Marriage House

A history of the Marriage House including the Smeaton Bridge and Jacobs Well

As visitors cross the bridge from England, here is some advice on some of Coldstream's hidden gems:-.  

To those walkers who regularly frequent the Coldstream Bridge, the spot where Jacob’s Well exists is well-known. The well is actually a spring and the surrounding woodland takes its name from the spring. It’s a very small spring which discharges from a pipe in a stonework façade, into a shallow circular depression lined with rough unbonded stonework, approximately 1m in diameter. The water runs in a channel down to the river Tweed. At one time, the spring water was used for whisky blending by Carmichael’s the grocers on the High Street. It is identified as ‘Jacob’s Well’ on the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey map (c.1850) but beyond this very little is known about its origins. There is no mention of it in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland of 1791-1799 and 1834-1845. The name Jacob’s Well may have religious connotations and could refer to a bible story (John 4:6). The well is not scheduled or listed, although it is of local interest and it is visible beneath a boardwalk which protects it from damage. The site was gifted to the Woodland Trust in 1995, prior to that it belonged to the Lennel Estate.

By far, one of the biggest attractions in Coldstream for historians has to be the Marriage House, which is situated at the northern end of Coldstream Bridge. In England, marriages could be transacted without prior notice until 1856, when the law stated that three week’s notice was needed. The Marriage House then became a popular place for runaway couples to be wed and at one time rivalled the famous smithy at Gretna Green. Runaway marriages were also conducted at Lamberton Toll, Mordington Toll and Paxton Toll. It was not only ‘foreign’ couples who made use of the Toll House, but also local couples who preferred the cheaper, less formal option to a full church ceremony. It is said that the runaways were seldom elegant ladies and gentlemen. It is also said that Hastings M. Neville, the long-serving Victorian and Edwardian Rector of Ford, considered that Coldstream was a haven for drunken farm workers who would often regret their commitment to marriage when sober. It sounds like sour grapes! Local men used to perform these services for a small fee of around 5s, often expressing their hopes of sharing a dram or two with the newlyweds in their immediate future.

Many tales have been told of the Marriage House and one is of a bridegroom shooting a pursuer at Cornhill on his way to his wedding. Presumably the pursuer might have been a reluctant father-in-law. Three Lord Chancellors were married in the Marriage House – Lords Eldon, Brougham and Erskine, although some say that Lord Brougham was actually married in the Queen’s Head Inn (Duns Road). Marriages were conducted by ministers (‘priests’), not ordained as church men and included:-

Mr McEwan – tailor, who is said to have worn a clean white waistcoat, sporting the latest fashion. He is said to have been a parson by profession, and it appears that he didn’t associate with the lower order ofColdstreamBridgeparsons;

Patie Mudie – shoemaker, who is said to have worn a tattered, bedraggled suit and a necktie that was once white; and

Will Dixon– shoemaker, who is thought to have always commenced services with, ‘What’s yer name mon, and where d’ye come frae?’ He took up the occupation in 1842 when his wife died, leaving him with three young children to care for. He raised income by carrying out non-church weddings and he kept records, those from 1844 to 1857 are still in existence today. During these thirteen years, it is said that he conducted one thousand, four hundred and forty six marriages, not a bad average rate of around two per week. Coupled with the number counts of other priests, this was quite an industry. Thomas Smith Goldie, Minister of the Parish Church(1830-1859), tried to stop Dickson competing with him and took him as far as the Edinburgh court, but the charge was dismissed. On returning to Coldstream, Dickson was carried shoulder-high along the High Street. Presumably, the Reverend Goldie wasn’t, and he later went on to become a bankrupt. As a result, Dickson left the congregation of theParishChurchand joined theWestChurch, becoming Beadle after retiring from his duties conducting irregular weddings. He died in 1862. 

Another original character was Row Rumple, from Wooler, who came in for ‘stick’ from the Coldstream parsons, mainly because of his crippled disposition. On one occasion, he was travelling by coach to Wooler when unfortunately the vehicle overturned but no one was seriously hurt. Row was soon on his feet, praising to the heavens loudly for his safety when a travelling companion, a stranger to Row, quizzed why the traveller was so happy when his back was broken. This was of course Row’s normal, physical appearance. 

Will Dixon was the last ‘minister’ before ceremonies were outlawed by an Act of Parliament in 1856. By 1866, the Marriage House was a small shop.

Before closing the topic of the Marriage House, here is a snippet from when the institution was in full swing. This is about a certain wedding in 1836 – ‘This is to certify that John Chambers, Husbandman, from the Broomhouse, in the Parish of Chatton, with Mary Walker from Kelso, in the Parish of Kelso, in Roxburgh, was married by me this day. As witness to my hand, William Alexander, Coldstream, 15-12-1836; witnesses Miss Dalgliesh and Miss Archer’. William Alexander must have been another of the ‘informal’ ministers. Today, around one hundred and fifty years after the last wedding at Coldstream Bridge Marriage House, the concept was moved to the former Town Hall where ceremonies are carried out by certified officials. These aren’t runaway marriages as such and Coldstream is by no means yet the Gretna of the east, but they are novel for the participants and they help to bring much-needed trade to the town.

Today, non-church weddings and civil partnerships are conducted in the Marriage Room in the Town Hall. Please refer to the Marriage Room part of this website.

 Below you will see images of:-

The old Marriage House at the end of Coldstream Bridge

The Jacob's Well sign

The wooded, Jacob's Well area

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