Chelsea Register Office

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 17-08-1979

Just the setting for a television series!
CHRISTOPHER LONG looks in at the place where the famous go to tie the knot

By Christopher Long

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Perhaps it was just the fact that the sun was shining or perhaps it was just that I was in a sentimental mood. It could even be that I was suffering from the same syndrome that draws elderly folk to wander round graveyards, pondering philosophically on the fact that, before long, here will be their final resting place.

Whatever the reason, last Friday found me inside Chelsea Register Office, walking through the exquisitely furnished and decorated corridor that leads to two of the finest marriage rooms in the country and, finally, the office of Mrs Avril Wilkinson, Chelsea's lady superintendent Registrar and the creator and inspiration of all the opulence around her.

Rather apprehensively, I couldn't help feeling somewhat like a prison visitor who wonders whether he will ever convince the warders that he's not a prisoner too and be allowed out. It couldn't possibly happen, could it, that they'd mistake me for someone's fiancé and only let me out as her husband?

And anyway, I thought, what would this person be like: this lady Registrar, one of only a few in the country, who every year ties the marriage knot for some 700 of Chelsea's engaged couples?

In fact, Mrs Wilkinson was as elegant, friendly and business-like as the decor of her office and marriage rooms.

In a smart black dress, nail varnish that matched the wall-paper and an encouraging smile, she was happy to chat about the amazing transformation of the new Register Office she has created in part of the old Engineers' Department offices in Chelsea Town Hall. Compared with the drab and functional offices she took over in 1971, when she left Caxton Hall to run the old Chelsea Register Office at 250 Kings Road, the new offices, opened eighteen months ago, are a notable achievement.

And she was happy to chat, too, of the extraordinary whims and antics of her clientèle – pointing out that 50 per cent of all marriages now take place in Register Offices although only 20 per cent of her clients are true Chelsea people. The other 80% are foreigners of every nationality under the sun.

"Oh, I've had people who turned up here with two witnesses," she said. "One of the witnesses was an old English sheepdog wearing sunglasses and a cap; the other witness being a miniature dachshund."

"And then of course you get people who insist on bringing their pet pumas to their weddings – like one girl did. In fact, I often think that this place would make a television series sometimes. You never know who or what is going to walk through that door from one day to the next."

And Mrs Wilkinson is very nonchalant about the vagaries of human nature. After describing how every birth, marriage and death in the country has been recorded by a statutory Registrar in every borough in the country since 1837, it hardly seemed to surprise her that she gets customers wanting detailed instructions as to how to get a divorce before they are finally prepared to file their marriage licences with her.

"Of course we get lots and lots of marriages of convenience," she said. "Usually it's girls who want to find a husband so that they can get British nationality. The going rate is £400 and they just shake hands on the doorstep after the ceremony and walk off in separate directions."

"Usually we spot them pretty early on, but the Home Office aren't usually interested till after they're married – so what can we do?"

But sometimes there is an understandable mistake. Like the day that Mrs Wilkinson married two men to each other. "I suppose that I had my doubts beforehand," she said, "but you can hardly ask people to prove their sex, can you?"

Nevertheless, one of her six colleagues and staff - a male colleague, of course - did offer to do a routine check on the girls, if it would help, an offer which Mrs Wilkinson politely declined!

But, provided that people do not give false information, there is nothing she can do to stop people getting married whatever she personally may think about it provided that they are legally entitled to do so and so long as they're not drunk, disorderly or unaware of what they're doing.

And not all loving couples are above board. There are plenty of cases of bigamy and Chelsea Register Office is well-known to Chelsea police. Some turn up drunk, like the man who told Mrs Wilkinson that she'd have to marry him at the bottom of the stairs because he was quite certain he was not going to make it to the top. He didn't make it to the wedding either!

Marriages to Moslems can also cause problems. Apart from comforting the run of weeping brides and petrified grooms, Mrs Wilkinson usually warns girls who intend to marry Moslems that they had better check to see whether they were in fact going to be wife No. 2 or No. 3 – a common and legal occurrence among Moslems.

But apart from the bizarre behaviour of some of her clients, Mrs Wilkinson aims to provide a simple and sincere ceremony for a great number of very satisfied couples. Neatly recorded in scrapbooks, she keeps the letters of thanks, including many a well-known name, such as the one from TV news-reader Sue Lawley who was married in Chelsea and had Valerie Singleton as a witness.

Turning the pages of the scrapbooks, familiar faces and names made them look like a sort of matrimonial Who's Who. Going back a few decades, there is the record of Judy Garland's marriage to Micky Deans in 1969, only months before the singer's tragic death in London.

Another poignant entry in the scrapbook is the marriage in 1928 of Mrs Wallis Simpson, which later prevented her next husband, Edward VIII, from remaining King – making her the Duchess of Windsor.

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© (1980) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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