A new era for marriage registrations.

On May the Fourth this year, while many on Instagram were marking Star Wars day in their posts, there was another event which might have slipped under the radar. This was the coming into force of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act, 2019.

I awoke to a 6.30am radio news item from the BBC that for the first time, mothers’ details would also be included in the registration of a marriage, this being just one of the changes introduced by the Act, hailed as the biggest modernisation of marriage registration since 1837.

A Register of Marriages, with a bottle of Registrar’s ink and my two Parker Frontier fountain pens.

I mention this as for the past 10 years, I have been the Authorised Person from our church in Golders Green, London, to register marriages taking place at the church. I was quite proud of this role, although a little apprehensive at the responsibility involved to get it right. The Guidebook for Authorised Persons, issued by the General Register Office at that time, ran to 40 pages. I was particularly worried about the lengthy procedure to be followed in the event of a mistake being made in the registers after signing. Whenever registering a marriage, I drafted all the entries on a separate sheet first, in the same format, looking out for any unusual names and ensuring that addresses would fit in the required boxes.

I learned what I could from a brief conversation with a departing minister. I also attended a couple of annual workshops for Authorised Persons, hosted by our local Register Office which were helpful and lively, and included such topics as sham marriages, entered into to derive some advantage in immigration status for one or other of the parties.

I enjoyed familiarising myself with the conventions of recording details in the marriage registers, such as writing clearly and legibly, avoiding fancy flourishes; using capital letters for surnames and entering the groom’s details above those of the bride. I was excited to use Registrar’s ink, an iron gall blue black ink, from Ecclesiastical Stationery Supplies. I find the way that it darkens from a grey blue, almost to black, endlessly fascinating in a way that other more fountain-pen friendly blue black inks can not match.

I soon learned that Registrar’s ink needs to be used within about 18 months of opening a bottle and exposing it to air. After this, it gradually loses its colour and ends up a weak grey. I found this out by using an old bottle of ink at the church, which was past its best. However, I would never get through a 110ml bottle of ink in this time. I decanted some of the ink into a bottle to use at home and had to buy a new bottle when it had lost its properties.

In the very first marriage that I registered, arriving at the church very early to prepare, I found from the printed orders of service that the bride’s middle name differed from my notes and so was glad to have spotted this. Being early reduces last minute panics.

Registrar’s ink, apart from being permanent, is not kind to fountain pens and it pays to flush the pens promptly after use. I was told of one minister shaking a fountain pen to get it started and splashing Registrar’s ink on a bride’s white dress.

Ours is small church and over the past decade, having very few weddings, I was called into action only a handful of times. Mostly my role was to submit the quarterly returns to the Register Office, declaring that the number of marriages in the past quarter to be “Nil”, or if there had been one or more weddings, copying out all the details again by hand, and certifying these, in Registrar’s ink on the returns form.

Now, the new procedure means that the old Marriage Register books, completed in duplicate, are redundant. I was instructed to cross through all unused entries and to hand in one of the books to the local Register Office along with any unused stock of marriage certificates (drawn up and issued to couples on their wedding day), or any surplus quarterly return forms. The other copy of the Marriage Register remains at the church for record purposes.

Under the new procedure, paper marriage registers are withdrawn: it will no longer be necessary to fill out all the details of the marriage by hand in a Marriage Register. Instead, couples will be issued with a Schedule printed in advance. This will be checked and signed by the couple, the witnesses and the Authorised Person on the day of the wedding (still using Registrar’s ink). It is later returned to the Register Office, for the details to be uploaded on the electronic register.

I am relieved, that this occasional duty has been lifted from me, even though I was so seldom required to perform it. The anxiety of entering all the details quickly and accurately, twice in the Marriage Registers and then once more on a Certificate, whilst the wedding couple and their supporters and photographer waited in excited anticipation, was stressful to a non-professional Authorised Person, in a way that is hard to describe. For Authorised Persons, the changes are:-

  • We are no longer required to register marriages;
  • We no longer issue marriage certificates;
  • We no longer need to complete quarterly returns;
  • We no longer have to undertake corrections in marriage registers (these instead being carried out by registration officers).

One young bride-to-be has already commented to me that the new system seems a bit of a shame and less romantic in a way but a sign of the times. Perhaps it is the end of an era, but the dawn of a new one.