Love and marriage, and why we do what we do

In 1787 a farmer ‘sold’ his wife in Stowmarket for five guineas and had the bells rung in celebration – though he did give her a guinea to buy a new gown. Marital matters have sometimes been peculiar things, as a new book shows. Steven Russell met its author

IT was a holiday job at the Bazooka bubble gum factory that laid the foundations. One of the female workers was leaving to get married, so her colleagues decorated her with wrappers, gave her a veil, paraded her through the premises of A&BC Chewing Gum Ltd and showered the bride-to-be with confetti.

Fascinating, thought George Monger, a Hull University bio-chemistry student temporarily back in Essex and earning a few pounds during the vacations. He’d been taken by the folk music scene as a teenager and had also developed an interest in folklore. Here was a traditional ritual being played out before him.

“I thought that was interesting and noted it all down. There wasn’t a lot of work done on this industrial wedding custom, and that was my first published paper – in 1971, I think.”

George also learned from his mother that similar send-offs had happened at a factory making spark-plug leads, where she’d worked. It was also the case at a Trebor plant, where his grandmother had been employed.

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Over the years since then he’s developed a specialist interest in the folklore, customs, traditions and social history of weddings and marriage.

George, from Stowmarket, has penned many articles, papers and essays for magazines and journals. He also wrote a book for an American publisher called Marriage Customs of the World: from Henna to Honeymoons.

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His new paperback, out on this side of the Atlantic, is Discovering the Folklore and Traditions of Marriage. Its 96 pages seek to explore why we do what we do: why is a white dress considered traditional, for instance, and why do we throw confetti? There’s more to it than meets the eye.

It’s rather a happy (and genuine) coincidence to come out a few weeks before Prince William and Kate Middleton’s big day, he acknowledges. “When they announced the wedding, I did actually congratulate the publishers: ‘Well done for getting the royal family to promote our book!’”

Weddings are invariably bound up with a great deal of custom, superstition and convention, he points out, and these practices and ceremonies commonly fulfil at least one of four functions:

• they satisfy a legal requirement

• they allow the union to be publicly recognised

• they help the couple set up home as an independent unit

• they wish the bride and groom good fortune.

Despite a drop in the number of weddings here – figures this week showed marriage rates in England and Wales were at their lowest since records began – it’s still the dream of most young people, George suggests. Most brides invest a lot of time and money in trying to make their big day special.

Many weddings will incorporate long-established customs – though whether or not people are consciously following tradition because it’s deeply engrained in their lives, or simply adopted because it appeals, is open to debate.

George’s book looks at many common practices to discover how, why and where they started. Some are surprising – to me at least.

The white silk, lace and tulle dress, for instance – that has virtually become “the” iconic symbol of a fairy-tale wedding – did not become commonplace until the middle of the 20th Century “and is more a product of the wedding industry than of any traditions in this or any other country . . . most of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wedding dresses surviving in museums today are in colours other than white. Indeed, the wedding clothes would often be the couple’s best clothes”.

In Britain today the celebration of a marriage is often a mixture of something old, something new and something borrowed from other traditions. It’s bound up with church and secular legislation, and with custom and superstition.

Some practices are the products of “continuity and change” – the ideas behind customs endure, but the way they are carried out is adapted. There’s a long tradition of throwing shoes after someone to bring good luck, for example. (It happens to Pip in Great Expectations, for instance, when he leaves for London.) Now, we might tie old boots to a car bumper, along with a few tins, when the bride and groom leave a reception.

Recently there have been grumbles about couples asking for money as wedding presents, rather than household goods. Sensible, in a way, since many folk already have the domestic essentials – and, George point outs, it’s a request rooted in the past.

Accounts from the 17th Century tell of “penny weddings” and similar events, where all and sundry would be invited to a shindig and would donate cash.

“The amounts collected could be substantial, even up to half a year’s wages; this money was used to pay for the food, drink and music for the celebrations, as well as helping the couple to begin their married life.”

George tells eaman: “So, suddenly, this thing that is apparently a new phenomenon is actually very much part of a tradition. Again, it’s continuity and change.”

In 21st Century Britain – where most people are materially much better off than folk from centuries past – we seem to pick and mix “traditions”, whether or not they have a basis in our own personal history.

One example is brides giving sugared almonds to guests (something borrowed from Greek practice) or decorating the hands with henna (a Muslim and Hindu tradition).

Many big days are now put together by wedding planners and with etiquette books, he says, which “tend to try to set things in stone”. The definition of a traditional wedding is becoming “an industry standard or theme”.

“Some of the things we see as traditional were at one time simply fashionable,” he explains. “For example, top hat and tails was basically fashionable 19th Century dress. That’s all.

“If you look in early 20th Century photographs, men are wearing best suits. What we’ve come to see as the traditional bridegroom’s outfit actually trickled down from above – the toffs, if you like – and has been sort of established as ‘the outfit you should have’.

“You do get the groom and best man sometimes looking terribly uncomfortable!” Perhaps it might be better if they just wore a nice suit in which they knew they’d be comfortable.

If we put him on the spot – which we will – George would advise couples to think about what’s really right and personal for them, and to go with it.

“The most moving weddings I’ve been to in recent years have been Quaker weddings, where the bride and groom have written their vows.” There’s no set ceremony as such; guests simply stand up and speak relevant thoughts when they have something to share.

“Sometimes – and the wedding industry is going to kill me for this! – sometimes a simpler approach is a lot more memorable.”

As was his marriage to Eileen in 1972.

“Her wedding dress was a Dorothy Perkins night-dress she bought for �5, and put on a slip and a bit more lace. All the catering was done by family. Her father made the wedding cake. We didn’t have any speeches,” George recalls.

“We were at the time heavily involved in a morris dance team, so we had morris dancing outside; I was wearing morris kit. So it wasn’t quite ‘traditional!’”

Photographs were taken by friends and family, there were no bridal cars and the wedding party processed from the church to the reception in the nearby parish rooms – bells jingling. Eileen, in her dress, played whistle for the morris. “It was actually a memorable home-made wedding,” grins George.

Discovering the Folklore and Traditions of Marriage is published by Shire at �6.99

Keeping the past alive

FOLKLORE is a passion for George Monger, as is his “day job” – conserving old objects, often for museums. His workshop is one of those clich�d Aladdin’s caves. In for attention are objects from the BT Archives: a model of the Goonhilly satellite earth stations in Cornwall, and a rocket and space shuttle. There’s also an historic rocking-horse, belonging to a private client.

On a bench is an ornate 19th Century Japanese shrine from a Sheffield museum, with many intricately-detailed carved figures. On the other side of the door is a garden statue of Mercury, made of lead. This is another domestic job. Poor old Mercury has obviously been mended several times over the years and now some of the repairs need repairing.

George has been a freelance conservation specialist – in a museum heritage sense and not nature (“People do get confused!”) – since the mid 1990s.

It’s a profession full of variety. It’s meant, for instance, putting together a conservation management plan for Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre in Devon – where the collection includes a Rodeo Switchback built in 1880 – and advising the River & Rowing Museum in Henley on Thames how to care for its exhibits, including watching out for potential pests.

Closer to home, George keeps a weather eye on objects housed in Saxtead Mill, near Framlingham. Other projects have included assessing, dismantling and packing a 19th Century horse-drawn fire engine at Framlingham Castle.

George was born in East Ham and raised in the Romford area. He gained an Ordinary National Diploma at Mid Essex Technical College in Chelmsford and went on to the University of Hull to read bio-chemistry.

His first job was in the research department at St George’s Hospital medical school in London, working on cancer research. Later, he became an assistant conservation officer at The British Museum’s Museum of Mankind department.

It wasn’t such a departure as one might think. “There are technical overlaps. You are looking as aspects of science. Corrosion science, for example, is a big part of the job I do.”

When George tired of commuting between London and Essex, it coincided with a job vacancy at the centre in Stowmarket that developed into the Museum of East Anglian Life. That was about 36 years ago.

In the late 1980s/early ’90s George studied for a masters degree decided to do a masters degree and did it by distance with what was then the Polytechnic of East London. His thesis was about the role, development and future of social and community centres in rural Suffolk – basically pubs and village halls. He got grant support for that from the rural charity Suffolk ACRE.

George was at the museum for 20-odd years before becoming a freelance conservation specialist.

Today, he feels the “health” of UK museums varies from place to place. In some museums, money for the care of the collections has been suffering. Sometimes it comes off worse because institutions want to improve “front of house” areas – the parts visitors will notice.

Generally, though, he believes our museums are lively. “We can criticise, but we’ve had a strong independent sector that has pushed on a number of standards. Standards have improved.”

Folk banging on about the old stereotype, about museums being dull and dusty, does get his goat. Most are trying to tell stories in interesting ways – and succeed.

He doesn’t believe curators should be trying to compete against the whizzy attractions of TV or the kind of computer-generated imagery we witness at the cinema. “One thing we have got in museums is the real thing.”

George regales an anecdote about going to collect a flaking mammoth tusk he’d been asked to treat. He collected it from the museum and on the way back popped in to see his mum, who lived nearby. “Why do you want to work on that old thing?” she asked.

But, when he left, she wanted to see the tusk, “and she couldn’t resist touching it. She’d almost dismissed this thing, but when she came to it, it was irresistible. In museums, we’re talking about the real thing.”

He is worried, though, that museums might not get the support they need to remain strong. There are, of course, anxieties about funding that flows from the Government.

All the chatter about the Big Society annoys him, because it patronises the army of volunteers who already keep many organisations going. And from time to time volunteers do need to be able to consult professional experts for advice. You can’t, he argues, expect volunteers to do everything on their own, and know everything.

The musical Mongers

George Monger was interested in music as a boy

He enjoyed groups such as the Rolling Stones, but was also drawn to folk music

He started going to folk clubs when he was about 15

Through that, he also became interested in folklore

He and wife Eileen started a folk club at The Pickerel Inn in Stowmarket after moving to Suffolk

In the mid-1980s, Eileen released an album, The Lilting Banshee, on which she played the metal-strung harp

The couple have three sons and music is important to the whole family

One son, Tom, plays harp in the group Florence And The Machine

Did you know?

The giving of a ring specifically to mark an engagement appears to be a 19th Century phenomenon.

A wedding ring is probably worn on the fourth digit of the left hand because many people believed a vein or nerve ran straight from this finger to the heart. “However, before the Reformation it seems that the wedding ring was generally worn on the right hand.

The veil did not become part of the bridal outfit until the 18th Century, and was not common until the 19th.

To celebrate marriages, blacksmiths would sometimes “fire the anvil”. A small amount of gunpowder was put in a hole in the anvil and fired with a red-hot iron. “This was a very dangerous custom and there is an account of the blacksmith at Bradfield, Essex, in the 1850s who was trying to force a plug of gunpowder into the hole using a sledgehammer.

“The resulting explosion blew the handle through his body, killing him instantly.”

Gloves used to be given to wedding guests as a present – 100 pairs distributed, for instance, at the marriage of merchant Henry Machyn in 1560.

Confetti did not become commonly used at British weddings until the late 19th Century, when it started to replace the rice thrown over couples – a symbol of fertility and prosperity. Rice itself is also said to have been introduced in the 19th Century.

Couples have been known to avoid passing over Goldbrook Bridge, between the Suffolk villages of Hoxne and Cross Street, on their way to church. “The story goes that King Edmund was running away from the Danes and hid under the bridge; he was betrayed by a newly-wed couple returning home in the evening, who saw his spurs reflected in the water in the moonlight, so Edmund laid a curse on any couple who crossed the bridge on their way to their wedding.”

Wife-selling was “a plebeian form of divorce” at one time used by couples who could not afford to legally untie their union – “a very public act of separation . . ., erroneously believed to be legal and above board”.

Wife-selling seems to have developed during the 17th Century. Divorce was almost impossible for most people, writes George Monger, with a private Act of Parliament required to annul a marriage in the days before the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act. Selling a wife – as with the Suffolk farmer mentioned elsewhere on these pages – was performed “completely sober and with the consent of all parties involved . . . the bidder was often known to the woman and was considered a way of getting out of an unhappy or unsatisfactory marriage”.

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