispered to us, that, if we felt inclined to stop a little time, we might see some fun. "Fun," said we to ourself, rather an odd thing to witness in a church." However, we stopped, and, per direction of clericus, placed our rotund rear on a form near the altar. We had not been long seated, before divers odd samples of humanity moved before us; the males were, for the most part, encased in bright blue coats, with gilt buttons, waistcoats of a saffron hue, and duck kicksies, the lower parts of which kept a respectful distance from the dress Wellingboroughs beneath them. The females glittered in all the glories of Bethnal-green and Shoreditch, the bon ton of the far east. Green, parsnip, and whitey-brown coloured boots, were busy along the matting of the aisle; the ribbons rivalled all the colours of Spitalfields; some of the damsels had the sunflower, the colli ditto, and some of the larger kind of succulent blossoms, invested in their hair. Some very fat bridemaids gave us a sympathetic leer, as much as to say "Are you for matrimony this morning, old cock?" A general move was made to the vestry, by order of the clerk. Immediately afterwards, the parson entered the church door, with a quick step; he seemed a regular man of business, and no mistake. On passing us, we, with that deferential politesse for which we have ever been famed, rose. The ecclesiastic bowed, so did we. "Are you waiting for anybody ?" said he. " No, sir," was our reply. The vestry door had not long been closed before a wiry, thin-faced personage, in his best clothes, accompanied by a small, fierce-looking, skeleton of a woman (just the shape and make for a shindy) came bustling up the aisle, followed by a portly dame with a sepia countenance, that steamed like a suet dumpling. To call her movement a walk, would be absurd; it was a roll, and, no doubt, as savoury as a sausage one. She muttered something, and, barring the church, it was this:- "Da-n you both, I can't walk so fast." The fierce-looking homan, before named, having arrived at the vestry door, gave a smart Xantippe knock, at the same moment poking back her male companion by a fistic plant in the neighbourhood of his shirt frill. The clerk opened the door by instalments, and said, in a whisper, "What do you want, marm?"
"Is Lucretia Rosa Smaggersgill in here, my darter?" said the lady, by no means in a whisper.
"Smackersgill ?" said the clerk, still in a whisper, "I'll see."
"Tell the hussy, if she be in here, that her mother wants her immediate."
"Here's a lark," said we to ourself. The clerk then quietly squeezed Miss L. R. S. gently out of the door, and the next moment also squeezed a pale-looking youth, with dirty hands and his hair curled, through the same aperture.
"You imperdent, good-for-nothing, brazen-faced hussy," bawled the fierce mamma, almost shaking Miss Lucretia Rosa S. out of her spick-and-span new mousseline-de-laine.
"And you, yer white-livered, half-masticated rascal," cried her companion to the pale youth, at the same time, holding him by his sky-blue stock, "you thought to play the artful dodge, did yer, by marrying our darter ? How somever, ve has cooked your goose, and no mistake, you varmit puppy."
The puppy, having his neck at liberty, shook his nob, and burst into tears. Miss Lucretia R. Smaggersgill caught the infection, and executed a faint. The fat, dumpling woman, who, it seems, was the aunt of the halfmade bride, had lost all power of energetic disclaimer, and contented herself with the following milk-and-water expression: "Why, young man, this is quite unproper; You should know better; you'd better have been at your work. What a pity to lose your time so."
"Lor, aunt, what a fool you make of yourself," cried the mother ; "let me speak to the nasty cub."
"You vont tho'," said the slobbering infant, cutting like bricks down the west aisle, and bolting, sine die. This evaporation, of course, settled the question of marriage, for that time, at least. We almost shed tears in beholding the hapless Lucretia towed down the aisle between he interesting parents, followed by the obese aunt, who muttered "that she must have a something at the first public-house."
After this tragedy had closed, about thirty couple approached the altar. These followed the ceremony, as attornies follow the oaths when admitted, all standing in a row, and responding seriatim. Just as we were leaving the church, a jolly tar entered, with a bouncing wench on his arm. After making a leg to the pew-opener, he said "Dash my wig, old gal, are me and Mull too late ?"
"No, sir," said that functionary; " walk forrard, if you please."
Jack spun his tile half way up to the centre chandelier, and approached the altar.
"Conduct yourself with propriety," said the priest to the tar.
"All right, your honour," said Jack, making another leg, and shifting his quid.
Having witnessed this fun, as the clerk judiciously called it, we left the sacred edifice, to have a matin shove at the Ship, where the "Diversions of Purley" were being celebrated; of which, however, more anon.
MARRIAGES AT STEPNEY CHURCH.
(Continued from our last)
THE parish of Stepney may be considered a refuge for the destitute. All persons born on the "high seas" can claim support, when in distress, from the parish of Stepney. In the making of this law, we presume that the legislature considered the fact that more seafaring men were spliced at Stepney church than at any other, and therefore the off spring of their loins, begat on the wild ocean, or anywhere else, were entitled to the protection of the district. No matter, certain it is that the parish of Stepney extends over the whole dominions of Neptune, and the sons of that revered and venerable person invariably join in bonds of holy wedlock in Stepney church. In years gone by the dancing booths at Stepney fair were filled with Jack-tars and their doxies. The genuine man-o'-war's-man there rejoiced in the longitude of his tail and the latitude of his canvass trousers; his "charming Polly" appeared at Stepney fair, rigged out, like his own frigate, "with colours flying at her mast-head.' Sometimes the rough spun Jacks, pirate-like, hoisted the black flag in the shape of a sable doxey, and threaded the mazy reel "in company with an African privateer." "All's one to Jack," says the song, and we may presume that Jacks, at least Jack-tars, in general, think, with the poet, that-
"The lady with diamonds and laces
By day may heighten her charms;
But Saill, without any such graces,
At night lies as warm in your arms."
Such reconcileable notions, exempt from nice distinctions as to colour, exemplify the philosophy of a maritime life, especially as they tell us-
"Sailors, when away;
In every port a mistress find."
Stepney fair, however, is no more, and the pleasures of sailors, as well as landsmen, are abrogated by its abolition. It was always matter of congratulation to the jolly tar to be ashore at Stepney fair time. We are, however, diverging from our subject, viz., "Marriages at Stepney Church." Well, then, we have seen some odd ones in our time. All the gay ladies of the eastern hemisphere (i.e. those fashionable watering places, hight Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, East Smithfield, Poplar, and Blackwall) are the wives of many husbands, and, strange to say, a prosecution for bigamy is never heard of amongst them; yet they all wed at Stepney church. The inducement for Blackwall Bet, Poplar Sall, Shadwell Poll, or Ratcliff Soph, to take unto herself more than one partner for life is answered in three words- "the monthly note," or the "will and power," both of which a sailor can leave to his lawful wife. The monthly note ensures to her a part of his pay while he is at sea; the latter gives her possession of all his worldly effects, pay due, &c., in the event of death. A nautical poet, not Dibdin, thus feelingly describes the sensations of a freshly wedded practical, not theoretical, "Poll of Plymouth," on her beloved one weighing anchor:-
"There he goes, b----r his eyes;
He's been going this quarter of an hour.
Oh that the bullets may scuttle his nob,
For I've got 'his will and his power.'"
We have seen sailor lads, rigged in snow-white ducks, straw hats, bandanas, &c., led, by middle-aged, painted doxies, to the Stepney altar, and there sacrificed, like lambs, innocent of all sin. Again, sailors, in appearance middle-aged, yet in actions perfectly childish, are made groggy, and fairly towed into Stepney's holy fane, and imperceptibly lashed to stout women in yellow ribbons and huge-patterned cotton gowns. Old seamen, only fit for Greenwich, are great temptations to those antiquated damsels who have got old in the naval service, because, though scantily, they are provided for to the end of life's chapter. These ladies look out for Greenwich moorings with as much certainty as do the ancient Jack-tars themselves, and the first "man-o'-war's-man" they can get hold of, they "pull alongside" him, and, if possible, convoy him into Stepney church, to make a certainty of the prize-money. So common is a plurality of spouses with the mollishers of the east, that you may frequently hear them say, "Well, so help me bob, I must get my Ben a ship, for I expect my Tom home next week;" or, "Jack must be off, for the next tide will bring my Bill ashore." Sailors are born to be imposed upon; the fact is, they see nothing of the world, from the circumstance of going to sea very young. Very little protection is afforded them; they are robbed, cheated, and cuckolded with impunity. We shall conclude this paper in the words of the poet:-
"Oh, pray protect the hardy tar,
Be mindful of his merit;
And when again you're plunged in war,
He'll show his daring spirit.''