Civil Marriage and Witness Identification

This week’s 50 Marriage Mondays post considers the civil marriage procedures followed by my great-grandparents and examines the identity of witnesses.

Marriage Certificate John Coulson & Susannah Stiff

General Register Office. Certified Copy of an Entry of Marriage (Marriage Certificate). Register Office, Cosford, Suffolk, no. 181. John Coulson & Susannah Stiff, 1877/12/04. issued 22 November 2012. citing RD Cosford, 1877 Dec quarter, vol 4a, p. 966.

Bride: Susannah Stiff
Groom: John Coulson
Date: 4 December 1877
Location: Cosford District Register Office

Marriage Law

Civil marriage was introduced in 1837 by the Marriage Act 1836 , and modified by the Marriage and Registration Act 1856 . So, in 1877 the John and Susannah followed these procedures:

  • One of the parties of the intended marriage had to give notice to the Superintendent Registrar and make a written declaration that there were no impediments to the marriage. In this case, the couple met the Kindred Affinity requirement (i.e. not too closely related), had resided within the registration district for more than 7 days preceding the notice, were over 21 so did not need any parental permission, and were both single so free to marry.
  • The registrar recorded the Notice of Marriage in a Marriage Notice Book.
  • The Notice of Marriage was to be publically displayed at the Superintendent Registrar’s Office for 21 days. During this time, any objections to the marriage could be lodged.
  • If no objections had been raised after the 21 days, the Registrar issued a Certificate, valid for 3 months, which confirmed that notice had been given and no objections raised. Without such a certificate, license or the reading of banns no marriage could legally take place. This is the certificate referred to on the above Certified Copy of an Entry of Marriage.
  • The marriage was solemnised in a registered building in the presence of a Registrar and two or more credible Witnesses in a Ceremony that included the declarations of each of the Parties, ‘I do solemnly declare, That I know not of any lawful Impediment why I A.B. may not be joined in Matrimony to C.D.‘ And, to each other, ‘I call upon these Persons here present to witness that I A.B. do take thee C.D. to be my lawful wedded Wife [or Husband.]‘. In this case, the registered building was the Register Office, rather than a church or other religious establishment.

Where was Cosford District Register Office?

The two largest towns in Cosford District, which existed between 1837 and 1930, were Hadleigh and Lavenham. Trade directories (see Historical Directories), the 19th century equivalent to the Yellow Pages, include registrars in their listings. The 1869 Post Office Directory places Superintendent Registrar Richard Newman at Hadleigh and the Kelly’s 1892 Directory places Registrar James Matthew at Hadleigh, so I am reasonably sure this marriage was solemnised at Hadleigh.

Who were the Witnesses?

Witnesses to the Marriage of John Coulson & Susannah Stiff (green). Ellen Pallant (red) and 3 possible John Stiffs (yellow)

The two witnesses are named as John Stiff and Ellen Pallant. Ellen was Susannah’s cousin. At least 3 John Stiffs could be the other witness. All were relatives of Susannah, an uncle, a cousin and a half brother. I can’t help wondering if Ellen was a bridesmaid and Uncle John gave the bride away.

© Sue Adams 2012

Baptist Marriage and Birth records

The Church of England parish register for Wattisham records this marriage[1]:

Bride: Hannah Whiting, of Wattisham parish, a single woman
Groom: Abraham Stiff, of Wattisham parish, batchelor
Date: 29 November 1811
Location:  St Nicholas, Wattisham, Suffolk – the parish Church of England church for Wattisham
Officiating clergy: James Harrison, curate
Witnesses: Sally Goldsmith, John Welham

The groom was a Baptist[2] and the bride was probably baptised in the Church of England[3], but they did not have a choice of church in which to marry.  In 1811, it was the norm for Baptists and other Protestant dissenters to marry in the establish Anglican Church, because only Anglican marriages had full legal status[4].  The couple’s affiliation with both churches is reflected in the Anglican baptisms and Baptist birth records of their children.

Name Type Date Source
Hannah Steff christening 28 Mar 1813 Bishop’s Transcripts,
Church of England
Abraham Steff christening 1814
Abraham Steff christening 28 Apr 1816
Jonathan Stiff christening 05 May 1818
Sarah Steff birth 09 Apr 1820 Register transcripts,
Elijah Steff birth 09 May 1823
Ann Steff birth 31 Aug 1826
Suzanna Steff birth 05 Aug 1829
Richard Stiff birth 21 Sep 1832
Sarah Ann Stiff birth 15 Jun 1835
FamilySearch index. Wattisham Baptism and Birth Records. Children of Abraham and Hannah Stiff/Steff.

Anglican baptisms (or christenings) were generally performed on infants soon after birth.  Baptists only performed baptisms on ‘Believers’ who were old enough to understand the religious meaning of the ceremony, so recorded both births and adult baptisms.

Wattisham Strict Baptist Chapel, established in 1763, drew its congregation from the surrounding villages, including Hitcham, Bildeston and Ringshall[5].  Therefore, attendance did not necessarily indicate the residence of congregation members, only that they probably resided within travelling distance.

This couple are recorded together on only one census, in 1851 at Bildeston, with one adult daughter, Ann (aged 25), who were all born in Hitcham.  Abraham’s occupation was a baker.

In 1841, the best census match for Abraham is a 50 year old woodsman in Bury St Edmunds Goal and House of Correction.  The best match for Hannah finds her with one daughter, Susan (aged 10, born ca 1831, who may be Suzanna), at Ringshall.  Daughter Ann, aged 15, was a servant at Loose Hall, Hitcham.  Whilst I expect that the older children would have left the parental home, where were the two youngest, Richard and Sarah Ann?

[1] Church of England. Wattisham parish (St Nicholas), Suffolk. Parish Registers, 1783-1812.  Suffolk RO microfiche, J 562/97/2, row 3, col 9, [no page number], no 45. citing Suffolk Record Office, Bury St Edmunds, FB 7/D1/3.
[2]“England, Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 26 Nov 2012), Abraham Steff, 21 Jan 1790; citing reference , FHL microfilm 990228 (Baptist register transcripts, Wattisham, Suffolk).
[3] “England, Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 26 Nov 2012), Hannah Whiteing, 28 Feb 1790; citing FHL microfilm 887397 (Bishop’s transcripts for the Archdeaconry of Sudbury, 1560-1853).
[4] Probert, Rebecca (2012) Marriage Laws for Genealogists. Takeaway: Kenilworth. pp. 97-98.
[5] Timmons, T.C.B. (1997) Suffolk Returns from the Census of Religious Worship 1851. Suffolk Records Society, Woodbridge.  pp. 20-21.

Parish Register Inconsistencies and Finding a lost website

In previous posts in the 50 Marriage Mondays series, I examined Marriage certificates, which are certified copies of entries in marriage registers introduced by civil registration in 1837.  This marriage occurred just 3 years earlier, so I turn instead to the parish marriage register.  Due Suffolk Record Office’s terms of access, I cannot share an image of the printout from microfiche, so present a transcript.


1834 Marriage Register Transcript
Source: Hitcham Parish (Suffolk, England) Marriage register, 1813-1837, p.64, no 190 Suffolk RO (Bury St Edmunds) microfiche J562/43/14 citing FL586/4/12

The Parish Register Act 1812, also known as Rose’s Act, introduced this type of pre-printed register with numbered pages and entries.  It contains similar information to that collected after 1837, but lacks explicit ages and occupations of the bride and groom; and names and occupations of the couple’s fathers.  Consent was required from a parent or guardian if either the groom or bride was under 21, so we can deduce that both William and Maria were over 21.  However, the 1851 census records William’s age as 46 and Maria’s as 34, so we can calculate they were 29 (born ca 1805) and 17 (born ca 1817) respectively in 1834.  Note that neither could write, hence “the mark of”, so William could not have corrected the spelling of his surname.  Steff is often spelled as Stiff, especially in later Hitcham records.

Back in 2002, I found details of this marriage and other information on Raymond Erle Long’s “The Cosford Database” website.

William STEFF was born on 7 Dec 1803. He was baptised after 7 Dec 1803 in Wattisham Baptist Chapel, Wattisham, Suffolk, England. He was baptised on 12 Sep 1813 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England. He died in 1872 in Hitcham,Suffolk, England. He was buried on 26 Jun 1872 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England. He is entered on the burial record as aged 68.

William aged 46 and his wife Maria aged 34 were living with their children in Hitcham at the time of the 1851 Census.

Parents: William STEFF and Hannah GRIMWOOD.

He was married to Maria PROCTOR on 13 Oct 1834 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England.

Children were: William STIFF, Harriot STEFF, Eliza STEFF, Isaac STIFF, Walter STIFF, Hester STEFF, Arthur STEFF.

However, the website no longer exists.  On further investigation, I found that the author died in 2008.  Although there is some discussion about re-instating it on various forums, I only found dead links.

Wonderful Wayback

However, all is not lost thanks to Internet Archive’s Wayback MachineThe Cosford Database was last archived on 20 October 2010.  William Steff’s entry on this version differs:

William STEFF was born on 7 Dec 1803 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England. He was baptised on 12 Sep 1813 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England. He was a Labourer between 1835 and 1856 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England. He died in 1872 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England. He was buried on 25 Jun 1872 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England. His age is entered on the burial record as 68. Parents: William STEFF and Hannah GRIMWOOD.

He was married to Pheobe Maria PROCTOR on 13 Oct 1834 in Hitcham, Suffolk, England. Children were: William STIFF , Harriot STEFF, Eliza STEFF, Isaac STIFF, Walter STEFF, Hester \ Esther STEFF, Arthur STEFF.

In particular Maria is now named as Pheobe Maria.  The baptism register confirms this name.  She appears on the 1851 census as Maria, but as Phoeby on the 1861 census.  Like William, she could not correct the marriage or census records. The website names her parents as Thomas Proctor and Bridget Buckle and one of her brothers as Peter, a witness to the marriage.

It is a pity that the website does not include source information, as that would help me resolve the discrepancies in this couple’s records.