Never Trust a Document – Especially On Your Wedding Day

hello chaps,

My last blog included the story of a mistaken birth-date on a gravestone – and Janis went one better by telling me about her ancestor who apparently has graves in Kansas and in Iowa (all together now, “This isn’t Kansas, Toto” – no Dorothy, it’s definitely Iowa). Funny old thing, death.

And….funny old thing, life.  Of the three big events we record, birth/baptism and death/burial are recorded far more reliably than marriage – yet marriage is the only one over which we personally have any control.

I’ve found so many marriage records in my family where the bride’s age has been shaved a little…..or her marital status has been adjusted (leading to the discovery of two cases of bigamy) …..or a father’s employment has been inflated (one of the recurring ones  is the elevation of an ag.lab. to ‘farmer’ – we had aspirations, but not status, it seems)…..or a father’s name has been changed or even invented.  So maybe the answer lies in people’s perception of marriage?  It has to be one of the most conventional and respectable states in our society; so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised if brides and grooms (more often brides, in my experience) adjust inconvenient truths to become the life-story they would rather tell, when embarking on this stage of life.

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H’m…. how the keyboard runs away with one’s homespun reflections on society. Note to self: Must stop reading ‘Philosophy for Dummies’.

However, my beloved ‘earers, as Kipling used to say (and here comes a very old joke:  “Do you like Kipling?”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   “I don’t know, I’ve never Kippled……though I hear it’s Rudy’ard…..” ), the following examples are more about the problems caused by Registrars, who are either incredibly sloppy, or who don’t check facts with over-excited brides and grooms.

[dream-shimmy to the Marriage Certificate of my gt-granparents….]




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This Marriage Certificate shows: marriage solemnized [by certificate] at Siloa Independent Chapel, Aberdare, Glamorgan; 15 August 1892.

David Jones Wilson 22 yrs bachelor, coal-miner of 20 Clive Street, Aberdare; father John Wilson deceased, colliery labourer

Frances Davies 21 yrs spinster of 32 Harriet Street, Aberdare; father Francis Davies deceased, colliery foreman

The mistake here is the name of the bride’s father – he was Joseph, not Francis. Luckily for me, the full address of the family home is given, so I know the Registrar has made a mistake and masculinized [not sure that is a proper word] the bride’s name for her father’s.  But if I didn’t have the full address, and couldn’t chase the family back through the censuses, and thereby discover Joseph and his six daughters, I might well have been inclined to look in vain for a ‘Francis Davies’. So thank you, Mr Price, Registrar – your mistake has been cancelled out by your exact recording of the bride’s address.

A short digression: Joseph had six girls, no boys – Frances’s and David’s daughter Ann was to have six boys and no girls – and her son Vivian was to have four girls and no boys – Vivian’s daughters (myself and my sisters) have eight grandsons so far – but also one grand-daughter, so we are congratulating ourselves on having broken the same-sex tradition. I wonder whether most families get these boys-or-girls runs? The solitary grand-daughter, by the way, is the first girl born in the family for 28 years, so poor little soul is showered with pink stuff from aunts and cousins every birthday. No doubt she will get her own back in due course by becoming a lady all-in wrestler.

Moving back to our theme, now.

The other Marriage Certificate mistake I want to share is this one:


This Marriage Certificate shows:Marriage solemnized [after banns] at the parish church in the parish of Bedwellty in the County of Monmouth; 31 August 1840

Isaac Harris of full age bachelor, miner of Rhymney; father Henry Harris, collier

Lettitia Price minor, spinster of Rhymney; father Isaac Price, blocklayer              Witnesses William Price and Sarah Davies

all ‘made their mark’

Isaac and Lettie are two of my gt-gt-grandparents, and I spent a LONG time looking for ‘Isaac Price’, Lettie’s father. After finding her baptism in a Parish register, and seeing that the young marrieds lived with the parents mentioned in that baptism, I’ve now come to the conclusion that her dad was really called ‘John Price’ and that the Registrar wrote the name ‘Isaac’ by mistake, since it was the groom’s name.

I’m sure these slips happened often – especially in Wales, where the Registrars might have limited Welsh, and the families they were dealing with usually had limited English. The other problem of course, until the middle of the 1800s, was that working people in Britain had limited literacy. Just because somebody could write his name, didn’t mean he could read enough to check what the Registrar was writing. I have the Parish Register entries for the marriages of my gt-gt-gt-grandad and his brother, in the 1820s.  Brother married first, and gt-gt-gt-grandad was a witness and his signature is very shaky. But by the following year, when he himself married, he has a firm and clear signature. I wonder how much time the poor chap spent during the intervening year, polishing his signature to be ready for his own wedding-day? I like to think it shows his character – I imagine him as ambitious and a bit stubborn, with plenty of self-respect. He probably got married with ink on his fingers, too.

You may have spotted a common theme in the employments of my ancestors – between the 1840s and 1870s many thousands  of men funnelled into the valleys of South Wales, to take up employment in the coal-mines. In my own case, only two of my eight gt-grandparents were born in the valley town I come from, but by the 1870s all but one of my families were settled there. For American readers, think of it as a bit like a gold-rush. So that’s why nearly everyone in these certificates seems to be a miner or collier or coal-miner (generally, inter-changeable terms).

Next time, I think I’ll introduce you to Aunty Margaret-no-better-than-she-should-be and her flippant attitude to her census entries. I am quite fond of her, as she seems to have been her own woman. Dunno what the census-taker made of her, though…..


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