Marriage at Gretna Green – Myth and Reality
Gretel Stanley | Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies
On June 1st 1826 the Lang collection of registers records the marriage of Alexander McCully and Eleanor Forsythe at Gretna Green; no witnesses were named. The traditional image evoked by this information is that of a runaway pair in a coach galloping through the night, pursued by vengeful guardians keen to prevent an heiress squandering her fortune on a ne’er-do-well. The more prosaic reality is that they were a couple working in the Cumbrian cotton industry, were very far from wealthy, and, for them, like many of their contemporaries, the option of a Gretna wedding was preferred to the ceremony of the Anglican Church. At that time Anglican Ceremonies were the only permitted option for all but Quakers and Jews to marry in England.
Prior to 1754 it had been possible to marry anywhere in England and Wales in the presence of an Anglican clergyman - and many clandestine marriages had taken place with limited or no record keeping or regulation. Lord Hardwicke’s Clandestine Marriages Act of 1753 enforced a more structured process which made it more difficult for couples to evade detection if they were marrying in the face of potential or actual opposition.
A misconception of the Gretna Green marriage process was that it was devoid of recordkeeping, but the Langs, father and son ‘priests’ at Gretna, who are believed to have performed about half the Gretna marriages, kept detailed records. While the Lang registers do not bear comparison with the contemporary Hardwicke registers of the Anglican Church, (directed but not mandated for use in England and Wales by the Hardwicke Act), they usually provide, as well as the date of the marriage and the names of the participants, home parishes for the bride and groom and often the names of witnesses. The key difference was that Scottish law accepted marriage by declaration in front of witnesses without the need for preliminaries or clergy. Gretna Green, on the border with England, was one of the most easily accessible places for those wishing to avail themselves of this convenience, and became the byword for runaway marriages, after the Hardwicke reforms.
The Lang Gretna Green marriage register collection offers revealing insights into the variety of couples choosing to marry there. Analysis of one hundred consecutive such marriages in the period 1825-1827, shows that seventy percent had at least one, (and usually both) spouse resident in Cumberland or Westmorland. A further seven percent were from adjacent border counties in Scotland and England. Only twenty-three percent were from elsewhere in England, or occasionally Ireland.
An examination of the twenty-three percent from elsewhere in England reveals about a third of these were couples both of whom came from Lancashire. In view of the strong connection between the cotton mills of Lancashire and Cumberland and the evident fluidity and migration between mills of the combined workforce, this group might be considered as an extension of the Cumberland population.
This analysis of the home parishes of the couples in the Lang registers suggests that at this period approximately 16 couples a year in the Lang registers might actually have been eloping to the border. Even allowing for the marriages performed by other Gretna ‘priests’ in this period which might increase the total number of runaway marriages, the comparatively small number actually making a dash for the border hardly represents the constant stream of steaming coach horses and infuriated chasing parents of legend. The evidence suggests that the core clientele of the Gretna marriage business at that time was much more local.
One of the most notorious of the runaway matches coincidentally falls within the 100 sampled unions. On the 8th of March 1826, Edward Gibbon Wakefield (later to make his mark with the Wakefield System used in the foundation of South Australia, and in politics in Canada and New Zealand), wed the fifteen-year-old heiress Ellen Turner. This marriage was annulled, and following his trial at in 1827 at the Assizes at Lancaster Castle he was imprisoned for kidnap, although this did not prevent a subsequent illustrious career in the colonies. Even so the evidence suggests that such elopements were the minority, and it is interesting to consider why a Gretna wedding was the option of choice for so many local people at that time.
It might be argued that, as many of these local people marrying at Gretna were from families of recent Scottish origin, they were reluctant, as Presbyterians, to marry in the Church of England, but a simple look into the baptismal registers of their home parishes reveals that their subsequent children were baptised into the Anglican church. In some of these registers it is noted that the parents have proof that they were married at Gretna, (as the production of illegitimate children was considered greater evil than eschewing the marriage service of the established church). There may have been a few couples for whom this religious affiliation was still an overwhelming motivation, and it is possible that in some cases previous generations may have established a pattern of preference for Gretna marriage in families who were no longer Presbyterian in practice.
There was however another religious group for whom avoiding an Anglican ceremony could have been a greater motivation, and whose numbers, particularly in the North West of England were increasing through immigration at this time: Catholics. A Catholic marriage ceremony was not considered legally valid in England and so the requirement was for Catholics to duplicate it with an Anglican one. Some of the Gretna marriages may therefore have been of Catholics avoiding the necessity of a duplicate Anglican ceremony for either religious or financial reasons.
Following the reforms of the 1753 Hardwicke Act, most Anglican marriages were preceded by the reading of banns on three Sundays prior to the ceremony and required the consent of parents for those under twenty-one. The alternative was to obtain a licence – an undertaking with an additional cost involved. Both the banns and then wedding also incurred a charge. Reforms made to the Hardwicke Act in the 1820’s had tightened the requirements and could necessitate the reading of banns in up to three parishes if a couple were marrying outwith their home parishes, increasing the cost still further.
The children of the working population were often independent of their parents in the search for employment, or indeed orphaned, long before the age of twenty-one. This could be considered as a reason to avoid the necessity for parental consent, however the requirement for parental consent was, in fact, often taken as a passive consent - the absence of opposition. Opposition would be unlikely in group where protection of inheritance was not an issue, and in practice the unavailability of a parent or guardian to actively consent would not have prevented an Anglican wedding, especially as people could, and did, lie about their age. A Gretna ceremony was a quick, cheap option, and although the cost of an Anglican wedding does not seem that great in retrospect, for people living in poverty even a small saving could have been significant.
Apart from travelling to Gretna no advance planning was required, and the costs of marriage by declaration would have been minimal, as there would be no expectation to share any celebration with friends and family. So having decided to wed a couple could make their way North, marry, and be home the same night with little expenditure. From Carlisle, where many of these couples resided, it is 10 miles to Gretna Green, and to walk there and back in a day would have been a straightforward undertaking in an era when travel on foot was the norm. It is possible that some of those couples identified from Lancashire may also have been workers in the cotton mills temporarily employed away from home in Carlisle who used the opportunity provided for a quick and easy wedding.
We can only speculate at the reasons why these couples chose the road to Gretna Green but they were certainly not the romantic or desperate runaways of legend and it is perhaps time to re-evaluate the social implications of the availability of an alternative form of marriage at that date. The closest analogy in modern times is the basic civil partnership, which also achieves legal status without undue ceremony. It is interesting to consider that there may have always have been a demand for such a service; although uptake of civil marriage was low on its introduction in England in 1837, even in the North West. For the Cumbrian population at least, this may have been because Gretna Green marriages remained a locally available option in this simple form until 1857 when a twenty-one-day residence requirement was instituted to thwart elopements.
And what of Alexander and Eleanor – did they live happily ever after? Unfortunately, not. The vicissitudes of a life of poverty, encompassing infant mortality, relocation to Preston and return to Carlisle, and eventually an unsuccessful attempt at a life of crime took their toll. Fifteen years later Eleanor was in Penrith workhouse giving birth to an illegitimate daughter as the ‘lawful wife’ of Alexander McCully, weaver, while he languished in New South Wales serving fifteen years for sheep stealing. They were never reunited. The only one of their children to survive to adulthood chose to marry in a register office.
Rebecca Probert, Marriage Law for Genealogists, (Takeaway Publishing, 2012).
D. George, ‘The Carlisle cotton industry – an outlier of Lancashire textiles?’, The Cumbrian Industrialist, 6, 2006, pp. 27-46.
Allen J. Scott, ‘Work and Life in the Early Industrial City: Social Economy of Cotton Production, Carlisle, 1838-1861’, Northern History, vol. 58 issue 2, 2021, pp. 282- 303.
Gretel Stanley is a graduate of the Universities of Dundee (BDS), Swansea (MA) and Birmingham (MDentSci). She is currently researching at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies with an interest in the life experiences of the 19th Century working poor, and the under-recognised economic contribution of women in the workforce to poorer households.