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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1990

Nelson Society as Shown in Presbyterian Marriage Registers

Nelson Society as Shown in Presbyterian Marriage Registers

page 34

Presbyterian marriage registers, which commence in 1853, tell us something of Nelson society. This is only a small sample, and other studies of marriage characteristics in New Zealand have been conducted on larger samples. It is possible to make some comparisons, however.

The first surviving register of the Nelson Presbyterian Church commences with the following entry:

On 3 February 1853 John Francis Lake, a shoemaker and a bachelor of full age, married Mary Jane Jeffrey Durrant, an underage spinster. Mr T.D. Nicholson married them at the residence of R.J. Durrant of Milton St. The witnesses were Robert Jeffrey Durrant and James Hargreaves.

In the following fifty years, there are 615 marriages recorded in Nelson's Presbyterian Marriage Registers. This averages one per month, but they occurred quite irregularly, as in 1857 there were no marriages at all, whereas in 1867 the number was 25.

Three ministers conducted the marriages over the fifty years. They were the Rev. T.D. Nicholson [1849–1857], Rev. Patrick Calder [1857–1891] and Rev. J.M. McKenzie [1892–….], with a very occasional ceremony conducted by another minister.

Unfortunately, Mr Calder's writing is often difficult to read, making spelling of names uncertain. Sometimes the register is completed solely by the minister, while on other occasions, the signatures of the participants are there. When this happens, we can see which grooms and brides could not write and had to sign by using their mark – X. Also, it is useful to see how the bride and groom spelled their own name, which is not always the same as the minister's version. The spelling of the name may still be uncertain, as some participants appear to be able to do little more than trace their own name. Some of the young women acting as witnesses describe their status as "spincer", rather than "[unclear: spinser]". As time passed, the level of literacy rose and there were more fluent writers. Then the opposite problem occurred, when clerks used so many flourishes that the names became illegible once more.

The extent of entries in the registers is determined by different "Marriage Acts". In 1880, a new Act resulted in much fuller information being recorded. The first marriage after this new Act came in to force gives the following information:

On 13 Oct 1880, Charles Henry Dement born in Adelaide, a 26 year old bachelor of Hardy St, bricklayer, married Ann Watson Henry of Collingwood St. She was a spinster of 22, born in Aberdeen, a dressmaker. The parents of Charles were Wm Dement, another bricklayer, and Mary Ann Dement nee Samways. The parents of Ann were Archibald Henry, a steward, and Jessy Henry nee Milne. Witnesses were John Barr, a telegraphist and Elizabeth Alice Carr, a spinster.

Prior to 1880, the age is generally given as Full, and Under or Minor. For a few brides there is no age entry. Was the clergyman forgetful, or was the bride determined to keep it a secret? The most usual age for the groom was 24 and, for the bride, 21. Pickens, 1980, found the usual marriage age in Canterbury, for brides' first marriages in the 1850's, was 21. Later in the century it became 22. Canterbury brides, like the Nelson Presbyterian brides did not commonly marry before the age of 18. Very few grooms in the fifty year period are underage, only about 11, whereas about one quarter of the brides are. Some clusters of underage brides occur, for instance in 1853, 1855, and 1864. On the other hand, it is not unusual to find that the bride is slightly older. At other times there are many widowers and widows, was there an epidemic about two years previously?

The registers do not indicate whether parents were still alive at the time of the marriage, except where they clearly sign as a witness, or the ceremony is conducted in their own home.

Christian names show definite patterns, with John, William, Mary Ann, Mary Jane, Sarah and Elizabeth sufficient for a great proportion. "Gentlemen" often have several much grander names, page 35and one more creative family had given their daughter five Christian names-Olivia Rosina Blanche Maud Henderson Archibald. People of German origin often have three first names. Later in the period, it became more common to have two or more second names, frequently the mother's maiden name, or other surname is used.

In the whole fifty years, only one person is recorded as "legally divorced" and, in one other case, the husband had been missing 12 years, otherwise all were bachelors, spinsters or widowed. Among the 615 couples there are 68 widowers and 75 widows. Widows tended to be more numerous, due to men being killed in accidents such as horse accidents, river drownings, and other accidents and violence. By the New Zealand censuses of the 1880's and 1890's, the number of widows was considerably greater than widowers.

Marriages only occasionally took place in the Presbyterian Church, although the church in Nelson had opened in December 1849. The ceremony took place in private homes, sometimes the bridegroom's, sometimes the bride's, often a friend's house, or a hotel or sometimes the manse. Some were in the country, most were in the town. The minister's daughter is so often one of the witnesses, she could almost be called a professional witness. The ceremony might be in the home of the bride's parents but, in the early decades, this often was not the case. It seems the bride may have had no family in the town. By the 1880's, witnesses were much more likely to be of the family of the bride or groom than in earlier times.

The occupations of the grooms make interesting reading. Here are the most common occupations:

Farmers 78 Sheep/flock owners/graziers 18 Blacksmiths 13
Mariners 51 Clerks 16 Drapers/clothiers 13
Carpenters/builders 47 Shoe/bootmakers/cordwainers 14 Painters 12
Labourers 46 Butchers 14 Bakers 11
Miners 20 Storekeepers 14 Engineers 10
Carriers/carters 10

Many others are given, and often there is only one example of these less common occupations. Occasionally there is a gentleman. The range of shopkeepers becomes much broader over the decades, with butchers and bakers early on and fancy types, such as confectioners, later. Then there might be an artist or vocalist. By the twentieth century, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and coopers became much fewer, and bootmakers became machine attendants. Overall, unskilled groups shrank and white collar workers grew. After 1900, when the occupation of the fathers is given, it often happens that the men of the bridal group, groom, parent and witnesses have a common occupation.

At first, no bride is assigned an occupation then, from September 1897, there is an occasional dressmaker, servant or teacher and just one "lady". From January 1900 most have an entry, such as household or domestic duties, with a few more dressmakers and an occasional shop assistant.

Some people are interested in the entries of the Marriage Registers as a source of details for the family tree. In addition, the pattern over the years shows interesting social trends regarding age of marriage, occupations, place of marriage and number of family involved in the ceremony. Wouldn't it be interesting if the register also had a photo of each wedding group?


Ault, H.F. Nelson Narrative. Nelson, 1958.

Allan, Ruth. Nelson. Wellington, 1965.

Miller, R.S. Blue Banner. Christchurch, 1959.

Oliver, W.H. & Williams, B.R. [ed.] The Oxford History of New Zealand. Wellington, 1981.

Pickens, K.A. Marriage patterns in a nineteenth century British colonial population. Journal of Family History. Summer, 1980.