In “Chapel of Love”, the Dixie Cups’ 1964 hit single, we recognise the idealised picture of a modern wedding – taking place in the spring or summer months and offering the prospect of fine weather: a day imbued with promise and hope for the future.
But has the summer wedding always been king? Firmly anchored in our own era, we can easily forget that customs, preferences and practicalities change over time. It’s important not to let an attachment to modern day practices sway our judgment when working with historical marriage records.
Sometimes we can makes a reasonable guess at the reasons behind our ancestors’ choice of wedding date – not least if you happen upon a birth registration for their child only a couple of months after the wedding! – but often their motivations are destined to remain a mystery.
Digging down into local and national trends can help us explore wedding trends a little: ages, dates. The numbers, as we shall see, reveal their own secrets.
Where to start?
Not everyone necessarily finds numbers an inviting prospect – but believe me, they can tell us some amazing stories if we’ll let them! So here’s a bit of the “business stuff” before we journey back in time…
One of your first stops should be the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The largest independent producer of official UK statistics, they also oversee the decennial England & Wales census. Whether you’re interested in occupations, health, wealth, birth, death or much else besides, their site lets you view summaries and download raw data giving valuable insights into our evolving population.
The past 70 years have seen an incredible 22 million weddings in England and Wales, with the annual total peaking around 400,000 in 1972 (source: ONS). Some of the ONS open data sets summarise all the registered marriages since records began in 1837.
I’ve used two main data sets here:
- ONS 2011 data release for Number of marriages, marriage rates and period of occurrence;
- ONS 2011 data release for Age and previous marital status at marriage.
These are just a couple of examples of what’s available from the ONS, so I hope you might be inspired to do some digging of your own on subjects that interest you.
The Imprint of War
Were your family’s marriage ages affected by both World Wars?
First of all, let’s look at the median age of women at marriage over roughly 160 years. This measure gives you the middle value if you lined up all the data in size order, which avoids skew from extremal (really small or large) values.
At the outset of civil registration, the average woman married for the first time in her early twenties; if widowed, she remarried in her late thirties. This continued mostly unchanged for the next 60 years, albeit with a slight upward trend.
Reach the 1900s however, and one particular – and sobering – feature of the results confronts you.
The savage drop in the median age of widows remarrying in the early 1920s and late 1940s (seen on the uppermost line in dark blue) tells its own story of the devastation wreaked upon communities and families by the World Wars. The age of widows at remarriage fell sharply then by 5-7 years because of the sheer scale of young widowhood at the time.
Many of these post-war widows came to their second marriage still with the bloom of youth, yet carrying the burden of their lives’ experiences – but perhaps still hoping for a second chance at a happy ending.
It might be a line on the graph here, but remember that those two sharp dips represent thousands of young women whose husbands didn’t come home. Lives stopped all too soon.
Inanimate numbers can yield dark truths when you drill down into them.
The wars’ legacy upon male mortality hits home when you compare the women’s age graph with an equivalent one for the men.
The age of widower remarriage does fall slightly in the post war periods (wars claimed many female lives as well – whether of women serving in auxiliary services or of civilian lives lost to bombing). Nonetheless, the scale of widowhood dominates the marriage landscape of immediate post-war eras.
Beyond the wars, improved social and medical care have meant that we’re living longer. Widows and widowers are made later in life and the remarriage ages continue that upward trend.
When did people marry?
“Chapel of Love” was clearly a product of its time: our ancestors weren’t always after a spring or summer ceremony. Some definite trends emerge when examining the percentage of marriage registrations for each quarter from 1838 to 2011.
Since the number of marriages registered each year varied, I’ve represented each quarter’s registrations as a percentage of the annual total.
In the decades following the start of civil registration, the national trend was very much for a late autumn or winter wedding in the fourth quarter (October, November or December), accounting for around a third of all weddings. In modern day, it’s a less popular choice, with fewer than one in five marriages happening at the end of the year.
A caveat though: consider the limitations of your dataset. These data summarise marriage registrations for the whole of England and Wales. Local heterogeneity therefore gets drowned out by the prevailing choices of the era.
For instance, many rural parishes were known to avoid July for weddings because it was such a busy time for agricultural labourers (see Probert’s excellent guide listed below). As the Industrial Revolution progressed, couples were less tied to the agricultural calendar. The trend began to shift to late spring or summer weddings, when the weather was pleasant. Urban dwellers arguably had a greater luxury of choice, as they were on average less bound to seasonal work. As towns and cities swelled, their marriage choices began to dominate the picture.
(Although I won’t go into detail here, it’s also worth being aware of how marriage dates were once influenced by the prohibited seasons for marriage within the Christian church. These restrictions dated back to pre-Reformation times. During these periods, such as Lent, all marriages were generally avoided. See Tate and Probert for more details).
Tax breaks and the March wedding
For a brief period in the 1950s and 1960s, men could claim the married man’s tax allowance (greater than for single men) as long as they were married by the end of the tax year. Unsurprisingly, this led to a rush of March marriages each year, of couples keen to tie the knot before the cut-off. If couples married after this point, the allowance was reduced by a twelfth for each month that the couple were not married.
This extra allowance could make a substantial difference to a couple’s income: an ONS example of a newly-married man securing an extra £120 via this route in 1968 would equate to a lump sum of roughly £2000 today.
Maybe check back over your ancestors’ marriage dates in the 1950s and 60s – perhaps you’ll find some tax-influenced surprises there!
The ONS have some great demonstrations of how this rule changed the landscape of wedding dates for its duration. Have a play with their embedded visualiser shown below! Take 1951 as an example: the first year of the scheme saw a substantial spike in March marriages, accounting for a fifth of all weddings in England and Wales that year.
This trend continued until the cut-off was changed in 1968 to May. The result? A sudden 97% increase in May weddings that year, before the scheme was discontinued in 1969. It would seem that when it comes to choosing our wedding date, many of us can be incredibly practical at heart.
Your Family Stories
So how did YOUR ancestors choose their big day? If you’re comfortable sharing, then I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below. Whether conventional for their time or a radical departure, every single marriage story sheds light on the possibilities and realities of its time, and gives us a chance to glimpse – however briefly – the couple at its heart.
Other Useful Resources
If you’d like to explore some of these data sets further, or would like to follow up with some further reading, then I can recommend the following books and websites:
Marriage Law for Genealogists: the definitive guide. Rebecca Probert, Takeaway (2016).
Let’s Get Married – But When? Office for National Statistics data visualisation, which explores 20th century trends for day, date and month of marriage.
The Parish Chest. W.E. Tate, Cambridge University Press 3rd ed. reprint (2012).