by Amy Potter
The Marriage Act of 1836 was an Act of Parliament that for the first time made the government responsible for keeping a lawful and official record of all the Births, Marriages and Deaths in England. The following year – during which time King William IV had died and Victoria had succeeded to the throne – the Act was officially implemented; beginning in the third quarter of the year, 1 July 1837. Whilst marriage licences and certificates had been necessary for a legal marriage for many centuries, 1837 is considered the turning point in civil registration and formal issuing.
In 1838 John Symons and Ann Dimond married in the parish of Luppit, Devon. Their marriage certificate can show many things about the contemporary social climate and documentation procedures that came to define the period. I chose this certificate to analyse as it is the marriage of my great, great, great, great grandparents, and also because it is an example of a very early certificate – when legislation had just been passed and was still in its earliest stages. The year 1837 is of immense importance for modern research into social and family history. The creation and storing of these records make it possible for such research to occur and is undeniably a key legacy of the Victorian period.
Firstly, the certificate shows that John and Ann married on 25 December – Christmas Day. Whilst Christmas Day marriages occasionally take place today, it is interesting to consider why marriages occurred on that day, particularly in a vastly more religious society. It can also be noted from the certificate that it was the fifth marriage of the day in that particular church. From this, Victorian Christmas traditions can be analysed and many suggest that Christmas Day, amongst other Bank Holidays, was a popular day to wed as it was among the few days in a year in which both parties had a day off work, which in itself says much about society and the living and working conditions of the working classes.
The names of the two parties involved, John Symons and Ann Dimond also give reference to the social conditions of the Victorian working class regarding adult literacy. ‘Symons’ and ‘Dimond’ are alternate spellings of ‘Simons’ and ‘Diamond’ and their alternate spelling suggests a number of things. The person filling out the certificate either simply guessed the spellings and did not check, or it is possible also that John and Ann did not know how to spell their own names. In 1840, a third of bridegrooms and half of brides displayed low levels of literacy on their wedding certificate, suggesting very low literacy levels at the start of the Victorian era. Either way, this suggests that accuracy was not of the upmost importance in the earliest stages of registration.
Also interesting is the use of the wording ‘of full age’ in place of a numeric age on the certificate. With the marriage certificate alone, therefore, it is impossible to know what age the couple were at the time of marriage. The question comes about, therefore, of what ‘of full age’ actually means. It could be assumed that it means 21 or above, the legal adult age to marry without parental approval; however it could similarly mean the minimum legal age for marriage, which was 14 for males and 12 for females. Without a definitive, concurrent definition therefore it seems to be the case that ‘of full age’ meant whatever the person filling in the certificate wanted it to. There are arguments that suggest this was often written to avoid any disputes over the marrying couple’s real age– such as in the case of minors – or simply in the case of the person not knowing for definite just how old they were, which was a relatively common occurrence at the time.
From studying an early Victorian marriage certificate it is possible to learn numerous things about the workings of contemporary legislation, regulation and legal standing. We can learn what it was deemed necessary to record – and equally what was not, legal terminology and the extent to which accuracy and specifics were required on official documents. Moreover, modern social history and family history have been transformed by the recording and thus availability of these documents, allowing research into family history that would otherwise not have been possible. Overall, the Marriage Act of 1836 ensured a legacy of the era and has made contemporary research easier and more accessible.
Interview regarding the marriage certificate and family history:
The 1841 Census
During Victoria’s reign, Britain underwent a period of social and political transformation of a magnitude unlike any other, with social and political attitudes firmly at the forefront. The era saw a range of key legislation brought in that would change the shape of the country and go on set the precedent for laws in use today. The 1836 Marriage Act was just the start of a number of Acts that were brought in to revolutionise the documentation and certification of social indexes. Perhaps the most prominent of these was the Population Act of 1840, which saw the implementation of new methods to cope with detailing and recording a rapidly expanding population. For the first time, responsibility was placed with the newly created General Register Office to create a complete record of every citizen. The Act set out the legal framework for a census to be conducted in June 1841. The 1841 census is generally considered to be ‘the first modern UK census’ as the newly introduced measures meant that for the first time the names of each member of every household were documented – along with age, sex and profession.
Like the introduction of marriage certificates the census is considered the first to be genealogically useful for modern historians. It allows near certainty in placing a particular family in a certain place alongside the ability to see all living members of the household. Whilst some aspects are imprecise, such as the practice of rounding ages to the nearest 5, the Victorian era was one of great advancement in social documentation and the new Acts were at the forefront of this lasting legacy.
 <http://www.marriagerecords.me.uk/history-of-marriage/marriage-act-1836/#.VG8cUvmsWSo> [website] accessed 21 Nov 2014
 Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England (Connecticut, 1996)
 <http://www.british-genealogy.com/threads/44704-Typical-Victorian-Marriage-which-day> [ website] accessed 21 Nov 2014
 David F Mitch, ‘The Rise of Popular Literacy in Victorian England: The Rise of Private Choice an Public Policy’ in V. Bailey, History of Education Quarterly (History of Education Society 1994)
Jennifer Phegley, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England (ABC CLIO, 2011)
 <http://www.literary-liaisons.com/article009.html> [website] accessed 21 Nov 2014
 http://www.british-genealogy.com/search.php?searchid=3945435 [website] accessed 21 Nov 2014
** source http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/information-management/reproduction-of-birth-death-marriage-certificates.pdf [website pdf] accessed 5 Jan 2015
 http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/collections1/parliament-and-the-census/1841-census-act/> [website] accessed 5 Jan 2015
 http://www.ukcensusonline.com/census/1841.php [website] accessed 5 Jan 2015
 http://search.ancestry.co.uk/search/group/1841uki [website] accessed 5 Jan 2015
 < http://search.ancestry.co.uk/search/db.aspx?dbid=8978> [website] accessed 5 Jan 2015