Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

Alternative Courtship: Matrimonial Advertisements in the 19th Century

the lovers by william powell frith 18551 e1520402364904

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 e1520402493698

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.

*Author’s Note: My next book The Matrimonial Advertisement will be out in September 2018. Set in 1859, it features a battle-scarred ex-army captain who places an advertisement for a wife. The mysterious lady who arrives on his doorstep isn’t quite what he was expecting.


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.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper historical romances, including Fair as a Star, a Library Journal Best Romance of 2020; Gentleman Jim, a Kirkus Best Indie Romance of 2020; and The Work of Art, winner of the 2020 HOLT Medallion.

Mimi’s novels have received starred reviews in Library JournalPublishers Weekly, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats. 

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