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There has been a pub on the site of The Squirrel at Laymore since the 17th century and it is possible that as well as being a drinking hole, it was a cut-price marriage shop.The original pub burnt down in the early 1950s.



The Squirrel. before the 1950s fire  Reproduced by kind permission.©

Held in a variety of venues,  these marriages either took the form of ‘handfasting or trothplights’, also known as ‘the country manner’ or were  solemnised according to the order of service laid down by the Common Prayer Book.  Officiates were not always ordained although some were defrocked priests. In the south-west there was also a tradition of ‘broomstick weddings’ where the couple jumped over a besom in front of witnesses. The 1695 Marriage Duty Act introduced  a tax on church marriages which increased demand, for non-church ceremonies  Cut price marriage shops  undercut the cost and were a popular alternative to church weddings. Couples who took their vows in front of witnesses and consummated their union were legally married in the eyes of the Church until the law changed in 1753 when irregular marriage was outlawed by the Hardwick Marriage Act.

    Among the 89 parishioners who signed the 1723 Devon Loyalty Oath, 17 are among Thorncombe’s missing marryers, fathers of children baptised in Thorncombe during 1674-1723 but not listed in the marriage register. Altogether 708 children were fathered by  295 missing marryers  during for this period. While some may have been returning emigrants or immigrants who married in church ceremonies elsewhere, others may have undergone civil marriages under Oliver Cromwell’s administration, been married in non-conformist establishments or participated in clandestine marriage ceremonies in cut-price marriage shops.

Twelfth night faggot © The Squirrel. Reproduced by kind permission.

  Either way these events are not easily traceable. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, some of Thorncombe’s missing marryers might be among those who patronised these covert establishments. While there is no documentary evidence,  a local tradition stopped during World War II, and revived in 1973,  suggests a corrupt survival of  what once might have been a broomstick wedding ceremony. On twelfth night, women hoping to become pregnant  still jump over a burning faggot at the Squirrel Inn, Laymore on the Somerset border of Thorncombe’s parish boundary.

    Royal Oak

  The wall of the Royal Oak next to the gate leading into Thorncombe parish churchyard may also  mark  another place where clandestine marriages took place.  In an article in the TVT News dated winter 1999, Peter Bicknell drew attention to graffiti etched into the wall of  next to the gateway. He suggested that the carvings could be connected to ‘hand fasting’ and this was the parish trysting spot. He identified the graffiti  as being mostly of 18th century origin and pointed out that it was  ‘not of  the kind one associates with those more normally found outside pubs [being] … exclusively devoted to declarations of love – expressed in its chasest form.’ Spring, appropriately enough,  is the best time to see the carvings when the early morning sun throws  them into sharp relief.. They depict,  ‘the outline of a hand – generally the left, and, being small probably that of the girl – and the more familiar depiction of a single heart or of hearts within hearts. Quite a few are dated, and most bear initials rather than full names.’  If as Peter  Bicknell speculated, the churchyard carvings were made to mark a hand fasting, perhaps they were carved by some of Thorncombe’s missing maryrers?

For a list of Thorncombe’s ‘missing marryers’  cover the period 1674-1723 go to:



July 2012