In the Whanganui Regional Museum collection is a blue wedding gown worn by Annie Eliot when she married Thomas Blennerhassett in 1873.

Annie Blennerhassett was one of the signatories of the Suffrage Petition that contributed to New Zealand women obtaining the vote in 1893.

Once women had the vote there was a slow, unstoppable movement that changed many aspects of the traditional marriage ceremony.

These changes included the age at which people could marry, who could perform the ceremony, what vows were taken, where and when the marriage could take place and even who could marry whom.

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It is unknown who the first woman to take the role of marriage celebrant was. It is almost certain that she would have been from a small town and holding the role of postmaster or deputy postmaster.

The postmaster role was one that also included the responsibilities of registrar of births, deaths and marriages. Under the 1920 Marriage Amendment Act, women were, for the first time, not disqualified from the position of registrar or deputy registrar by their gender or marital status.

Museum Notebook.
Museum Notebook.

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In a further amendment to the act in 1933, women could have their names entered on the list of officiating ministers who could perform marriages. This was the list of religious celebrants.

The town of Raetihi, north of Whanganui, was one such progressive town.

A female postmaster, Mrs AW Ashwell (Harriet Elizabeth, nee Mahony) was employed. The Auckland Star of September 12, 1936, reported: "Raetihi has the distinction of having a lady registrar, and she has, for a number of years, acted in this capacity.

She is Mrs AW Ashwell, and is qualified to conduct marriages. On several occasions Mrs Ashwell has been called upon to perform these ceremonies, and the marriage is just as binding as if it were performed by a bishop".

Harriet Ashwell was gazetted by the Justice Department as deputy postmaster not long after her marriage to Alfred Walter Ashwell in 1907.

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In a 1961 family history sent to a relative, Paul Nation, she wrote that the first time she performed a marriage, "with the aura of my own still on me, was a momentous occasion".

"The office got an extra ration of spit and polish, and a few flowers were placed round to give the place a more festive air. I remember wishing the bride and groom as great happiness as my husband and I enjoyed."

She wrote about secret marriages.

"A marriage by registrar has no set service. Occasionally, when secrecy is desired, the registrar may arrange to provide witnesses. I have known a prospective bride to slip quietly in the back door (of our house) while a little later the groom walked into the shop, asking for "the watchmaker" to be shown into the workshop.

By regulation, the door must be kept open, so the marriage register having been previously written up, the formal questions were asked and the book signed at the table out of range of anyone in the shop.

Annie Blennerhassett's wedding dress, 1873
Annie Blennerhassett's wedding dress, 1873

The groom then departs through the shop, while the bride, watching her opportunity, slips away as quietly as she had come. In a small place, where most people know one another, to keep the actual date of the marriage secret is not easy. We found that could be done without infringing the law."

The reason for the secrecy is not explained, but it was a frequent occurrence for young brides to be pregnant when they married. In fact, around 30per cent of new brides had their first baby within seven months of their marriage date.

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Today women marriage celebrants are the norm.

In Whanganui they make up 64per cent of independent marriage celebrants listed by Internal Affairs.

•Trish Nugent-Lyne is collection manager at Whanganui Regional Museum