With grateful thanks to Anthony Marr (@ChalfontR) and Rebecca Probert (@ProfProbert), gurus on marriage registration and law, from whom I have learnt most of this. I strongly recommend attending their lectures and reading Prof Probert’s books given a chance. Pharos also run helpful courses eg regards non-conformity.
(The photo above is the wedding of Fred Taylor and Nell Bowden 1913, note it includes the minister, and next to him the only photo I have of Emanuel Bowden my great grandfather. )
Many of us are aware of changes in the marriage laws which have taken place in our own lifetime – it is only since 1994 that a wide variety of wedding venues could be licensed. In 2005 Civil Partnerships became legal, followed in 2014 by Same Sex Marriages. Most recently, in 2021 there were changes to the information on the marriage certificate, including the mothers’ names for example and changes to the system of recording. Additionally certificates are now printed, unlike the handwritten copies our parents and ancestors received.
Understanding some of the history can help us make the most of marriage records, understand and take note of all the details, and help us understand our ancestors marriage experience. Historically in England the Church governed marriage through ‘Canon law’ from 1700 until parliament stepped in with Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753. This stated that, with the exception of Jews and Quakers, marriages had to be within the Church of England, in the parish of residence. (The Clandestine Marriages Act 1753 etc etc are beyond this brief summary).
All family historians are aware that civil registration became a legal requirement for marriages from 1 July 1837. The 1836 Act also stated who could marry a couple, and that marriages could be outside the Anglican Church, but had to be in ‘a registered place of worship’. To apply to be registered, dissenting churches had to worship in ‘a separate building’, and needed 20 householders to state this was their regular place of worship.
Ideally a couple would be married in their usual place of worship. If that was not registered they could get married in a different church in the same district (from 1840 it could be a different district but was then required to be the usual place of worship of the couple). Alternatively a registered church of a different denomination could be used. So you could, for example, find baptists being married in a Methodist chapel or vice versa.
Marriages were only allowed between 8am and 12 noon, which is why some registers state the time. A minister was not legally required, but the presence of a Registrar was.
The marriage register, held by the local Registration Office, had to be completed in special non-fading Registrar’s blue/black ink, and a copy sent to the General Register Office. A copy of the entry was given to the couple and that is what we think of as the marriage certificate.
For a marriage to be valid the couple had to both be of age, or have parents consent and be above the minimum age. They each had to freely consent to the marriage. They should not already be married to each other or anyone else, and should not be too closely related (e.g. siblings). Notice was to be given, banns read or a licence purchased.
The initial declaratory vow the bride and groom make during the wedding ceremony states that they fulfil these criteria “I know of no lawful impediment why I (name) may not be joined in matrimony to (name)”.
The second vow is the contract – “I take thee to be my lawful wedded husband or wife”, which must be formally witnessed by at least 2 people. These witnesses may have been members of the church, perhaps strangers at times, but often were relatives of those getting married, so genealogists ignore the witness names at their peril. The Minister or even the registrar may also have been well known to our ancestors, as many people’s social life centred around their church or chapel.
So, after lengthy discussion and numerous re-wordings of the Act, when parliament did finally agreed to legalise non-conformist marriages, we might expect to find the Methodists rushing to register their chapels so they could perform their own marriage ceremonies. But this did not happen. By 1851 only about 1 in 20 was registered. Why? Methodism’s founders including John Wesley (1703-1791), did not see themselves as a dissenting group, they were within the Anglican Church. By 1837 Methodism had broken away, but perhaps still did not really consider themselves to be true dissenters. They did not have any specific theological differences regards marriage, so had not actively campaigned for the law to be changed, unlike other dissenting groups. Whatever the reason, the Methodist Conference (the hierarchy) was happy for marriages to continue to take place in the Anglican Church.
Couples also had the option of a Registry Office wedding, and for the first two decades religious statements were allowed in those ceremonies, unlike today.
The “First Annual Report of the Registrar-General on Births, Deaths, and Marriages in England, in 1837-8″ published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London tells us that 11,481 marriages were registered in that first year (1st July 1837 – 30th June 1838) and gives an idea of the proportions of marriages in different places.
(Jul., 1839, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 269-274, published online by Wiley for the Royal Statistical Society Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2337712)
107,201 Anglican marriages
4,280 Other marriages, of which:
2,976 in a Registered Place of Worship
1,093 in the Office of a Superintendent Registrar
76 were Quaker ceremonies
135 were Jewish ceremonies.
The Anglican marriages are further subdivided:
9 by Special License
13,677 by License
68,410 by Banns
493 by Certificate from a Superintendent Registrar
(24,612 not stated)
The initial annual report (accessed https://archive.org/details/sid14148170 ) only included 82 Methodist registered places of worship out of 1,257 registered buildings, although Methodists were about 50% of dissenters by that time.
However, it was clear Methodist ministers did not have the same status or authority as Anglicans, and perhaps it was this that meant Methodists did become involved in subsequent campaigns to change the law. From 1898 non-conformist churches could apply to have their own “Authorised Person” to carry out marriage registration, so a registrar no longer needed to attend. Unfortunately the law’s division into registration districts that meant each Methodist Minister, to be an authorised person in the churches across their area, would have had to become an “Authorised Person” with each registration district their circuit covered.
Sticklepath Wesleyan Methodist Chapel registered in 1839, not among those first 82, but ahead of most. When a place of worship was registered this was gazetted, published in The London Gazette, which can be freely searched online.
The London Gazette 26 February 1839. Issue:19710 Page:398
Notice is hereby given, that a separate building, named the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, situated at Sticklepath, in the parish of Sampford Courtenay, in the county of Devon, in the district of Okehampton, being a building certified according to law as a place of religious worship, was, on the 18th day of February 1839, duly registered for solemnizing marriages therein, pursuant to the act of 6th and 7th William 4, Chap 85. Witness my hand this 20th day of February 1839, Henry Hawkes, Superintendent Registrar.
The Chapel’s Register was duly started by the same Henry Hawkes
(yes there are those who think this was the Harry Hawkes who went to Widecombe Fair… along with Tom Pearse who we will find on the next page…)
The first marriage is documented on 9th July 1839, between Richard Jessop, ironmonger, and Elizabeth Malins, a spinster, both of Okehampton. The service was led by Rev. James Stote and the Registrar in attendance was Henry Newton.
The Marriage was announced with no fuss in the Western Times on Saturday 13th July, just mentioning it was “in the presence of Mr Newton the Registrar and other respectable persons of the neighbourhood”.
I note the first witness was Thomas Pearse, a woolen mill and serge factory owner in Sticklepath who by 1848 was himself a Registrar. He perhaps wanted to relieve the burden on Henry Newton, and would have enjoyed an excuse to visit chapels around the circuit.
Look carefully at any marriage certificate and related register entries to understand exactly when (in relation to marriage laws) and where the couple were married and question why there. This couple came from Okehampton, presumably because no Methodist Chapel was registered there at the time. This Chapel register does not include father’s names or occupations, but some have extra information or notes in the margin. For non-conformist weddings always check the wording on the certificate of the type of ceremony, where it took place and the name of the registrar or authorised person who made the ceremony legal. Make a note of the witnesses and consider how they may have been chosen. Glancing through the Chapel register you may see the names repeated if they were church members that were chosen, or repeated names may suggest links between family members.
Henry Newton attended all 26 weddings in Sticklepath from July 1839 – July 1848, and more after that too. An average of 3 weddings per year in the chapel.
13th May 1898 would be before there was an ‘Authorised person’ who could conduct marriages. So we can see Seth Harry Registrar was present. Thomas Trethewey conducted the service but was not a legally necessary person. He lived in Sticklepath with his daughters who ran a dame school and would have been very well known to Albany and Georgina who both attended Sticklepath Chapel regularly (when Albany, a local preacher was not preaching elsewhere).
Did you spot that they were married in Sticklepath Wesleyan chapel according to the rites and ceremonies of the Wesleyan Methodists, by certificate. Sticklepath, Sampford Courtenay (parish) and registration district Okehampton. The witnesses are siblings of the bride. This document is actually a later copy, written out 8th October 1898, by Deputy Superintendent Registrar S Hawkin, certified to be a true copy of the entry in the Register Book of Marriages. I wonder why they wanted a copy then?
There is much more history to learn, for example, there was also a time when divorced Anglicans got re-married in non-conformist chapels, but perhaps we’ll leave that for another day.
How did your bride get to church? This one walked through Sticklepath in July 1986, while a policeman parted the heavy tourist traffic on its way to Cornwall to allow her across the road!
Questions arising – When did taking a photograph of signing the register become a thing?
Sticklepath Chapel is now closed. Who were the last couple to get married there? and when?
Any questions, comments, notes of inaccuracies, or answers will be welcomed!