(pr)eHarmony – or Alternative Courtship in the Victorian Era by V. R. Christensen

Posted by on Mar 4, 2013 in 19th England, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 2 comments



I think most people who read, and especially those who write literature and Historical Fiction of the Victorian era understand the typical in’s and out’s of courtship propriety. (For a brief discussion on the topic, visit my post, here.) But it’s interesting, if you think about it, how unsettled the canon actually was. And the proof of this is in the sheer number of etiquette manuals and advice guides written and published which focused on the single issue of courtship and marriage. There seems to have been a veritable battle to claim authority over the subject, and to establish a uniform code.

Honestly, it amazes me how little things have actually changed, when you think about it. Perhaps the craze to get married is a thing of the past, but the desire for love and companionship is just as great as ever.

It sort of started with the advice columns. People would write in asking for advice about love and relationships, about how to deal with the opposite sex. The letters themselves were not printed, but the advice offered in reply supplied enough detail as to make the reader adequately enlightened upon the subject at hand. The opportunity arose herein to communicate, via a sort of coded language, with former lovers, or acquaintances of interest, or even with those with whom there had been a misunderstanding. (Sounds a lot like Facebook, doesn’t it?) The trend started in the penny magazines and papers aimed at the lower and working classes, but soon the London Times had picked up on the fun, and on the potential readership such sensational articles attracted. (It makes sense to me that the Times would get involved in the fun of publishing the encrypted ‘agonies’ of their readers, and encouraging them to decypher the messages. Have you ever tried to do their crosswords?) In fact the correspondence articles became so popular that whole magazines were soon dedicated to them. Some of which took upon themselves the office of advising the advertiser as to which replies he or she should accept or disregard.

These correspondence articles grew so popular, that whole magazines and newspapers were printed, dedicated to that very aim: Matrimony. There are no less than twelve such papers, in London alone, listed by Jennifer Phegley in her book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England (part of the invaluable Victorian Life and Times series, of which I mean to read all), including the Matrimonial News, Matrimonial Chronicle, Matrimonial Courier, Matrimonial Gazette, Matrimonial Intelligencer, Matrimonial Journal, Matrimonial Post, Matrimonial Recorder, Matrimonial Register, Matrimonial Times, and Matrimony. These were often delivered in a discrete envelope, as described below. Though sometimes that dignity saving envelope came with an extra cost.


Official organ of the World’s Great Marriage Association (Lmd), the Gigantic and sole recognised Marriage Institution for all classes in the British Empire, (10 years’ public reference, vide the entire Press). Sent in plain sealed envelope, 5d. – Editor, 40, Lamb’s Conduit St London.

But what sort of person would advertise this way? The low? The common? The desperate? The poor? I have a sampling, not from London alone, but from all over the country, and they display a wide assortment of folks seeking love and the supposed security of Matrimony (the word marriage isn’t used).

Here is one from someone of means and property:

“MATRIMONY – Lady, refined and educated, with over £1000 yearly houses and other properties, wishes to MARRY: residential locality unimportant.” – The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 23 January 1894

Here is one from someone of humbler, yet still respectable means:

“A Chemist, with an income of about £200, wishes to Correspond with Lady with like amount with view to early marriage.” – Liverpool Mercury, 18 March 1893

Note he has no aspirations to marry above his sphere, but wishes to marry an equal. I think this is fairly typical. Money, as I have said before, is often the deciding factor when it came to determining compatibility. Sometimes it is the chief characteristic desired in a potential mate, as illustrated here:

“BACHELOR Gentleman, of good family, and pleasing disposition and manners, considered good-looking, wishes to meet Protestant Lady of means (Spinster or Widow). View, early marriage. All communications regarded with honourable and strict confidence, and returned, if desired. Bona-fide references exchanged.” – Liverpool Mercury, 18 March 1893

Sounds a bit like the makings of a business arrangement, doesn’t it? Make no mistake, it was.

This one is probably my favorite, she sounds a bit desperate. Likely she does not wish to go abroad, and the only way she can stay at home is to marry.

“MATRIMONY – Lady, good family, aged 25, affectionate, domesticated, £450 yearly, will receive £1,500 if speedily married. Relatives going abroad.” – Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 17 October 1892

This one is likely of a similar nature. The lady has means enough to hire a companion, and now, having lost her, (a servant such as that was a commitment, after all) prefers to marry than replace her. Its also interesting because it appears to give her address, a London address, at that, (or it is that of a friend) rather than using the editor’s address, which is the usual way. (Though often those addressed to the paper were never received.)

“MATRIMONY – A Lady, without near relatives, 32 years, considered prepossessing, and of pleasant disposition, who has been travelling for many years with an elderly Lady, as Companion, now deceased, wishes to Marry. She has £3,000 saved, and desires to meet a Gentleman who can increase her resources for mutual benefit. Miss Hearn, 12, Stonebridge Road, South Tottenham, London, N. – Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 17 October 1892”

This one I find interesting because the Gentleman in question is clearly concerned about following the rules of propriety, even if he does take advantage of the Matrimonials for a little help.

“A GENTLEMAN, aged 32, of independent means, is anxious to correspond with the Friends or Guardians of a young Lady with a view to MATRIMONY. The Lady’s family must be in a position to introduce advertiser into good society. – Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Dublin, Ireland. 12 February 1875”

It could also indicate, by that last line, that he is not in Society, himself, so he either wishes to raise himself (improbable) or he is new to London and without connections of his own. Interesting.

This one is fun:

“TWO Gentlemen, Holding good positions in Cardiff, one aged 23 years, height 6 ft, complexion dark, and the other aged 32, height 6ft 1in., complexion fair, are desirous of arranging interviews with two Ladies, young, good looking, amiable, and possessing means, with view to marriage. Absolutely genuine. No Matrimonial Agency need apply – Address, enclosing photos (which will be returned).” – Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 19 Mar 1892.

Like most writers of the era, I concern myself a great deal with what was right and proper, but considering these advertisements, I’m wondering if there aren’t some more interesting stories to be told in ways I’d not before considered. I think, in general, the Victorians were a far more diverse and enterprising people than most of us have given them credit for. I’m glad to see the stereotypes breaking, and our understanding increasing. Much thanks to Jennifer Phegley for writing her wonderful book, and for continuing to blog and discuss these issues in ongoing interviews. Truly fascinating stuff!

*** I should note that there were also Matrimonial Agencies and Matchmaking Correspondence Clubs, which were oddly effective in their ways, but which will have to be a post for another time.

V. R. Christensen, March 4, 2013. Christensen’s novels and short stories examine courtship and marriage in the Victorian era, see for example, Of Moths and Butterflies, or her short story, Blessed Offense.



  1. Very interesting article, V. R. Thank you!


    • Good post, VR! Probably the shortest matrimonial ad was posted in France in the 1930’s:
      “Seamstress will marry a state employee.”
      They met and married. Sixty years later, they told their story on TV.