Welcome to week six of my guide to researching your family tree.


In week two we covered birth records and mentioned how to order certificates online. This week we are going to look at marriage records, another key source for family historians.

Why are marriage records so important? Well, they provide some key information that will not only unlock branches of your tree, but also make sure that you are going in the right direction.

As mentioned in week two, a civil birth record should give you the maiden name of the mother and, using this maiden name, you should be able to find her marriage record. Before 1837, parish registers rarely recorded more than just the names of the bride and groom and the date of the ceremony, but that all changed once civil registration was introduced (from 1837 for England and Wales and 1855 for Scotland).

In England and Wales from 1837 onwards marriage records also included the ‘Rank or Profession’ of the bride and groom (although in reality usually only the groom’s occupation was mentioned, even if the bride was working), as well as the father’s name and occupation for both the bride and groom. The names of two witnesses were also included.

These extra details can be crucial for helping you confidently grow your tree further back. Before 1837, if you found a marriage between a John Smith and a Margaret Johnson you may have an element of uncertainty as to whether they are your family, especially if you find more than one couple with the same names. However, using occupations, you can match a couple to census entries and be more confident that you have found the right couple.

Cheshire marriage records image

These Cheshire marriage records from 1839 include the professions of the bride and groom's fathers

Similarly, with the father’s occupations, it can help you grow those branches of your tree back beyond the marriage. Now that you know what Margaret Johnson’s father did, you may be more confident that you can find her before her marriage with her parents in the census and from there you should be able to find her birth record.

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If a father was deceased this is usually mentioned (although not always) and can help lead to a death record. If the father was not known, you may find a blank here although plenty of people born out of wedlock added either a fictional father or a father substitute here so be wary!

Age at marriage is also included and this can help to confirm you are on the right track and give clues that may lead to other records. People did not always like to give their ages when they didn’t feel it was necessary (or they wanted to hide something) so you may come across ‘Of full age’ which just meant that they were over 21.

One handy thing to know is that if a couple chose to marry in church, the information needed for civil registration of the marriage was collected at that point. That means that the details found in an original parish register are exactly the same as the details you will get if you order a marriage certificate from the GRO.

The reason that’s useful to know is because more and more parish registers are being digitised by commercial sites such as Ancestry and Findmypast as well as independently by record offices or FamilySearch. So, before you fork out £11 for a copy of a marriage certificate, it is always worth checking to see if there are online parish registers for the area you are interested.

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine will be publishing its annual region-by-region guide to all the digitised parish registers in its July issue (on sale 2 June). If you’ve not tried the magazine this is a great issue to get started with as it is often our best-selling issue of the year.

Plus, during lockdown, we’ve introduced a range of easy ways to order the issue or to take out a short subscription. Visit Buy Subscriptions and make sure you order by 15 May to have the July issue as part of your subscription. Or, you can download our free app and buy digital issues instantly.

Although you can order marriage records from the GRO during lockdown, the website is asking people to delay ordering during lockdown if possible, so checking out what’s online is even more important during this time.

Even if you already have an official GRO certificate it is worth checking to see if the original parish register has gone online. Firstly, you will get to see the actual signatures of your ancestors and secondly you can scroll through the other marriages in the church to see if the two witnesses mentioned on your marriage certificate were connected to the bride and groom (either friends or family) or were just ‘professional’ witnesses who would appear on numerous marriage records for the church in question.

Scottish researchers have it a lot easier. Although civil registration didn’t start until 1855, when it did come it, it came in with a bang. On top of the same details asked of English and Welsh couples, in Scotland the couple had to provide the name and maiden name of their mothers as well as, in 1855 only, the place and date of birth of both parties, details of any former marriages (and children from those marriages).

On top of that, Scottish researchers have the benefit that all Scottish civil records have been digitised and are available to order online via ScotlandsPeople. The site is a pay-as-you-go website but the initial search is free and downloading a statutory marriage record costs just six credits (£1.50).

Scotlands People marriage records

1893 marriage records from Largs, Ayrshire, via ScotlandsPeople

Civil registration for marriages started in Ireland in 1845 for non-Catholic marriages and 1864 for Catholic ones. Both indexes and original records for marriages that occurred over 75 years ago can be searched for free on Irish Genealogy (when you have found a marriage you are interested in using the search facility, make sure you click on ‘image’ to see the actual marriage record). For Northern Ireland indexes visit NIDirect, although you have to purchase credits to search. The information provided in Ireland was the same as that for England and Wales.

I hope this quick guide to marriages has been helpful to you. If you can’t find the original record online, you should still be able to find at least the index entry either on one of the main commercial websites or sites such as FreeBMD. Keep a note of the information from this index as you will need it to order a certificate from the GRO once services are running back to normal.

Also, keep a look out in old newspapers for wedding announcements. Although the higher members of society and the aspiring middle classes liked to announce their nuptials in The Times (your library may offer free digital access to their archive), most ordinary people opted for their local paper and these can include fascinating extra details including, sometimes, photographs. Check out the British Newspaper Archive, available on Findmypast for those with a Pro subscription. If it weren’t for newspapers, I would never have found out that my great aunt had designed her wedding cake to look like an electromagnet supporting an X-ray bulb! Family history gold indeed.

Black and white wedding photo

I hope you enjoy tracking down your family weddings. All reminders, I hope, of happy times!