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Saturday, 14 April 2012

Family Records: Marriage Certificates (and where to go next)

'Married When June Roses Grow’

Ten tips on marriage certificates and where to go next

[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2010]

You’ve got the marriage certificate, but where do you go from here? You can find out a great deal more about your ancestors and their marriage on the internet providing you know where to look and the right questions to ask.

1. When did they marry?
My great grandparents, William Symes and Elizabeth Terrell married on June 2nd 1884. 


The marriage certificate of my great-grandparents, William Symes and Elizabeth Terrell, 1884. My own collection.
According to the website this was a Monday - perhaps chosen for its association with good health (see box). June was probably the most popular month in Victorian times for wedding nuptials. A popular verse promised that ‘Married when June Roses Grow, O’er Land and sea you’ll go.’ (For a full version of the verse see: There was also a superstition about bad luck following couples who married in the month of May (‘Marry in May and you’ll rue the day’) which meant that vicars were often kept busy at the end of April and the beginning of June.

Monday for health,
Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday best of all,
Thursday for losses,
Friday for crosses,
Saturday for no luck at all

Bear in mind that marriages were more popular on certain days of the year in specific parts of the British Isles. New Year’s Day, for example, was an auspicious day for Scottish weddings. For more on the superstitions around the days and months on which to marry see: To find out the date of Easter in the year that your ancestors married and the dates of other important religious festivals (from any denomination) visit

You can check online to see what, if any, significant national or world events took place in the year of your ancestors’ marriage at  The website  gives the key events in British and World history in 1884 as well as listing contemporary world leaders, and memorable moments in culture and the arts. Local newspapers, often available to view on microfiche in local libraries, can provide fascinating insights into the world with which your ancestors would have been familiar. Particularly relevant to William and Elizabeth would have been the opening, in the same month as their marriage, of a new Manchester railway station – Manchester Exchange Station. Since William’s job (as a carter, see point 7 below) involved the transportation of goods from stations to warehouses around the city, this would have welcome news.  

Wedding dresses like this one would have been in fashion around the time of the wedding, but it is unlikely that Elizabeth Symes, a domestic servant, would have worn one. From the Girl’s Own Paper Feb 28th, 1885, Vol VII, No, 270 p 345

2. Where did they marry?

The marriage certificate gives the place of William and Elizabeth’s marriage as the Parish Church of St Mary, Beswick in the County of Lancaster.  A search at shows that this church was a new one in the area having been founded in 1878 – just six years before the marriage.

Find a photograph of the church in which your ancestors married at - a website which aims ultimately to have photographs of all the churches in Britain and Ireland. Postcards with pictures of churches can be searched at You may also find pictures of churches at the British Listed Buildings site More information about churches from many denominations can be found through

The Marriage Act of 1753 declared that all marriage ceremonies in England and Wales must be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England. Jews and Quakers were exempt from this Act, but Non-Conformists and Catholics had to be married in Anglican Churches. After the Marriage Act of 1836, Non-Conformists and Catholics could be married in their own churches. Non-religious civil marriages could also be made in registry offices after this time. In practice, however, most couples chose to marry in church.

3. Who were the witnesses to the marriage and is it relevant that they could sign their names?

The witnesses of William and Elizabeth’s marriage were the bride’s father, William Terrell, her two sisters, Jane and Annie, and ‘William Dibble’ (the man who later married Jane Terrell and became William’s brother-in-law). Interestingly, all the witnesses came from Elizabeth’s side of the family reminding me of the fact that William (a migrant to Manchester from the South West) had no relations in Manchester.

Many witnesses to nineteenth-century marriages were relations of the marrying couple. If a blood connection with the witnesses is not obvious, take a look at the nearest census in time to your ancestors’ wedding date, you may find that the witnesses were in fact neighbours of your family.

The Education Act of 1870 aimed to guarantee the attendance at school of children between the ages of 5 and 13. Don’t assume, however, that because witnesses could write their names, they could read and write properly. It is estimated that it was not until 1914 that 99% of the population were literate. Many witnesses to marriages simply signed the register with a cross. This is probably because they were illiterate, but don’t rule out the other possibility - they may well simply have been too drunk to sign on the day of the nuptials!

4. What rights did my female ancestor have within marriage at this time?

Elizabeth Terrell married just two years after the passing of the momentous Married Women’s Property Act (1882). This allowed women, for the first time in history, to keep any property they owned before marriage and to keep any earnings that they acquired after marriage. The Act probably had little effect on the Symes/Terrell marriage as Elizabeth, a domestic servant, would have owned nothing before marriage and probably gave up work on marriage.

Women’s rights in marriage improved slowly but surely during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To find out more about what your female ancestor was entitled to expect see: see

5. What can I learn from my ancestors’ ages at marriage?
At 28, William and Elizabeth were slightly above the average age at which men and women in England and Wales married in the last decades of the nineteenth century. According to the Every Woman’s Encylopedia, the average age for women marrying in 1896 (12 years after the Symes/Terrell marriage) was 25.08 and men 26.59 . In 1884, these figures would have been slightly lower. The fact that William was as old as 28 when he married may be explained by the secret revealed at point 10 below.
During the 19th century the minimum age at which marriage was permitted (with parental consent) was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy. In 1929, the Ages in Marriage Act  raised this to 16 for both sexes. Until the age of 21, marriages had to have the consent of parents or guardians.

6. How can I find out more about what the wedding was actually like?

William and Elizabeth were working-class people. As such, it is likely that their wedding went ahead with very little fuss. For many historic traditions and superstitions at weddings see:  For a brief history of the wedding dress in Britain see: But remember that many of the fashions and traditions described on the web apply to middle and upper-class brides only.

In working-class unions such as that between William and Elizabeth, it was common for the couple to have brief ceremony in church and to then go home for a wedding breakfast. Afternoon weddings only became popular after 1886 when there was a change in the canonical hours. Often the bride’s mother would have stayed at home to prepare this. Elizabeth may have worn a white dress (which was common for bridal gowns after the wedding of Queen Victoria in 1840) but is more likely that bride and groom both simply wore their Sunday best. In fact, so understated was the working-class wedding that William may well have gone to work on the afternoon.

7. Where can I find out more about my ancestors’ occupations?

William Symes’s occupation on his marriage certificate is given as ‘carter’. The same term is used to describe the work of both his father, ‘William Symes’ and his father-in-law, ‘William Terrell’. In the nineteenth-century city, carters (using horse-driven vehicles) were important carriers of produce and people.  For more on male occupations in history see or

On the marriage certificate, Elizabeth Terrell is described as a ‘domestic servant’. I found out a little more about this from the 1881 census where she is recorded as working as a cook for the family of a lawyer  in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. Remember that on the marriage certificates of many women (particularly in the middle and upper classes), the space for occupation was usually left blank as the task of running the domestic household was not considered to be work. Also, much paid work undertaken by working-class women such as laundering, charring, and laying out the dead went unrecorded.

For a useful alphabetical list of both men’s and women’s occupation as recorded in the 1891 census for London see

8. What can I learn about my ancestors’ place of residence at the time of marriage?

According to the certificate, my great-grandparents lived very near to each other prior to their marriage: William at 6 Brewery Street, Ashton New Road, Manchester and Elizabeth at 18 Forrest Street, Beswick in the same city. They married, as was customary,  at a church in the bride’s parish. To count as such, the bride had to have lived in the parish for fifteen days prior to the banns first being read.

For more information on your ancestors’ residence at the time of their marriage, try entering the relevant place name at or Local history societies can provide more detailed information about specific areas, see Local libraries and archives will, in all probability, have photographs of the area and even the street in which your ancestor was born.  A new website allows people to attach old photographs of places to a map of Britain – your ancestor’s street may just be online.

9. Where else might I find information about my ancestors’ marriage?

Records of your ancestor’s marriage will be kept in the parish register relating to the church in which they married. Many of these have been transcribed and can be accessed online or via a CD: see for more information. Original parish registers may be kept in the original church or in the County Record Office. Their location can be searched at

It is also possible that your details of the marriage have been recorded in a Family Bible. But be careful, details recorded a long time after the event may be full of errors.

10. Can I believe everything I read on a marriage certificate?

In short, no. The marriage certificate featured here startlingly includes two falsifications.

First, William Symes gives his marital status as ‘bachelor,’ when in fact he was a widower - a fact I discovered from the 1881 census.

Secondly William’s father is given on the certificate as ‘William Symes, deceased’. In fact, the groom was illegitimate. I traced his birth certificate and found that no father is recorded. William took his surname from his mother, Emma Symes. In his early years he was brought up by his grandfather whose name was also William Symes, and it is likely that he simply used this name on the certificate to cover up an embarrassing situation.

Useful Books

Paul Atterbury and Hilary Kay, The Wedding: 150 Years of Down the Aisle Style, David and Charles, 2006

Molly Dolan Blayney, Wedded Bliss: Victorian Courtship and Marriage, Abbeville Press, 1992.

Avril Lansdell, Wedding Fashions 1860-1980 (History in Camera), Shire Publications, 1986

Margaret Ward, Female Occupations: Women’s Employment from 1840-1950, Countryside Books, 2008.

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit:

Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Europe, marriage, marriage certificates, England

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