Keith's Chapel

Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
August 2023

Keith's Chapel was the site in Curzon Street of irregular marriages performed by Rev. Alexander Keith (d. 1758). It stood on the south side of the street next to the Curzon Chapel, built in 1730 as part of the developments by Edward Shepherd (c.1692–1747) on the site of the recently suppressed May Fair. It was often called the May Fair Chapel.

Keith was the first incumbent, but his heavily advertised weddings conducted for all and sundry without the usual formalities aroused the opposition of Dr. Andrew Trebeck (1681–1759), rector of the huge new parish of St. George’s, Hanover’s Square, in which the chapel lay. As a result Keith was prosecuted in the ecclesiastical court, excommunicated, and sentenced to prison, originally Newgate, subsequently the Fleet, where he would die. Throughout his incarceration he continued to advertise his services, carried out on his behalf in the adjoining house on the corner of Chapel Street by assistants who were probably unlicensed. The passing of Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act in 1753 made the practices illegal, that is banned de jure as well as de facto. Keith protested vehemently in print from his cell in the Fleet, but his once lucrative business was doomed.

Curzon Chapel itself teetered on the edge of legality, hosting some hasty weddings that barely passed scrutiny. One of the most notable of these was one in 1752, just before the Act came into force, between the sixth Duke of Hamilton and the celebrated beauty Elizabeth Gunning, which supposedly took place after midnight following a Valentine’s Day party. A later case involved the notorious bigamous marriage in 1769 of Elizabeth Chudleigh to the second Duke of Kingston, made possible by the fact that the bride had obtained a ruling from the consistory court that she was a spinster (later overturned in a famous trial before the House of Lords).

Over time the reputation of the Curzon Chapel improved, and it became a place for fashionable weddings. It was demolished in 1899 so that William K. Vanderbilt could build a London home named Sunderland House on the site for his son in law and daughter, the ninth Duke of Marlborough and his wife Consuelo. Before it was fully decorated, the marriage had collapsed. Following the couple’s separation in 1906, the Duchess continued to live there for a number of years, but the property was sold in the 1920s. During World War II, the building was badly damaged by an air raid and after serving as a bank it was later reconverted into a private residence, now named Lombard House and owned by a member of the Qatar royal family.