Searching for a marriage
The churches in England & Wales have been recording baptisms, marriages and burials at parish level for centuries. However, the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths – in other words, record-keeping by the state – did not begin until July 1837. At that time, the legal jurisdiction of England & Wales was subdivided, for the purposes of registration, into administrative areas known as registration districts. Within each district a district registrar would be appointed to take responsibility for the recording of births, marriages and deaths within their district.
Four times a year, a copy of the district registers was made for the Registrar General, who ingathered all the registers for England & Wales and collated them into a single countrywide index, arranged alphabetically by surname (and then alphabetically by forename within each surname). The indexes to the registers are quarterly rather than annual in scope – the four quarters being known as March, June, September and December. Each of these covers the month itself and the two preceding months, as follows:
- January, February, March registrations in the March quarter
- April, May, June registrations in the June quarter
- July, August, September registrations in the September quarter
- October, November, December registrations in the December quarter
Note that, for the researcher, marriages, unlike births, have the advantage of being registered immediately at the time of the event. Normally, then, where you have an exact date of marriage, you will find the entry for the marriage you are looking for in the same quarter. Please note that our marriage records do not extend as far as the present day. Marriages suffer an unfortunate delay in reaching the central register, as (unlike births and deaths) the information relating to marriages has to be collated from churches and other religious establishments as well as district register offices.
Of the three events of birth, marriage and death, marriages might be the event where most inaccuracies are recorded – sometimes by accident and sometimes by design. The field on the certificate which must be regarded with most caution is that for age – note that what is recorded is declared age rather than proven age. It is therefore not uncommon for bride and/or groom to allow themselves some latitude and – how shall we say? – modify their respective ages. This might be done especially to reduce a disparity in age, where one party is significantly younger than the other. Some early certificates unhelpfully state merely that the bride and/or groom were "of full age", which only suggests that they were over the age of majority, being 21 years of age at that time, and able to marry without their parents’ consent.
Sometimes, a bride or groom might be coy about their marital condition. Previous marriages might be concealed from partners, even when the marriage has been terminated by death or legally dissolved. Bigamy is not so very uncommon that you can rule out the possibility of finding it on your own family tree. In any event, be prepared to treat with caution all declarations of marital status found on marriage certificates.
Where in the country?
Marriages traditionally took place in the parish of the bride, which may or may not be located in the same registration district as the parish of the groom. Eloping was probably more common in fiction than in life but do not be surprised if you find the marriage of an ancestor out of area. You might even want to consider Scottish records for those whose idea of romantic included Gretna Green! It is a common misapprehension that what we would now call common law relationships were rare in the Victorian era. They may have been rarer but they were not so uncommon that you should feel shocked or startled to discover apparent evidence of them on your own tree.
IN whose name?
The indexes record each marriage under the names of both bride and groom, so for every one marriage there will be two entries in the indexes. From March 1912 the spouse’s name was recorded on the indexes so, if you know both names, the correct entry should be immediately identifiable. Before that date, where you know both names you will need to cross-reference any candidate entries against the other surname to see if there is a match. You are looking for a name match first and foremost but need to verify this against the registration district, volume and page number, which will always be identical. It is sensible to search under the more distinctive of the two names, unless you believe that this surname is at serious risk of being mis-spelt or being subject to spelling variation.
If you still have no success, you may wish to consider spelling variations, either those genuinely in use by the family, or those accidentally created by registrars or by those copying them or preparing the indexes.