Weddings in England and Wales are barely half as popular as they were in 1897, figures yesterday from the Office for National Statistics showed.
The style of bride has also changed dramatically in the past 106 years. Instead of a blushing teenage Victorian virgin, exchanging holy vows with her betrothed in a church before her family and her God, your typical 21st-century bride will be pushing 30, will have lived with her fiancé for four years and is likely to be getting hitched on a foreign beach or a football pitch.
There were 249,227 weddings in 2001 - a 7 per cent drop on the previous year although marriage rates rose slightly in 1999 and 2000 because of the popularity of Millennium weddings and new legal changes, which allowed people to marry in places other than church or a register office. But in the long term, marriage rates have halved since 1897 when 54.5 men in every 1,000 married and 45.6 per 1,000 women married. By 2001 those figures had declined to 27.8 per 1,000 men and 23.8 per 1,000 women.
Those declining numbers of brides and bridegrooms are also getting older. At the dawn of the 20th century, men married at an average age of 25, while women were 23. Now, the typical bridegroom marrying for the first time is 30, while his bride is 28.
But the most noticeable shift in the marriage market for Protestants has been away from church weddings. While Catholic and Jewish wedding rates have remained virtually static over the past century, Church of England weddings have fallen from a 68 per cent rate in 1987 to a 22 per cent rate today while civil ceremonies have risen in the same time from 14 per cent to 64 per cent.
Some in the marriage business insist that business is booming, and that the figures do not reflect the increasing number of British couples who go abroad to get married. The website confetti.co.uk estimates that up to 60,000 couples a year now fly abroad for their wedding, where the average cost will be £5,000 as opposed to the £17,000 in Britain. Much of the saving can be put down to a smaller guest list.
The number of divorces has soared from 503 in 1897 to 143,818 in 2001. The rise in 2001 was, though, only 1.9 per cent and Fran Wassoff who is co- director of Edinburgh University's centre for research on families and relationships, said this levelling out was directly attributable to the fall in marriages, which was unlikely to be reversed. "We have seen a huge cultural shift from marriage to co-habitation," she said. "That is a permanent change, and also explains why the divorce rate is levelling out."
She says that while about half of all co-habitations ended in marriage, there was little point in public campaigns aimed at promoting marriage.
"If you try to get everyone who is co-habiting to get married, all you will succeed in doing is forcing the divorce rate up."
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