The Free Christian Church and Holt’s Marriage Agency first operated in Melbourne in the late 19th century.  The Agency was established in 1886 as Holt’s New Matrimonial Chambers at 448 Queen St, Melbourne by James Holt.

The Free Christian Church was established in Melbourne in 1883 as a non-denominational congregation. Albert Abbott was elected pastor in 1890. The Rev Pastor Abbott presided over many of the Holt’s weddings.

The Holts were matchmakers and ‘wedding brokers’. Their advertisements outlined the services they offered.

MATRIMONY. Ladies and Gentlemen, every station in life contemplating Matrimony immediately consult proprietors of HOLT’S new MATRIMONIAL CHAMBERS, 422 Queen street Melbourne opposite the Old Cemetery, specially erected by proprietors for introductions and marriages, costing £4000 (Established 1885) INTRODUCTIONS privately arranged between eligible PARTNERS either sex with VIEW to MATRIMONY Only letters containing stamp for reply answered. All communications treated confidentially and managed by proprietors thereby ensuring STRICTEST privacy. Pamphlet forwarded in plain envelope upon receipt of stamp to defray postage. Hours, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, Saturdays included.

The Argus, 7 March 1896, p.1

The agency and their celebrants were often in hot water for disobeying the rules prescribed by the Marriage act.

The law relating to applications for marriage licenses and the requirements concerning Ministers and witnesses is located in the Victorian Marriage Act of 1890. The most relevant sections are 4 and 6 to 14. An earlier act titled Marriage and Matrimonial Causes Statute (no 268) dated 1864 is also relevant.

Picture of decorative title of Marriage Act 1890

Marriage Act 1890

At the time if you were under 21 you had to provide evidence of a parent or guardian’s approval.

A 1902 article in the Argus titled Matrimonial Agencies City Court Disclosures illustrates this well:

Rachael Summers, a young woman of 18, was charged with inducing, and her husband James Summers with inciting her to induce a clergyman to celebrate the marriage of the parties without first obtaining the consent of her parent or guardian. Lewis Abramovitch describing himself as a minister of the Gospel of the Free Christian Church stated that he was authorised to celebrate marriages. He confirmed Rev Pastor Abbott as head of the Free Christian Church. The accused were committed for trial, husband and wife being admitted to bail on sureties of £50 and £20 respectively.

Image of newspaper headline: "A church scandal. Charges against Pastor Abbott. Public meeting at Collingwood. Pastor Abbot in Reply"
Headline from Melbourne Herald, 28 December 1893, p. 1

There are some amusing court reports in the newspapers regarding dubious marriages performed by ministers employed by the Holts. Free Christian Church celebrant Rev Abbott, often employed by the Holts, gained a quite notorious reputation.

The Melbourne Herald details a meeting called to inquire into charges made against the Rev Abbott dating back about twelve months. The congregation split and the seceders called a public meeting at the Foresters’ Hall, Collingwood.

Rev Abbott was accused with forging a Mr Howard’s name to an application for a licence to marry. There were also complaints about his undue familiarity with a young lady member of the church. He denied all of the charges brought up at the meeting.

Image of newspaper headline: "Pastor Abbott's Flock. The brethren meet. Extraordinary allegations. The Pastor's defence. Ladies interpose. Some perculiar tactics. Scene outside the building"
Headline from The Argus 8 December 1896, p. 5

Rev Abbott was never far from the news. The article above details an accusation of misconduct with one of the Church sisters.

An accuser, Brother W.H. Bilton recalled:

In the railway train on my way from a suburban meeting I saw some liberty taken that should never be taken by a Christian man. There was a sister in the carriage and she had a little handbag. Pastor Abbott took the bag. I don’t know exactly whether it was in her hand or on her knee. Pastor Abbott opened the bag and there was some preserved ginger in it. He held it up and he said, ‘Ginger for pluck.’ That is not the act of a Christian man. And a man who can’t be trusted in a railway carriage, can’t be trusted in a church.

The Argus, 8 December 1896, p.5

Rev Abbott stared down his accusers and at the end ‘his stalwart form’ was ‘an indomitable cliff, round which surged a vast sea of young ladies.’ (The Argus 8 December 1896, p. 5).

Image of newspaper headline: "Marriage making extraordinary. The matrimonial agency. A bridegroom sued"
Headline from The Weekly Times 19 May 1894, p. 14

Another story concerned two German soldiers who migrated to Australia on the steamer Salier. Shortly after arrival in Melbourne one expressed a desire to get married. They saw an advertisement for Holt’s Matrimonial Agency. The prospective groom took his friend on a number of visits to Holt’s to act as interpreter.

They were almost daily in attendance at Holt’s agency, and eventually about the middle of October defendant found a lady to his liking, who resided at Auburn. An interview took place at Holt’s agency, and about two weeks subsequently defendant and the lady got married.

Weekly Times 19 May 1894, p. 14

The two friends then fell out with one demanding payment for helping the other negotiate with the Holts. He took his claim for payment to court but the judge dismissed the case

A different angle is covered in an article published in Table Talk titled Matrimonial Agency and Usury.

This piece is taken from the preamble.

The public are still old fashioned enough to be scandalised when an undertaker invents a “church” and gets himself registered as a “minister of religion” qualified to celebrate marriages. But they tolerate shop-keepers and “matrimonial agents” keeping some wretched, discredited, real minister to perform the ceremony of marriage with about as much devotional spirit as the historical blacksmith of Gretna Green.

The article then goes on to discuss in detail the case of Riddock v Holt

Mrs Helen Riddock inherited property under the will of her mother valued at £1000 and she asked the Court to declare that a transfer she had made of this property to Mrs Annie Holt, a matrimonial agent carrying on business in Swanston Street, was a security only and not a gift.

In February 1906, the Holt’s Free Christian Church celebrant Rev Abbott found himself again the centre of controversy. He was giving a service at the Temperance Hall when Rebecca Haldane jumped up on the stage and attacked him with an umbrella. His assailant accused Abbott of a bigamous marriage in New Zealand some 26 years before (The Ballarat Star 20 February 1906, p. 3). She was later fined 5 shillings. (The Age 27 February 1906, p. 7).

Black and white drawing of Rev. A. J. Abbott
Rev. A. J. Abbott, Melbourne Herald, 28 December 1893, p. 1

Photographs of the Holts are difficult to find. A clue to Annie’s reluctance is found in a lengthy interview- ‘Hymen’s high priestess: the matrimonial agency business’ conducted by Nebo with Mrs Holt and subsequently published in Melbourne Punch 31 May 1894, p. 347:

The following quote helps to explain the situation:

I endeavoured to persuade Mrs Holt to let me have her portrait in order that my readers might verify my personal description of this high priestess of Hymen but here I was unsuccessful. With a smile she reminded me that it was against her rule to submit portraits and in the pleasantest and most agreeable manner she hand shook me out of the terrestrial heaven in which matches are made. 1

The reputation of Holt’s Matrimonial Agency spiralled downwards as regular controversies and court cases arose. In 1897, during a bigamy case, the Chief Justice remarked:

It appeared that he met her in the street three days before he married her that they had drinks, remained together that night, and were married in one of those rascally places still permitted to blight this community – Holt’s Matrimonial Agency

The Argus 18 November 1897, p. 6.

Holt’s was still making the news in 1909, again accused of complicity in a bigamy case.

“The jury cannot find words to express their indignation that such agencies as Holt’s should be allowed to exist.” …. The Chief Justice said he was in strong accord with the jury’s rider. He could not imagine why a community so well organised as ours on the whole should continue for a length of time to endure the existence of such agencies. They were, he added, mere challenges to crime.

Geelong Advertiser, 17 August 1909, p.6

The Agency was still operating in 1920 but by 1925 they had vacated their Queen Street premises. The Rev Pastor Abbott was unbowed by controversy and proud of his record at conducting marriages.

Many unwarrantable and unholy attempts have been made to break up the Work by those whose lives were unworthy of the name of Christ, but Mr.Abbott has always demanded to meet his traducers face to face, and none ever succeeded in substantiating any charge made against him… There is no question but that Mr.Abbott officiates at more weddings than any other minister in Australia. It has been stated on reliable authority that he celebrates an average of 80 marriages per month. 2

Rev Abbott died in 1941 (The Argus 28 May 1941, p. 4).

  1. There is an intriguing illustration of the Holts on the Beyond the name: a life in time website.
  2. Author of Popular Preachers of our day, 1901, A brief sketch of the life and labors of Pastor A.J. Abbott, Minister of the Melbourne Free Christian Assembly. McCutchan & Co., Melbourne, p. 16

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