Colchester: Living link to church’s mass wedding history

From left to right, Jane Weller, George Manley's granddaughter; Colchester Garrison Commander Colone

From left to right, Jane Weller, George Manley's granddaughter; Colchester Garrison Commander Colonel Mike Newman; George Manley; and Padre David Kingston, Chaplain to Colchester Garrison. - Credit: Archant

A centenarian provided “a living link” to a little known event in Colchester’s military and social history.

George Manley, 106, is the great-grandson of one of 64 couples who were married on October 20, 1856, in a mass wedding at the former Garrison Church in Military Road, Colchester, now St John’s Russian Orthodox Church. He visited the church with Colchester Garrison Commander Colonel Mike Newman 157 years after his great-grandparents Johann Uhrmacher and Jemima Wass were married there.

Mr Manley, who lives at the Prince Edward Duke of Kent Court care home in Stisted, said: “It’s my first visit to the church to find out more about a very different bit of history that my family has. I’m very proud to be linked to Colchester Garrison and it’s wonderful for us to visit the church where that story began.

“When I was growing up we weren’t told about it, because it was the First World War and if people had known our family had German ancestry they might have smashed up our shop.”

Jemima, aged only 15, gave birth to Mr Manley’s grandmother Elizabeth on the boat sailing to Africa and the family returned to Britain in the late 19th century to run a shop in east London.

The ceremony was the peak of a rush down the aisle that saw 150 mercenaries from the British German Legion marry local girls in just three weeks.

The Legionnaires, who had fought for Britain in the Crimean War, risked arrest for treason if they returned home after swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria.

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Getting wed was a pre-condition for the soldiers to be granted the right to settle in the Cape Colony, now South Africa.

The church was not licensed for weddings and a special Act of Parliament had to be passed to legalise the marriages.

Colonel Newman said: “Mr Manley provides a living link to a fascinating piece of military and social history that happened more than 150 years ago. There is a plaque commemorating the 1856 marriages in the corridor opposite my office and it is both an honour and a pleasure to meet Mr Manley and close the circle on his family history.”