Victorian Bournemouth (172)

Victorian Bournemouth (172): wedding signatures

X marks your spot


Victorian Bournemouth (172) analyses signatures made by bride and groom on wedding certificates after ceremonies at several local parish churches. It focuses on those who signed with a cross. Most information relates to Moordown and Springdown (with Boscombe), the two suburbs housing working people (1870s-1890s). For Holdenhurst, however, a contrasting nearby rural parish, the evidence stretches back to the 1840s. 

Victorian Bournemouth (172): background

A signature’s message

Marriage certificates retain for posterity a tiny piece of evidence left by individual people, the new partners and their witnesses. The type and quality of signatures contains information about their makers’ literacy, their social background, and, to some extent, their personality. Some signatures flow in a smooth, cursive and legible style along the appropriate line. Others consist of an unruly collection of letters, not always connected. Some consist of a cross. The signatures also bear witness to little dramas that occurred at their creation. A groom’s extravagant signature reduces the available space for his bride. Some brides, eager to display their new identity, sign their married name, but had to replace it with their maiden counterpart. A few people had learned their signature using initials for their Christian names but had to add the latter. Nervousness may have affected the signatures of those retaining partial scholarship. 

High literacy

Overall, a very high proportion of newly-weds could sign their name. In the suburban areas, this reached around 90%, while in rural Holdenhurst, the figure ran about ten percent lower. The proportion of crosses appears to decline as time passed, except in Holdenhurst. On average, higher ages applied to those using crosses. These two findings reflect the impact of governmental programmes to encourage literacy. Across all the parishes, fewer brides used a cross as a signature than the grooms. This distinction appears most within labouring grooms and their brides, the latter categorised according to their father’s given occupation. At Holdenhurst over a third of labouring grooms used a cross, but just over a quarter of brides having labouring fathers did this. The same distinction, albeit at higher levels, existed in suburban areas. This difference may have occurred because families wanted sons to start working as early as possible.

Victorian Bournemouth (172): cultural attainment and social position

Job Skulpit

In The Warden, Anthony Trollop tells the story where ancient alms-men, former labourers, decide to petition to qualify for a financial windfall. Most use crosses. One, however, Job Skulpit, will neither sign nor make a cross. It seems that ages ago he could write his name, but ‘having forgotten his scholarship’, must use a cross. He refuses to engage with the process for a while, hesitant, in part, about having to signify his lapse in social attainment. At last, succumbing to pressure, he adds his cross to the list. This small, satirical incident in the story hints at contemporary social pressures, not least self-esteem, involved in the process of writing a signature. This capability acted as an index of wider cultural attainment, locating an individual on the ladder of respectability. Job’s shame lay in his having lost the ability to sign, thereby dropping down the rungs.

Bolder types

Job’s choice, self-imposed, consisted of rendering a perfect, legible signature or using a cross. He wanted no partial scholarship. Thirty years later, in the 1880s, however, such matters appeared to matter less within suburban Bournemouth, where most residents had a similar social position to Job. Although few still needed to use a cross, others rendered their names using a range of writing ability. Inadequate training, too little use, or, as with Job, forgetting their schooling, meant that some left signatures in a no-man’s-land between crosses and cursive legibility. This may indicate that society had become more tolerant or, perhaps, respectability had increased its granularity. Such a development would perhaps have instilled greater confidence amongst people, encouraging them to display attainment, however imperfect. Recording your signature therefore became a medium for displaying social ambition. Perhaps, also, they did not grade their signatures’ quality. To write their name mattered, whatever its form.

Victorian Bournemouth (172): social inferences

Labouring crosses

Recording a signature proved little obstacle to those working in retailing or professional occupations. Using a cross or applying an unstable signature appeared most often within the population having manual jobs, though a noticeable distinction between skilled artisans and labourers existed. Very few men who had craft skills employed in construction or in such activities as smithing, leather working, or bread-making could not write their name. Less schooling appears amongst those who worked at unspecified labouring jobs, gardening, or cart-driving, though, of course, the overall level amongst all social grades remained high. Although not collected in the same detail, the signatures of witnesses echo these patterns. If a person signed with a cross, a good probability existed that more of the same appeared amongst the witnesses. This suggests that literacy, as signalled by signing-ability, reflected the cultural level attained by his or her network of kin and friends.

Double crosses

Almost no weddings occurred where both partners used a cross. Analysis for Moordown and Springbourne shows that these couples came from the lowest social levels or even outside the structure. For example, Job Barnes, 22, recorded his occupation as gypsy, while his wife listed her mother’s name in her father’s place. Another young gypsy pair both scratched crosses for signatures. Joseph Watton, a young bricklayer, used a cross as did his bride, daughter of a labourer. A cross given by an artisan did not happen often, but perhaps a clue lies in Joseph’s father: Esau Watton, an established rebel within the Moordown area. In Springbourne, this practice occurred amongst labourers or their daughters except for Fanny Rose, whose father sailed the seas. In a few cases, double-crosses came from partners aged in their late forties. From the analysis, a few couples had formed perhaps because of their extreme social position.


Victorian Bournemouth (172) has reported on social inferences derived from studying signatures made on their wedding certificates by marriage partners. It shows that, within suburban Bournemouth, most could sign their name, albeit with a range of attainment. Few had to use crosses. This indicates the progress of elemental literacy within the lower social ranks, the majority of those inhabiting the suburbs. Very few couples left two crosses on their certificate, those doing so belonging to society’s very edge, if not beyond.


For references and engagement, please get in touch. Main primary sources: here and here (subscriptions needed). You might like this also.

Leave a Reply