Difficulties in Finding a Marriage Certificate

The system of Civil Registration, introduced on 1st July 1837 is a fantastic research tool for family historians.  Its introduction was controversial at the time.  Previously all births, marriages and deaths were entered in church or chapel registers as baptisms, marriages and burials.  The new regime reduced the power of the religious bodies and allowed couples to marry not just in the parish church but also in nonconformist chapels and register offices.  Whereas birth registration was not compulsory until 1874, since 1st July 1837 the Registrar General has been responsible for ensuring all marriages were recorded.  The registration district usually covered several parishes and a huge number of non-conformist chapels and register offices.  The name of registration districts can be misleading.  For example West Derby registration district was not in Derbyshire but was one of the districts within Liverpool.  Parts of York to the east were part of Howden district.  A full list of registration districts is available on the GRO website.

The problems with marriage entries are similar to those raised in my article regarding missing births September 2015.  Once again success depends on the information already gleaned from the census plus birth certificates of the children.  It is often tempting to only apply for the birth certificate for your direct ancestor but the certificates of their siblings, particularly the older children, can reveal more information.

A marriage would normally take place in the parish of residence of one of the parties, which is not necessarily their place of birth.  The first place to expect to find a marriage is in the parish or township where the eldest child was born.  If you are relying on census details to find older children, it is worth remembering that infant mortality was high and there could well be an older child who died very young .

Normally with no form of contraception the first child was born within the first two years of marriage, so that is one starting point.  Prior to 1929 the official legal age of marriage was fourteen for boys and just thirteen for girls.  Census ages are not always correct, enumerators were relying on the informant.  Does everyone remember the age of their spouse and children correctly when asked everytime?   If you have jumped forward and searched for a baptism of a child, the baptism date can be months or even years after birth. 

When searching online you are using a transcribed source.  Usually with marriages you are given three possible entries.  This is because the original marriage registers show three entries per page.  The marriage registers from 1837 were filled in by the registrar or clergy and are normally easily read.  However online sources usually give you the opportunity to search the GRO registers.  This gives you the option to double check all spelling surnames for each particular quarter.  Take into account that the bride or groom may not have been sure of the spelling of their surname and to avoid embarrassment would agree to a suggestion.  Recently in carrying out some research for my wife’s family I found the name Arnott became Harnett and Harnott in the early twentieth century!

Another confusion can be the maiden name or former name of spouses.  If a woman has been married previously her maiden name should be shown as well as her previous married name as “formerly.”  In some cases this is not shown and the “former” name is shown as the maiden   name.  If you suspect this you will need to recheck for a previous marriage and probably previous births.  Children would sometimes take the name of their stepfather, another way of confusing later family historians!

Using the child’s birth certificate, the mother’s maiden name gives you a start in finding the marriage.  If you are unable to locate the probable entry first try searching a few years earlier.  Keep in mind a teenage bride may still have been bearing children thirty years later.  My father’s mother was married in 1897 but my father was born in 1918 when his mother was 43 years old.  If the marriage is still elusive try looking for a previous marriage of the mother. 

As with births the General Register Office records are a copy of the Superintendent’s registers.  It is possible the GRO has missed the entry but this is less likely than with births.  The General Register office holds records for England and Wales and Scotland, Northern Ireland & the Channel Islands have their own system, though similarto England and Wales.   In Scotland the records commence in 1855.  Northern Ireland registered non-Roman Catholic marriages from 1 April 1845 and all marriages were registered from 1 January 1864.  In the Channel Islands marriage registration started in 1837 but I understand from my own research often the early marriages state the age as “full” if over twenty one.  Each island has their own registration service.

British citizens who married abroad would be recorded in the local records but sometimes informed the local consul.  These records are included in the GRO system.

I understand some recent converts to genealogy are not purchasing certificates.  I have seen an advert for one of the online sources which appears to promote this practice of “paperless research”.  Taking into account the amount of information on a marriage certificate, names, ages, addresses, occupations, father’s names all of which should lead you to establishing a correct family tree, it appears to be a highly dubious method.  Without certificates my own researches would have gone up many a blind alley.

Online sources for civil registration:

1       General Register Office: www.gro.gov.uk



2       District Registrars: As GRO above and www.ukbmd.org.uk

3       www.freebmd.org.uk

4       Familysearch.org

5       Plus all the online genealogical sources.


Webmaster and Committee Member. In my spare time I run other websites including: The Friends of Beckett Street Cemetery, The Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery, Yorkshire Indexers and Yorkshire Burials.

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