By Doreen Hopwood

Hopwood Family History
Finding and using

marriage records

Most people only have one surname, but each of us has two parents. Most were married. Fortunately for family historians, records of marriages have been kept in Britain for centuries. They are therefore one of the key building blocks of family trees. Anthony Adolph looks at these wonderful records in detail, and explores how best to find and use them


"In most cases, marriage records will open up a new line for research. Besides tracing back the groom's surname line, you will also have a new surname and a new family line to pursue, should you wish"

The birth and baptism records of your earliest known ancestors are the places where you are most likely to encounter the names of the previous generation. If tracing ancestry was much simpler, you could next look for that generation's birth or baptism records, and thus work back into the mists of time.

In reality, tracing back is not so simple. Proving a family tree involves gaining not one but several coordinates on an individual, to ensure that, when a birth or baptism is found, it's the right one. Of these co-ordinates, marriage records are of key importance. Birth or baptism records will almost always tell you whether your ancestors' parents were married. If so, you then know that a marriage record will exist and can set out confidently to look for it. It, in turn, will tell you more about the couple. Even if it only tells you a little bit, the information still provides one of those extra co-ordinates that can prove to be of key importance in your research.

In England and Wales, from July 1837 onwards, we have General Registration records. Birth records will state that the parents were married by describing the father in such terms as 'Edward Smith' and the wife as 'Mary Smith formerly Evans', meaning that wife had been born an Evans, but had become a Smith due to marriage. If she's described as 'Mary Smith late Jones formerly Evans', then she had been married twice, first to Mr Jones, and then to her present husband, Mr Smith.

Before 1837, we generally have to rely on parish registers (and their copies, bishops' transcripts) of marriages and baptisms. These are usually less detailed, but a baptism will indicate that the parents were married by


Alfred Crick and Louisa Simpson

Did they worry over the validity of their first marriage?

Researching her husband's family, Elizabeth Lake found the 1859 London marriage certificate of his ancestors, Alfred Crick and Louisa Simpson. She entered details of them on Genes Reunited and was contacted by Gina Sanderson, who was descended from the same couple. 'However', Gina told her, 'you've got the wrong marriage year - Alfred and Louisa were married in Buckinghamshire in 1852'.

The result was two marriage certificates for what appeared to be the same couple. Alfred was described as a soldier both times. Both fathers' names and occupations were identical, and even one of the witnesses, David Pendle, appears on both documents. Baring an extraordinary coincidence, it really does look as if they married twice. There's no logical reason why. Once Alfred and Louisa married in 1852, they were married. A second marriage was completely unnecessary and, had the London registrar known about the 1852 marriage, he would have turned them away. Presumably, they didn't tell him.

When they married in 1859, they said they were 35 and 24 respectively, making Louisa only 17 when she married the first time. But in 1852, although she was not of full age - 21 - she said she was, thus enabling her to marry her much older soldier-lover without needing her parents' consent. I think that the knowledge that she had lied made her (wrongly) doubt that her first marriage was valid, hence her desire to be wedded again, 'properly', once she was older.

CERTIFIED: Two marriage certificates for the same couple! This time there's a logical explanation


stating that the baptisee was a child of 'Edward and Mary Smith'. Baptism registers seldom, frustratingly, state the mother's maiden name - you must find the correct marriage to discover that.

But couples could lie. They did not have to produce written evidence of a marriage when they registered births or had children baptised, so if they wanted to pretend they had been married when in fact they had not, they could. Sometimes, you will find them surreptitiously getting married later on. Other times, they never did. There's no real way around such problems, other than being aware of the possibility in advance - fortunately, this isn't a problem that arises very often.

In most cases, marriage records will open up a new line for research. Besides tracing back the groom's surname line, you will also have a new surname and a new family line to pursue, should you wish. Of course, you don't have to research each female line, and indeed to research all female lines of ancestry can be a lifetime's work. But it's always worth spending a little time looking at brides' families. Just as the confluence of two family lines in each generation makes us genetically diverse, it is also this factor that makes family trees so dynamic and interesting. It's worth asking how they met, and why did they marry? The answers may provide new information about your ancestors' lives before they married, and clues as to where they came from.

For example, while some men literally married the 'girl next door' (something you can find out from, say, a census return made shortly before a 19th century wedding), most tended to look a little further a-field. The market was a place where future couples could meet: working out where this market was indicates the broader landscape and society in which your forebears grew up, and probably where their immediate forebears lived as well. Apprentices often married their masters' daughters, while men engaged in particular trades or occupations would often marry the daughters of older men in similar lines of work.

Just as occupations often led to the choice of wife, so too could religion. Until very recently, marriage between


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