Alicja's married to the job
Oxfordshire’s wedding industry is estimated to be worth around £63 million a year and one county council department is central to the success of this thriving economy – Oxfordshire’s Registration Service.
You’re born, you live, you die. They’re life’s three big certainties. And Alicja Gilroy has played an integral part in literally thousands of momentous events, seeing people at the pinnacle of happiness and the depths of despair.
You might not think it would be an Oxfordshire County Council employee at the heart of these life-altering occasions.
But Alicja is the county’s Superintendent Registrar and she, along with a band of 50 other registrars, is responsible for the recording of births, deaths, and civil marriages as well as carrying out a host of other legal ceremonies from civil partnerships, vow renewals, to citizenship events.
It’s a job she adores and a service of which she is passionately proud.
Her office at the Oxford Register Office in Tidmarsh Lane is packed with some of the service’s awards for excellence, items of memorabilia and photos with dignitaries – from the Princess Royal to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
And, of course, there’s a pot of special ink on her desk – the same stuff that’s been used on marriage certificates since registrations first took place on July 1, 1837. The ink goes darker with age, does not fade and is used for beautifully handwritten entries in a green marriage register.
“It’s such a privilege to do my job and I get the best seat at every wedding,” beams Alicja. “I simply love speaking to people and helping them whether they come to us through a birth, death or a marriage or partnership. Registrars can make such a difference to clients’ experiences. We can help ease the distress of a loved one,” says Alicja.
Death registrations are now taken using an online system but Alicja enjoyed handwriting the entries as it was therapeutic for the family to watch the details being so carefully recorded.
“I remember speaking to a family whose mother had died and discussing the occupation to record for her. It turned out the lady had been a seamstress to the Royal family.”
Alicja has responsibility for ensuring that all statutory services and ceremonies within Oxfordshire are registered and delivered in accordance within current legislations.
It’s an ever-shifting landscape.
In her 13 years as Superintendent Registrar, the mum of two from Bodicote has witnessed a sea-change.
The Civil Partnership Act was introduced in 2005 and Alicja conducted one of the first in the UK. A request came for a licence just hours after the act came into force on December 5 by a male couple. One of the partners was battling a terminal illness and it was his dying wish to have a ceremony that confirmed their love and commitment to one another with legally binding vows.
“I was close to tears during the ceremony,” recalls Alicja. “It was such a moving experience but I was so happy that we were able to grant that wish for them.”
In 2014 new legislation was introduced to allow the conversion of same sex civil partnerships to marriages.
A landmark legal ruling last week means that heterosexual couples could soon be permitted to have civil partnerships too.
Within minutes of the news breaking, an Oxford dad-of-four who had been with his partner for 40 years, was at the register office to speak to Alicja about when he could book a ceremony.
“Marriage and partnerships should be for everyone,” insists Alicja. “We don’t know when this might become law but it will certainly be popular with couples who don’t want to enter into marriage but want their relationship to be officially and legally recognised.”
Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies in Oxfordshire– of which there were 2,412 last year - come in all shapes and sizes.
Themed weddings are popular and Alicja had conducted one in which all the guests were in all American Civil War costume.
She’s also married ‘Elvis Presley’ to a ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and had rabbits, dogs and even owls swoop in to present the rings.
Oxfordshire is fortunate in having more than 100 approved venues where people can marry or have a civil partnership and this attracts clients from all over the country bringing in millions to the local economy – supporting local businesses that provide cakes, flowers, photographers and venues for celebrations.
The Registration Service offers a Your Day Your Way package where couples can have an office ceremony followed by another in a venue of their choice.
As the daughter of Polish migrants who fled their homeland after the Second World War, citizenship ceremonies are another element to the job that Alicja has a particular interest in.
The ceremonies were introduced in 2004 and each week around 30 people from a multitude of nationalities take part in a ceremony at County Hall to become a British citizen.
Around 1,250 people became British in the last financial year. They all went through a stringent Home Office vetting procedure, meeting residency, knowledge of English and life in the UK requirements.
This week 17 nationalities were represented when. Each swore an an oath of allegiance or made an affirmation to respect the rights, freedoms and laws of the UK. At the end of the ceremony they received a certificate of British citizenship.
Before joining the registration team in 1999, Alicja used to work as a linguist for the Ministry of Defence, translating classified documents. She speaks many languages including Polish, French and Russian, but it is undoubtedly the language of love that she speak most fluently.
Registering marriages hasn’t changed for 181 years. The same ink and layout of the certificate has endured since early Victorian times.
It lists the names, ages, occupations and addresses of those getting married and the couple’s respective fathers’ names and occupations.
There’s not a mention of mothers anywhere.
“Ignoring mothers can be so distressing and upsetting. When a person has had no contact with a father their entire lives, there’s an expectation that the mother who has raised, nurtured and cared for them should be named on a certificate.
“But as things stand we cannot do that. I’ve had so many brides and grooms in tears over it. It really is time in the 21st century and these days of equality that motherhood is properly acknowledged,” argues Alicja.
The find out more about a civil marriage or partnership ceremony
FAMOUS BIRTHS, MARRIAGES & DEATHS
Hatched: Actor Hugh Lawrie, U2 bass guitarist Adam Clayton, Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien, theoretical physicist Stehen Hawking, tennis player Tim Henman, celebrity chef Rick Stein, nine-time World Motorcycle Champion & Formula 1 driver Mike Hailwood, rally driver Jason Plato, supermodel Yasmin Le Bon, champion jockey Lester Piggott, Prime Minister Winston Churchill – and the famous fiveski – Quintuplet Russian sisters Elizaveta, Alexandra, Nadezhda, Tatiana and Varvara Artamkin who were delivered 14-weeks prematurely by cesarian at the John Radcliffe Hospital in 2007,
Matched: Former PM Tony Blair and barrister Cherie Booth, Former PM and Witney MP David Cameron, T’Pau singer Carol Decker, Cockney rocker Joe Brown, Beatles musician George Harrison, actor Ben Kingsley, BAFTA-winning film director Paul Greengrass, the Sultan of Brunei’s son Bandar Al-Saud, 1996 Grand National winner Mick Fitzgerald - and modern day celebrity couple Marvin Humes and Rochelle Wiseman, singers with JLS and The Saturdays.
Dispatched: Singer George Michael, author Agatha Christie (aka Agatha Mallowan), actor Ronnie Barker, singer Dusty Springfield (aka Mary O’Brien), record-breaker Sir Roger Bannister, Beatles producer George Martin and Morse creator Colin Dexter – while Gulielmo Giovanni Bazetti Kalabergo, an Italian living near Banbury who killed his jeweller uncle with a bullet through the head, was the last person to be publicly executed in the county in 1852.