Alternative Courtship: Matrimonial Advertisements in the 19th Century

The Lovers by William Powell Frith, 1855.

For many single ladies and gentlemen of the 19th century, placing a matrimonial advertisement in a local newspaper was considered a viable alternative to traditional courtship.  It was especially popular with those who were new to an area or those who had no family or social groups through which they might otherwise obtain an introduction to a suitable partner.  Naturally, there were those traditionalists who frowned upon this method of acquiring a spouse.  It was viewed as undignified, indelicate, and dangerous.  Even so, matrimonial advertisements were utilized by men and women of every age and every class throughout the Regency and Victorian eras. 

The following matrimonial advertisement was placed in an 1811 issue of London’s Morning Post, where I found it humbly sandwiched between a solicitation for a loan of £50 and an advert for a “Capital Pianoforte.”  Notice that the lady advertising does not mention her appearance, her age, or whether or not she is a widow or a spinster.

Morning Post, November 27, 1811.

The next matrimonial advertisement is from an 1822 edition of the Morning Post.  This advert is far more specific than the previous, with the gentlemen stating clearly what he wishes for in a wife in terms of age, income, and character.

Morning Post, December 19, 1822.
Morning Post, December 19, 1822.

At the higher end of the social spectrum, an 1823 issue of the Morning Post contains a matrimonial advertisement in which a “nobleman” seeks a “Lady of Fortune.”  I do not know who this nobleman was, but it is hard not to imagine him as one of the countless romance novel heroes with an impoverished title who must marry an heiress in order to repair his estates.

Morning Post, June 25, 1823.
Morning Post, June 25, 1823.

The use of a third party to facilitate negotiations between the matrimonial advertiser and his/her applicants was not uncommon.  More common still were those who chose to address the advertiser themselves – either in person or by correspondence.  In his 1832 book Some Remarks on Matrimonial Advertisements Being an Inquiry into their Use and Abuse, author Y. M. advises on how to proceed when personally answering a matrimonial advertisement, writing:

“[After] all matters, as to connexions [sic] and financial concerns, [are] satisfactorily explained in a preliminary correspondence, an interview, with a desire to ascertain how far the parties are mutually agreeable, is then arranged; and this, (in accordance with regal custom), is greatly facilitated by a previous interchange of miniatures, where practicable.”

After this initial interview and exchange of miniatures, Y. M. presumes that the gentleman – if interested – will have proposed.  It is then up to the lady to determine what happens next.  As Y. M. states:

“…a reasonable time is then allowed for the lady to make up her mind, and take the sense of her friends and advisers, and usually within a month a definitive answer is received.  If unfavourable, it simply declines the overtures, no particular reasons being assigned, that the feelings of neither party may be wounded; of course the correspondence is mutually delivered up, the negotiation ends, and ever after remains an inviolable secret.”

Courting by Géza Udvary, 19th century.
Courting by Géza Udvary, 19th century.

This scheme of correspondence followed by a single interview is one which Y. M. endorses as being thoroughly safe, insisting that “no virtuous woman was ever endangered by an intimacy of this sort.”  Unfortunately, matrimonial advertisements were not always safe.  Sometimes the advertisers or the applicants were fraudsters, thieves, or even murderers.  The most notorious case of this sort took place in 1827.  It began with the following matrimonial advertisement placed in the November 13th Morning Herald by a man named William Corder:

“MATRIMONY.— A Private Gentleman, aged 24, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost the chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate.  To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comfort, and willing to confide her future happiness in one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the advertiser is in affluence; the lady must have the power of some property, which may remain in her own possession.  Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to, and it is hoped no one will answer this through impertinent curiosity, but should this meet the eye of any agreeable lady, who feels desirous of meeting with a sociable, tender, kind, and sympathising companion, they will find this advertisement worthy of notice.  Honour and secrecy may be relied on.  As some little security against all applications, it is requested that letters may be addressed, (post Paid) to A. Z. care of Mr. Foster, Stationer, No. 68, Leadenhall Street, which will meet with the most respectful attention.”

This advertisement received more than forty letters in response, one of which was from a woman named Mary Moore.  She and William Corder were married a week later.  A short time after, Mary discovered that, before placing his matrimonial advertisement, her new husband had brutally murdered his last lover and buried her body in a barn.  Corder was tried, convicted, and ultimately executed for his crimes.  In subsequent years, this sensational case, known as the Red Barn Murder, was used by many as an example of the terrible fiends one might find at the other end of a matrimonial advertisement.

But despite incidences of misrepresentation and outright villainy, matrimonial advertisements only gained in popularity as the century progressed.  Advancing into the Victorian era, matrimonial specialty magazines emerged.  With titles like the Matrimonial News and the Matrimonial Intelligencer (to name a few), these publications were wholly dedicated to the subject of marriage.  This did not mean that newspaper advertisements had fallen by the wayside.  In fact, matrimonial advertisements were still printed in abundance in most newspapers of the day, including those newspapers geared toward a particular religious audience.  An example of this can be seen in the below advertisement from an 1854 edition of the Catholic Telegraph:

Catholic Telegraph, June 10, 1854.
Catholic Telegraph, June 10, 1854.

Religion was an important consideration in many matrimonial advertisements.  In the following advertisement from an 1892 edition of the Kent and Sussex Courier, a “good looking bachelor” seeks a Christian widow or spinster.

Kent and Sussex Courier, November 11, 1892.
Kent and Sussex Courier, November 11, 1892.

In a similar matrimonial advertisement from the 1894 edition of the Derbyshire Courier, an “affectionate” spinster seeks a “high principled Christian gentleman” with a “sympathetic nature.”  I found this advertisement somewhat poignant – perhaps because the lady mentions her loneliness.

Derbyshire Courier, November 13, 1894.
Derbyshire Courier, November 13, 1894.

Not only were matrimonial advertisements a way for isolated individuals to connect with potential mates, they were an economical alternative to the balls, parties, and expensive entertainments that one must usually attend when seeking a spouse.  Of course, the traditional way of finding a husband or wife was in no danger of being supplanted anytime soon, but it’s nice to know that those in the 19th century who lacked family, friends, and great fortune, still had a means of making meaningful connections.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Foster, George.  Foster’s Trial of William Corder for the Murder of Maria Marten.  London: George Foster, 1828.

“Matrimony.”  Catholic Telegraph.  June 10, 1854.

“Matrimony.”  Derbyshire Courier.  November 13, 1894.

“Matrimony.”  Kent and Sussex Courier.  November 11, 1892.

“Matrimony.”  Morning Post.  December 19, 1822.

“Matrimony.”  Morning Post.  June 25, 1823.

“Matrimony.”  Morning Post.  November 27, 1811.

Phegley, Jennifer.  Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.

M. Y. Some Remarks on Matrimonial Advertisements Being an Inquiry into their Use and Abuse. London: Sedding and Turtle, 1832.


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37 Comments on "Alternative Courtship: Matrimonial Advertisements in the 19th Century"

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Joanna Maitland
Guest

Fascinating, as ever Mimi. Interesting that so many adverts required replies to be post-paid, even when the advertiser is (according to the advert itself) a person of means. Sounds a bit penny-pinching to me, but maybe it was just how things were done.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks Joanna :) So glad you enjoyed it. I wondered about the postage, too. Perhaps it was to protect against people who were responding just to make mischief? In William Corder’s advert, for example, he mentions people responding because of “impertinent curiosity.”

Sarah Waldock
Guest
I suspect it was to prevent time-wasters…. a fascinating post, as I was considering using this very ploy in a Brandon Scandal novel. I gasped when I saw the name William Corder, because I know the crime well – it’s part of local folklore for me, and I know the ballad about it, and can be induced to sing it if someone buys me half a pint of cider to do so. The extraordinary feature of the case was that Maria’s stepmother, to whom she was close [not all stepmothers are wicked] dreamed that Maria called to her for justice,… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

There is an 1820s print with the ghost in the barn pointing to where she was buried. It’s a fascinating story. I didn’t know there was a song, too. Thanks for sharing, Sarah :)

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks Sarah!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

the song does, which I’d forgotten, mentions her ‘suckling at her mother’s breast’ whereas she was her stepmother, but very fond of Maria.
The version I post is very nearly the same as the one I learned by oral tradition by Suffolk’s own John Goodluck, who also sang the ghost story ‘the suffolk miracle’ though he balked at doing all 28 verses. All stem from the original broadsheet of course. I can’t locate it on the EBBA index though I suspect they may be earlier . This is quite an interesting article though http://redbarnmurder.blogspot.co.uk/2007/12/catnachs-broadsheet.html

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks, Sarah. I hadn’t even heard of the murder until I started researching this article and then I learned of it via the 1828 book by George Foster publications (which reprinted Corder’s original advert). The story reminds me a little of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, which was later made into the Liz Taylor movie A Place in the Sun.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

Mary Moore should have done reasonably well out of it though, I believe Corder made quite a lot out of selling his story in lurid detail while he waited to be hanged. [Monday was hanging day in Ipswich, I believe the trial was on Thursday but I’m not sure]

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Oh, good point. It hadn’t occurred to me that Corder could have made money off all those penny dreadful type publications on the murder.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

Inspired by you, I’ve gone past notes and written the first chapter!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Wonderful! Glad the article provided some inspiration :)

Pam Lecky
Guest

Love it! Thanks for posting such an intriguing article. Just may have to include something along these lines in one of my books!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Pam :) So glad you liked it!

Vicki
Guest

Match.com Victorian style.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Exactly!

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darlenemarshall
Guest

Wow, what a boon to romance authors! Thank you for sharing this early version of Tinder.[g]

One of my favorite romance novellas is “The Best Husband Money Can Buy”, a Christmas story by Mary Jo Putney. It’s based on a real-life incident that sounds made up until you read the news accounts. History is still the best resource for writing great romance, so thanks again.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Darlene :) I’ve been mulling over an 1860s story that starts with an advert for a wife and, once I started researching, the results were too interesting to keep to myself. You are so right about history being the best resource for authors!

Lucy
Guest
Great piece, I could read these all day! And I agree, the lonely lady seems the most poignant, I felt like writing to her myself! I heard that the Pope Benedict’s parents met thought an ad in the 1920s, which seems more like a job description! Love the bit about personal fortune and ‘offers’ at the end :D “Middle ranking civil servant, single, Catholic, 43-years-old, immaculate past, from the countryside, is seeking a good Catholic pure girl, who can cook well, and who can do all housework, who is also capable of sewing and a good homemaker in order to… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

I love it :) And you’re right – it does read like a job description. In fact, it sounds as if what he really needed was a housekeeper!

Joanna Maitland
Guest

The great advantage of a wife over a housekeeper was that the wife didn’t have to be paid and couldn’t hand in her notice, either, if she found she didn’t like her new life, a few months into the job! Women went along with it, though, which shows the power of culture.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Very true, Joanna. It’s amazing what women went along with back then – and still do, to some extent! Societal/cultural pressure is a very powerful thing.

tammayauthor
Guest

So true, Joanna. In the 19th century, women were property, pure and simple, and as such could be treated like slaves. On top of that, I can only imagine how many women (especially when they reached the age where they were considered “spinsters” which, in some cases, was something ridiculous, like mid-late 20’s) their families pushed them to marry anybody who could support them and get them off her hands, regardless of what kind of person the man was. We can be thankful that things have changed drastically in the past 100+ years.

Tam

lauraboon2014
Guest

Reblogged this on Love Lines and commented:
Fascinating article by Mimi Matthews on lonely hearts of the 1800s.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for the reblog, Laura :) I’m glad you enjoyed it!

Angelyn
Guest

The Red Barn murder–fascinating! Nothing better than pouring through the post–letters and newspaper clippings–of the times.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I agree, Angelyn :) I could read through 19th century newspapers all day. They’re a treasure trove!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

And I have a limit on myself or I’d spend all day reading and saying ‘oh listen to this, this is interesting…’ to the long suffering husband and would never get any work done.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You have more willpower than I do!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I like getting royalties… and you only get royalties if you keep the nose to the grindstone. Venality, m’dear, not willpower.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I have no idea how to reblog, so I’ve posted a link and the first chapter of the next Brandon Scandal book.
http://sarahs-history-place.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/regency-and-victorian-matrimonial.html

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Oh, thanks so much for the mention, Sarah :)

Alfred Woollacott, III
Guest

An old take on today’s Match.com or eHarmony — some things never change. Very interesting article, thank you for sharing

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Alfred :) And yes, matrimonial adverts were definitely the 19th century equivalent of modern day internet matchmaking sites.

tammayauthor
Guest

These are quite fascinating. I note how every ad makes a point to mention income (which was very important in marriage, especially for women of the 19th century, since a proper woman was expected to be supported by her husband) and they are also quite honest without trying to pump up or dumb down (like people do on Facebook, Match.com, and elsewhere). Ah, the days when people were really what they seemed…

Tam

Mimi Matthews
Guest

For the most part, the 19th century matrimonial adverts seem to be straightforward and businesslike. Ironically, Corder’s advert was one of the longest and most personal!

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