• Andy Robson

Irregular Border Marriages - Lamberton Toll

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Lamberton Toll in the 1890s

Although much has been written about the Irregular Border Marriages at Gretna Green, there were also many such marriages in the Eastern Borders, mainly at Lamberton Toll but also at Paxton Toll, Chain Bridge, Mordington and Coldstream during the 1800's. While the romantic image is one of eloping couples rushing to the border to be married against their families' wishes, the reality is that most of these marriages were of Presbyterians and other Non-Conformists who would rather be married in Scotland than set foot in an Anglican Church; the only legal place to be married in England since 1754 unless you happened to be Jewish or a Quaker.

In the case of Lamberton Toll, it was also easily on hand for couples who met at the Hirings Fair at Berwick and wanted a quick marriage to avoid never seeing each other again. Agricultural Labourers were usually hired for one-years' work only, and had to go to the Hirings each year in the hope that someone would hire them for the next year.

Most marriages in Scotland involved a 'regular' ceremony. This involved Banns being read on 3 consecutive Sundays at the Parish Church, followed by a Marriage performed by a recognised Minister. However, this was unacceptable to those flocking across the Border from England, who couldn't realistically fulfill the 3-week's residence qualification in order to be married in a 'regular' Church. Or those couples, never great in number, who resented being Married in a religious ceremony. Instead 'Irregular' Marriages allowed couples to be wed by simply making a Declaration in front of 2 Witnesses - hence the alternative name of ‘Marriage by Declaration’ for these occasions - and paying the requisite fee. By showing proof of their Marriage before a Sherriff or his Substitute, the couple could obtain a Warrant to have it formally recognised and so recorded by the local Registrar. Regular Churches did not like the practice, but accepted it as an alternative to having couples 'live in sin'.

The Marriage Act of 1836 opened-up the number of places in which a legal Marriage could be performed in England and Wales, including allowing civil ceremonies to be performed for the first time by a Registrar in the newly-opened Register Offices. Despite this, Irregular Marriages continued; perhaps as a matter of tradition. In Scotland, such Marriages were made illegal by an Act of 1857, but they were not finally eliminated until the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1939 brought the country into line with England through the introduction of Scottish Register Offices.

Unfortunately, just as the venues for such marriages were, by definition, irregular, so were their records. As a result the majority have been lost or passed into private hands. In 1849, just 6-years before the Scottish Marriage Act, the Berwick Advertiser reported on the scale of the Irregular Marriage 'problem':

"BORDER MARRIAGES.- Our attention has been called to the statement made by the Rev. Mr Blair of Mordington, in the General Assembly last week, on the subject of irregular marriages, in which that gentleman says that there were on an average 2000 marriages of that character celebrated each year. It is plain that Mr Blair does not limit himself to the district in which he resides in stating the number to be so immense, but to what extent of Scotland his remark applies, whether to the whole or merely to the borders, we are at a loss to decide. A fourth part of the number stated will, we think, be nearer the average of "Toll" or "irregular" marriages that take place annually on the border extending from this to Coldstream. We are credibly informed that the annual average of marriages at Lamberton, which is the most popular place, is about 300, and that Mordington and the other tolls together do not exceed 200 - in all 500. If Coldstream be included and the entire border thence to the neighbourhood of Carlisle, the number may perhaps be brought to somewhat near 2000. This, however, is making a very large allowance for the number of marriages at Gretna Green, as in the district which stretches between the Tweed and the Esk the custom is scarcely known and could seldom be practiced, as in the adjoining part of England the country is so wild and thinly populated that there is scarcely anybody to get married."

[Berwick Advertiser 16/06/1849]

That records no longer exist for almost any of these Marriages is obviously a grievous blow to anyone tracing their ancestry on the Borders.

Very few Lamberton Marriage Certificates - presented to the newly married couple - survive,and the Record Books, or Registers, of the 'Ministers' now exist only for the periods 1834-1843 and 1844-1849; when Henry Collins was the 'Priest'. These comprise 2,544 entries and are held by the Library of Scotland. Microfilmed copies are held by Northumberland Archives, and Transcripts have been produced by the Northumberland & Durham Family History Society.

In addition, there are name lists in existence for the periods 1804-1816 (when George Lamb was 'Priest') and 1849-1855 (when George Sharp was 'Priest') which are indexes to the original Registers. These are held by Northumberland Archives.

The Registers from which these indexes were compiled have now been lost, but according to G.S. Crighton's note on Irregular Border Marriages (SOG Leaflet No.10, 1982), Alexander Loughton of Tweedmouth may once have owned both. The copy of the indexes at Northumberland CRO attributes the indexes to Alexander Lauton and notes his date of death as 3 February,1908.

Each index has separate lists for Brides and Grooms. And each has 2 sets of lists. The first is an alphabetical listing of all the people recorded in the Register. There is no cross-referencing between them, and there are no dates. Simply a page reference to the original (now lost) Registers. Fortunately, the second list is more helpful as it records the names of all those appearing on a given page. This is not alphabetical and so it seems safe to assume that a Groom was married to the Bride whose name corresponds to his on the lists. Similarly, because it seems reasonable to assume that the Marriages were recorded in the Registers in the order in which they were performed, or at least in roughly chronological order, an estimate can be made of when an individual Marriage took place.

The index to George Lamb's lost Register names 1,852 individuals on 38 pages (an average of 24 couples per page) spanning the period 1804 to 1816. That amounts to 926 marriages over almost 12-years, or an average of 80 marriages each year; one every 4 or 5 days.

The index to George Sharp's lost Register mentions 873 [sic] individuals on 33 pages (an average of 26 couples per page) spanning the period 1849 to 1855. The odd number of names is an obvious problem and was presumably an omission on the part of the indexer. Since the error is repeated on both lists, it suggests that the second list was copied from the original Register and then used to create the (alphabeticalised) first list.

Contemporary newspaper accounts give some details about the various 'Ministers' at Lamberton Toll and also show what a precarious living it was. George Lamb avoided transportation after being convicted of conducting illegal marriages at the Berwick Quarter Sessions of January,1807, but he was sentenced to serve 6-months' imprisonment. The Newcastle Courant provided details of the crime:

"Mr Geo. Lamb, schoolmaster, an old man, said to have been formerly a dissenting minister, was committed for want of sureties, in order to take his trial at next sessions, for an offence against the marriage act, in marrying a couple lately in a private house in Berwick; which if proved against him, will subject him to a sentence of transportation for 14 years."

[Newcastle Courant 18/10/1806]

"At Berwick sessions, yesterday se'nnight, George Lamb for obtaining money on the false pretence of marrying people in Berwick, contrary to law, was sentenced to six months imprisonment."

[Newcastle Courant 24/1/1807]

George Lamb died on 22 February,1816, aged 68, and was buried at Berwick 2-days later.

The Berwick Advertiser noted his death:

"Same day [on Thursday last, in this town], Mr George Lamb, aged 68. [For?] many years he has acted as PARSON at Lamberton Toll to those who had not time or patience to [wait?] for the regular celebration of the hymeneal bond."

[Berwick Advertiser 24/2/1816]

Despite the risks, it appears that there was a scramble to replace Henry Collins, who died in 1849, at the Toll.

The Berwick Advertiser remarked:

"THE HIGH PRIEST AT THE TOLL.- The death of Mr Collins seems to have broken the spell of monopoly, for instead of a single sucessor there are now to our knowledge no fewer than eight persons offering their services to the public, willing to perform the marriage ceremony on the shortest notice possible. One of these officiators told us that he had this week been oppressed with the amount of business, and he believed he should be obliged to procure an "ass" to convey him to Scotland and home again. Another showed to us a published announcement of his having commenced business, in which he states that he will be ready for his duty "by night or by day." Such industry and accomodation may well put the sons of Levi to the blush."

[Berwick Advertiser 13/1/1849]

However, the heyday of places like Lamberton Toll were numbered and, perhaps sensing that his living was now under serious threat, George Sharpe disappeared from the Toll in 1855; though it is unclear whether he had died or simply moved on.

In his 'Highways and Byways of Northumbria', published in 1920, Peter Anderson Graham wrote with respect to the (now defunct) practice of irregular Marriages in the Berwick area:

"A jeweller who is now in a large way of business in another part of the country told the present writer that he served his time in Berwick-on-Tweed and is, indeed, a freeman. He recollected that on market days and holidays the firm for which he worked would sell from twelve to eighteen wedding rings in a morning for use at Lamberton Toll. He also remembered the famous notice stuck in the window of the toll-house: 'Ginger beer sold here and marriages performed'!"


Northumberland & Durham Family History Society (NDFHS): 'Lamberton Toll Marriages 1804-1816 & 1849-1855'


Scotlandspeople: 'Our Records: Irregular Marriage in Scotland'