A Bethnal Green Marriage

One of the most striking family papers I have is the marriage certificate of my 4x great-grandparents Robert William Edward Bellnap and Milbro Sarah Dunnett. The document dates from 6th August 1838, shortly after the introduction of civil registration in England, but it is not a civil certificate. Instead, it is an extract from the St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, parish register that was made on the day of the marriage by the curate, James Mayne, and presumably given to the couple. Unlike a civil certificate, it includes two biblical verses: 'Marriage is honourable in all' and 'What therefore God hath joined together let no man put asunder'. This was the first of four marriages for Robert. He signed his name, while Robert's father (a witness) and Milbro made marks. The tattered record was later affixed to a matchbox, giving it a distinctive appearance.


Marriage certificate of Robert Bellnap and Milbro Dunnett, 1838.

The church of St Matthew's was damaged in 1859 and 1940, but its exterior still looks much as it did on the day of the marriage. It had been built in the 1740s, when Bethnal Green split from the Middlesex parish of Stepney. Strangely, both parties seem to have been living outside the parish of Bethnal Green. Robert Bellnap, a paper stainer, was baptised at St Leonard's, Shoreditch, and was living in King John's Court, Shoreditch, according to the certificate. Milbro Dunnett had been baptised at St Botolph without Aldersgate in the City of London, and was living in Coleman Street, also in the City. In theory, one or both of them should have been in Bethnal Green for a certain time since they were married there by banns. Unfortunately, the banns register for St Matthew's, which would shed light on this, does not seem to survive for this period.

St Matthew Bethnal Green

Engraving of St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, in 1825.
Source: https://flic.kr/p/hLgkDo

Following their marriage, Robert and Milbro Bellnap lived in King John's Court in Shoreditch. I visited this address in 2006, finding it dominated by later Victorian railway arches. The place has since changed beyond recognition again. But the marriage certificate still evokes the day of Robert and Milbro's wedding, and I think that it is a remarkable survival.


King John's Court, Shoreditch, in 2006.