HC Deb 19 March 1886 vol 303 cc1448-54

Order for Second Reading read.


Mr. Speaker, this is a very short Bill, and I am happy to think that I can move the second reading in a very short speech. The primary object of the Bill is to mitigate, if an end cannot be put to, the inconvenience occasioned by the compulsory attendance of registrars at marriages in Nonconformist places of worship. In towns the inconvenience may not be much felt; but it is otherwise in country places, where those functionaries often live at a considerable distance from the spot where their services are required. They also sometimes have two or more engagements on the same morning, or they are unpunctual, and fail to appear at the appointed time, to the great embarrassment of all parties. Some months ago a Presbyterian minister wrote to Lord Salisbury that he had been so inconvenienced by the present arrangement that on three occasions he had performed the marriage ceremony in his chapel without the registrar; making himself liable to a £40 penalty in each case. I do not recommend other ministers to follow his example. I only refer to his statement to illustrate the grievance which I desire to remove. I presume that if it were proposed to remove it by an increase in the number of registrars, I should be met by financial objections on the part of the Treasury; but this extension of time will be almost equivalent to an increase, and will add nothing to the present expenditure. The Bill may, however, be supported on other grounds than that it will be acceptable to Nonconformists, and the only objection taken to it in any quarter has been that it does not go far enough. I am told that it would be a great boon to the working classes if marriages might take place at any hour of the day, and a minister of the Established Church asks me if I cannot get the hours extended until 6 o'clock, instead of 4? He says persons can receive the Sacraments of Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, and the Confirmation, and admission to Holy Orders, and the churching of women can take place at any hour of the day or night; and why should the hours of matrimony be restricted? This Bill does not go that length, but limits the time to the comparatively early hour of 4 in the afternoon. Since it has been introduced, I have learned that it is very acceptable in the eyes of many of those who are known as the upper classes of society; because, if marriages could be celebrated after 12 o'clock, the various social arrangements connected with the ceremony could be brought into harmony with the altered customs of the times. It is no startling novelty which I am proposing; on the contrary, I merely propose that the law in England and Wales should approximate to, if not be identical with, the law existing in Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland all Protestant or mixed marriages may take place up to 2 o'clock; while Roman Catholic marriages may take place at any hour, provided that the requisite legal regulations are duly observed. In Scotland there is no restriction whatever in regard to either time or place. Lastly, I have to remind the House that the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Marriage Laws of the United Kingdom, in their Report issued in 1868, recommended the discontinuance, so far as the State is concerned, of the requirement that marriages should be solemnized within certain hours. That recommendation has remained a dead letter all these years, and now I propose that, to a certain extent, effect shall be given to it. I cannot conceive that any mischief can follow such a change, while its adoption will be attended with many advantages. I, therefore, hope that the House will assent to the second reading of this Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Carvell Williams.)

MR. BERESFORD HOPE (Cambridge University)

I am not rising to divide the House on this Bill; but I simply wish to point out that the advantages of the measure do not appear to be quite all on one side as the hon. Member seems to suppose. All those who have studied the social history of England know that the limitation of the hours of marriage is not an ecclesiastical provision. It is part of Lord Hardwicke's reform of the Marriage Law in the middle of the last century. The great scandals and grievances which had existed in the matter of clandestine marriages called for a drastic remedy, and the raison d'être of the arrangement was that the hour should be one at which the identity of the contracting parties could be most easily ascertained—in daylight. I grant that there would be advantages in an extension of the hours. There is one to which the hon. Member did not allude—namely, that it may get rid of that old-fashioned and expensive arrangement which involves so much trouble and outlay—the wedding breakfast. The change, on the other hand, may be found inconvenient in so far as it interferes with the manner in which the clegyman's day is at present mapped out. At present it is mapped out symmetrically, certain periods being devoted to this, that, and the other, and marriage services ending at 12 o'clock. If you are to be getting married all day long, the clergyman will be in a difficulty in regard to the performance of his other duties. I do not say that that is a reason why we should reject the Bill; but it is a reason why we should regard it suspiciously, and not with the idea that we are at the beginning of a great golden age. As I said before, I do not intend to divide the House; I merely put these few considerations before hon. Members.


With regard to this Bill, I do not think the House will be guided by the motives which the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has put before us—I allude to his reference to wedding breakfasts. Nor will the House be altogether guided by what is most convenient to the clergyman. The considerations should be what is most convenient for those who wish to get married, and what is required on public grounds. Therefore, I hardly think it necessary to reply more fully to the arguments the right hon. Gentleman has used, although he does not directly oppose the measure. In one respect I think he was mistaken. He said that the law which limits the hour at which marriages can take place to 12 o'clock was Lord Hardwicke's Act. I do not think that is the case. If I am not mistaken, the law is to be found in the Canons, which are much older than the Act in question. Twelve o'clock was the old dinner hour, and it was customary, and on many grounds convenient, that marriages should take place before the regular dinner hour. That, I think, was the origin of the fixing of the hour at 12 o'clock. But since this Bill has been printed I have been in communication with those most interested, both with the Church of England on the one side and the registrars on the other; and I find that, in their opinion, it is desirable to extend the hours. But the suggestion I shall make to the hon. Gentleman who has charge of the Bill is that, instead of 4 o'clock, 3 o'clock should be taken as the limit. In the winter time, almost everywhere in England—certainly in the North—it is quite dark at 4 o'clock; and I consider it would be much better to so limit the rule as to the time when marriages should take place as not to allow them to be solemnized after dark. That is the rule which governs the Archbishop in the matter of the issue of special licences. I understand he has laid it down, as a general rule, that licences for special marriages shall not be granted for a later hour than 3 o'clock. If, therefore, the hon. Member will alter the figure 4 to the figure 3, I shall be happy to agree with his Bill, believing with him that the old reason which guided our forefathers in not allowing marriages after 12 o'clock no longer exists, and that it would be quite reasonable to permit them to take place up to 3 o'clock.

SIR R. ASSHETON CROSS (Lancashire, S.W., Newton)

I do not rise to oppose the second reading of the Bill. What I always think on these matters is, that persons who can afford to pay have no right to get from an ecclesiastical authority that which persons who cannot afford to pay cannot get. I agree on this matter with what has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, and I hope the hon. Gentleman who is in charge of this measure will take into consideration the anomaly I refer to, which persons who have authority in these matters have chosen to establish in favour of those who can afford to pay, and will not, like those persons in authority, allow marriages to take place after dark. I hope he will agree in Committee that these marriages should take place in the day-time. A matter has been alluded to with regard to which I should like to say one word. The hon. Member who moved the second reading, in the first part of his speech, stated that it was inconvenient for registrars to attend marriages at an early hour, and that if the hour at which marriages could take place were extended the registrars would be able to attend all marriages that took place. I quite agree that the present inconvenience should be remedied; but I would point out that that part of the case is altogether different from the main principle of the Bill. I would remind hon. Members that there is a Bill now before Parliament which will dispense altogether with the attendance of registrars at Nonconformist chapels. If that Bill becomes law the force of the argument of the hon. Member will disappear. I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman in charge of this Bill, seeing the favour- able way in which it has been accepted by both sides of the House—by the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, by myself, and by my right hon. Friend near me (Mr. Beresford Hope)—should, if he can see his way to it, use his influence with the hon. Gentleman who has put a block against the Registrars' Bill to get him to drop his opposition. In that way I think we should be able to do a great deal to free the registrars from inconvenience, and to remove what is felt to be a practical grievance by those persons who desire to get married in Nonconformist chapels. I only throw out that suggestion, as Nonconformist registrars have been alluded to by the hon. Member himself.

MR. ILLINGWORTH (Bradford, W.)

The obvious need for the change in the law proposed by this Bill is admitted on all sides of the House. I trust the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary will not feel it necessary to lessen the value of the measure by limiting the hour to 3 o'clock. Many old-fashioned ideas as to what can be done before mid-day and what can be done after mid-day have now gone by the board—as to voting and other matters. As to the registrars' grievance, if there happened to be several marriages a-day at different parts of a district a long way from each other, it is obviously for the convenience of the registrar that he should have an opportunity of fixing different hours for the performance of his duties. With regard to what has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir R. Assheton Cross), I think the proposed change in the law which would be effected by the Bill he has referred to—and which we are prevented from discussing at this moment—are so serious that we had better hold ourselves at liberty to have the value of the measure expounded to us with the assistance of the hon. Gentleman who has the Bill in hand. As regards the necessity for a registrar to be present at Nonconformist marriages, I believe there is a growing feeling in this country, as there is in many other countries, that the civil and religious services should be separate. I am aware that progress has to be originated on this side of the House, and that it is very tardily accepted on the other side. ["Oh, oh!"] I am not at all surprised to find there is some demur to the statement; but I do not hesitate to say that there is a widely extended feeling that, so far as the State is concerned, all that is necessary is that care should be taken that marriages are properly registered. I think that, as regards the religious ceremony, the less the State interferes, both as to the hours and the mode in which it is conducted, the better. I do not wish to prolong the discussion of the measure, which, up to the present, has been carried on in the best spirit. I trust the House will accept the second reading.

MR J. G. TALBOT (Oxford University)

What seems to be an irregularity in point of form is that the hon. Gentleman the Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Carvell Williams) should call his Bill the Marriages (Hours of Solemnization) Bill, and then put into it matter which is entirely alien to the object of such a Bill. Except as to a small matter of detail, we are all agreed upon the Bill. Surely it would be much better for the hon. Gentleman to confine himself to the hours during which marriage can be solemnized, and say nothing here about the presence of the registrar.

MR. STUART-WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)

I cannot conceive that the Bill which has been brought in by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir Richard Webster) can possibly be in any danger from the action of Gentlemen who are promoting the Bill now before the House. But a blocking Notice to the hon. and learned Gentleman's Bill has been put down in the name of a Member of the House who represents a constituency in Caithness, to which the measure cannot by any possibility apply.


The hon. Gentleman is discussing a Bill not now before the House.

Question put, and agreed to.