My husband's family came to the US from England; some of the family stayed in the US, and some returned to the UK. I have many records from my husband's grandfather's generation that indicate his great-grandparents were Arthur Knowles and Fanny Cole from Slapton in South Devon. (Most of the records associate the family with Slapton -- one curious discrepancy is that for their two sons, their WWI Draft Registration cards say their birthplace is Slapton, but the WWII Cards say they were born in Plymouth.)

This marriage registration (first found on FreeBMD) is the most likely candidate I've found for a marriage so far:

Marriages Mar 1885 (>99%)

  • Cole Fanny Stoke D. 5b 538
  • Knowles Arthur Stoke D. 5b 538
  • Palmer John Stoke D. 5b 538
  • Worden Grace Stoke D. 5b 538

Stoke D. is the Stoke Damerel Registration district.

Here is the same entry on FamilySearch -- note the catalog entry for their database says "Index courtesy of Findmypast.com."

This was unexpected -- if Arthur and Fanny had married in Slapton, the marriage would have been registered in the Kingsbridge Registration District. Many of their children were baptised in Slapton, and one of their sons who died in Massachusetts is listed in the Slapton Burial register. Most of the children's births are registered in the Kingsbridge Registration District.

Some years ago, another researcher was kind enough to look in the Devon Record Office but was unable to find a record for a marriage between Arthur and Fanny. Since FindMyPast recently put a group of Devon Parish Records online, I thought I would try again. Here are the coverage charts for the Devon Parish Records and the Plymouth Marriage Register.

I was hoping I could find parish records about their marriage online, instead of just assuming "this is about the right time and the names are right, so these must be the right people!" and ordering a GRO certificate sight unseen. (Plus as AdrianB38 reminded me, the parish register would have their signatures, which I could compare to the 1911 Census.)

FindMyPast has the banns and parish records for Arthur's second marriage in 1907 (Fanny's death is registered in 4Q 1905) but not for his first marriage.

Why can't we find the parish record for this marriage? If it is not available online, might there be a record offline, and if so, who might hold it?

The Devon County council's website has a page explaining the Coverage of Devon parish registers online. That page has two lists, one of parishes whose registers have not been digitised because the incumbents did not give permission, and one of parishes that are not on Find My Past because they have not been digitised yet.

They also advise checking the Parish Register List for information about gaps in coverage.

For Stoke Damerel, the chart says "STOKE DAMEREL see PLYMOUTH (Devonport)" and the page of parishes that begin with the letter P obligingly lists a group of parishes that are part of PLYMOUTH (Devenport). Marriages for Stoke Damerel are listed for a date range of 1595-1987.

Family Search has some marriages from Stoke Damerel itself online, but the most recent batch listed on Archer Software's list of IGI batches is:

M052421 Marriages 1808-1884 21905 Single

which would not include records from 1Q 1885. I haven't checked the entire parish list from the PLYMOUTH (Devonport) region against the IGI batches yet, but the fact that I haven't found the record on FamilySearch suggests that a similar situation may exist for other parishes (the batches run out before 1885). I also need to check the parishes listed in this region against the list of parishes that have not been digitised yet.

Another possibility is that the marriage was recorded in Non-Conformist records since in the 1871 Census, Arthur's father was listed as a boot and shoe maker, with "Methodist Preacher" written on the line below; in 1891, Arthur's brother Thomas Henry is listed as "Thatcher and Local Preacher". However the Devon County Council's guide gives a date range for marriage registers "from 1898" and that does seem to be the case for most of the listings in their table, though there is one entry that might have coverage from the right date range:

PLYMOUTH: St Georges Terrace Methodist Church, Devonport Marriages 1865-1988 P.2157/13-15

A direct search of the Plymouth Marriage Register on Find My Past for men named Arthur yields 115 results, none of which are a match (there are some records with no surname). Searching the Devon Marriages for Arthur with no surname yields 7,196 results, all of which have surnames. (Name variants were checked/ticked for all searches.)

What other information besides the banns could I find, if I have all the information from the GRO certificate?

Presumably a marriage took place or the GRO wouldn't have a registration for it.

Arthur's records:

  • 1911 Census: Arthur (age 48) born Slapton, Devon [census place sometimes mistranscribed as 'Hapton' but the image says Slapton] (with second wife and younger daughters born in USA, youngest daughter born in Slapton)
  • 1901: Arthur is in the US; 1900 US Census (age 37) born 'England'
  • 1891 Census: Arthur (age 27) born "England Devon" (with Fanny and children; all others in household are "Slapton Devon")
  • 1881 Census: Arthur (age 18) born Slapton, Devon (servant at Prospect House)
  • The rest of Arthur's family in the 1881 Census, in Slapton Village
  • 1871 Census: Arthur A (age 8) born Devon, Slapton
  • birth registration Arthur Albert Knowles 1Q 1863 in Kingsbridge Reg District
  • baptism on 15 Jan 1863 at Slapton, St James the Greater, for an Arthur Albert Knowles, the son of Thomas and Sarah Anne. Father's occupation is shoemaker; name and occupation are consistent with the 1871 Census.

Arthur's other records show Arthur E. Knowles (his daughter's passport application) and Arthur Ernest Knowles (2nd marriage, and several of the children's baptism records); the likely death registration lists "Arthur E F A Knowles" (Totnes 4Q 1918) which is consistent with the date of death given in his daughter's passport application. If this is indeed the right person, the F may stand for Frederick since that name has appeared in the family several times (e.g. Arthur's son, my husband's great-uncle Fred).

Fanny's records:

  • death registration 4Q 1905 (same quarter as birth of youngest daughter) in Kingsbridge Reg District
  • 1901 in Massachusetts; 1900 US Federal Census says born 'England'
  • 1891: Fanny (age 25) born "Slapton Devon"
  • 1881: Fanny (age 18) working as servant at Farlane, born "Slapton Devon" [note age doesn't match up with the other records]
  • 1871: my best candidate family is Fanny (age 6) born "Slapton Devon" in the household of Nicholas Cole (labourer) and his wife Harriet, enumerated in Brixham (BOOHAY COTTAGE).
  • baptism 06 Nov 1864 at Slapton, St James the Greater, for a Fanny, daughter of Nicholas (labourer) and Harriet
  • birth registration 4Q 1864 in Kingsbridge Reg District

  • There is an 1881 Census record for a Nicholus and Harriet Cole in Brixham at Boohay cottage that is consistent with the 1871 Census record (Nicholas born Slapton, Harriet born Somerset).

(P.S. my husband reminds me that it's possible that Arthur and Fanny never got married at all, in which case the Stoke Damerel registration might be for another couple altogether. I think I did do some cursory searches to find historical records that had a John Palmer associated with a wife Grace, but my earlier notes were lost. No obvious records with an Arthur married to Grace and a John married to Fanny jumped out at me at that time, or for other couples named Arthur and Fanny.)

Update: thanks to Peter Christian's The Genealogist's Internet I found the Guild of One-Name Studies' Marriage Locator, a project which will allow you to plug in the GRO index and get the parish out.

The front page bears the following disclaimer:

This is still a work in progress, and not all the data needed for all marriages is yet available. New data is continually being added.

I got the following result:

Marriage Locator Search Results

GRO Index: 1885 quarter 1, volume 5b, page 538:

Sorry, we cannot locate the church for this marriage. The entry is located between entries for Stoke Damerel RO (RD: Stoke Damerel) and Crediton (RD: Crediton).

Marriage Locator - the principles discusses the problem of coverage for the locator:

Because this project started with a particular focus towards the East End of London, the records held are richest for the RDs of Stepney, Mile End, St George in the East, Whitechapel, and Shoreditch for the years 1837 to 1911. Although our volunteers have contributed data from other areas and other years, coverage elsewhere can be still patchy ... but is increasing - we currently have approaching half a million (over 465,000) entries!

So if your research happens to be in the area covered by the volunteers, it seems as if the locator could be a useful cross-check.

I should also note that during a recent search, for one GRO registration I checked FreeBMD itself, Ancestry's database of FreeBMD results, and FamilySearch.org's version of FreeBMD's results, and got three different answers! Looking at FreeBMD itself, I was able to look at the image, and I agree with the FreeBMD transcribers. I had heard about problems with Ancestry's database, but this was the first time I had found a problem myself.

Another useful tool: The GENUKI Church Database, which allows one to enter a town name and find the churches within a given distance.

Since the links embedded in the message don't always stand out, I've added this section of Quick links to Resources:

UPDATE: I have now received the GRO certificate, which confirmed that Arthur and Fanny were married in the Register Office by certificate before the Registrar in Stoke Damerel.

  • FreeREG lists for Slapton a Wesleyan Chapel with a start date of 1811 but no transcriptions in progress.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 16:22
  • 1
    "I was hoping I could find the parish records, and have more confidence that this was the right marriage registration, before I ordered the GRO certificate." I'm not certain whether you mean "the parish record" of the marriage here or not, but you should understand that if the marriage takes place in a church or chapel, the GRO certificate will be identical to the church/chapel record of the marriage. Or you may already understand this about English marriages post-1837. ("Identical" except that the GRO is something like a 2nd gen copy so doesn't have the signatures, only copies of the names).
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 17:07
  • Point taken. I was hoping to find parish records -- for the later marriage, I have both the banns and the record of the marriage itself. And a parish record would have Arthur's signature, which I could compare to the 1911 Census record.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 19:03
  • For people who collect everything: the names of the local clergy are sometimes in historical directories, and before 1835, they can be checked in The Clergy of the Church of England Database theclergydatabase.org.uk
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 21:10
  • On the To-Do List: investigating the local Methodist circuits and parish chest records, to see what districts would have been active in the area covered by the Stoke Damerel civil registrations.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 22:05

2 Answers 2


By 1885, it is very possible that your ancestors got married in a local Register Office or a nonconformist venue. You should also not discount the possibility that (if a Church of England wedding) they married in 'her' parish not 'his.'

If they married in a local Register Office, the only records are (i) in the local Register Office and (ii) at the GRO.

If they married in a nonconformist venue, at that late date, it's unlikely that the registers were deposited centrally; they may well still be held by the chapel in question or have been deposited at the local archives, or have been lost completely. (I know of examples where the last incumbent of a closing chapel took the records with him, and they have never been seen again). Your challenge will be identifying what chapel they married at without consulting the certificate. Both the local RO and the GRO will have records of non-conformist marriages.

You could contact the local Register Office and see how amenable they are to searching for a certificate that matches the details you know -- some of the local offices are much more helpful than the GRO.

Whether you order the certificate from the local RO or GRO, it will identify exactly where they married (e.g. "the Parish Church in the parish of XXX", "the Register Office in the district of XXX" or "the XXX Chapel in the district of YYY". It will also identify the officiant by name and role (e.g. Minister, Registrar, Vicar) but you shouldn't need to do any detective work using that name. It will name witnesses, the names and occupations of the fathers of bride and groom (which may or may not be accurate), residence of the bride and groom at the time of marriage (same caveat re accuracy), occupation of the groom (and sometime bride) as well as name of the bride and groom and an indication of their age (same caveat.)

  • The best candidates I have for records with residence information close to the time of the marriage are from the 1881 Census. That Arthur and that Fanny are working as servants in different households in Slapton. Disclaimer: there's a big dose of "the right names and the right place so these must be the same people" here, but Slapton is a small village (800ish in 1881, if I recall correctly).
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 19:13
  • 1
    @JanMurphy - just a minor point which doesn't affect your logic. In England & Wales (but not Scotland) the marriage ceremony includes the registration, so there is no 'and' in "she married from there, and registered the marriage" - it would be all one thing, whether it's a religious ceremony in a church or chapel or a civil-only ceremony in a registrar's office.
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 23:13
  • 1
    @JanMurphy Might there be some reason the couple wanted to marry out of sight of one or both families? Were they both of age? When was the first child born? Or might they just both have been working in Stoke D.?
    – user104
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 7:22
  • 1
    @JanMurphy She would most likely go to her mother for the birth of her first child -- if not her mother, an older sister or aunt.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 14:19
  • 1
    @JanMurphy Age of consent at the time: 12! It's very unlikely she was that young. Parental consent was required for those under 21.
    – user104
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 15:54

An important point to recognize here is the way in which the GRO indexes are organized. The marriages are organized very differently to how births and deaths are organized. Births and deaths are organized by subdistrict, but marriages are not.

The GOONS Marriage Locator (mentioned in the question) takes advantage of the page order of marriages in the index. In the GRO marriage register for a certain district and quarter, first the Church of England marriages appear church by church in alphabetical order of parish church, and then entries within each church are sorted by date. After all the Anglican churches, then the nonconformist marriages and register office (civil) marriages are entered in the register organized only by date. The nonconformist and register office marriages appear in the same part of the register I believe simply because a superintendent registrar had to be in attendance at a nonconformist wedding until 1898, and the laws and regulations in place to keep and maintain Anglican parish registers did not apply to nonconformist marriages.

In the GRO index, each Anglican church starts as the first entry on the front of a new page – thus a new church always starts on an odd page. There are up to two marriages per page (four individuals). It is thus possible in many cases to determine the marriage place from the page number, especially in rural parishes where only a few marriages occurred at a church in a given quarter.

With this information in mind, and using FindMyPast's Devon Marriages index as a cross-reference, for Stoke Damerel Registration District in March quarter 1885 I quickly was able to generate the following table of expected page ranges:

Church or Building            Page: Start End
Devonport, St Aubyn                 473   474
Devonport, St James the Great       475   478
Devonport, St Mary                  479   484
Devonport, St Michael               485   486   
Devonport, St Paul                  487   488
Stoke Damerel                       489   500
Register Office and Nonconformist   501   546

From this, you can conclude that the marriage of interest on page 538 did not occur in an Anglican church. Whether the marriage was in a nonconformist church or the register office is impossible to say without checking individual registers of all nonconformist churches – or of course ordering a copy of the marriage certificate. If it is any help I would suggest that the marriage probably occurred in late February to March given that the marriage appears on page 538 which is towards the end of the page range of 501-546.

I realise this is not extremely helpful in your case but I think it serves as a useful illustration of ways to get as much information as you can out of the GRO index.

  • Thanks very much! The last time I remember checking the marriage locator, the reference was out of the range that had been entered on the website (as you can see from the updates to the original question).
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 2:47
  • 1
    @Jan I think the marriage is still out of range on the Marriage Locator site
    – Harry V.
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 12:32

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