Hundreds more couples are getting married across Essex every year. According to figures released by Essex County Council on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the number of weddings that take place in the county have gone up dramatically in the last few years.

However this is old news. Nearly 400 hundred years ago, St Andrew’s Church at Sandon near Chelmsford was the place to tie the knot. The man responsible for this was Sandon’s new Rector Gilbert Dillingham. The position of Rector at Sandon held many benefits. Comfortable lodgings were provided together with a reasonable income from the tithe a 10% tax levied on the profits from land and stock falling within the parish. Gifts from wealthy benefactors were also added to the church coffers as well as the plate collections and fees from weddings, christening and funeral services. Furthermore in the early 1600s church attendance was compulsory for all parishioners. On the surface Gilbert Dillingham appeared quite content with his lot.

However he was working on a cunning plan to boost his income from weddings by allowing couples not resident in Sandon to get married in his church. As soon as the scheme was up and running word spread quickly and suddenly, almost overnight, Sandon was the place to go to be married quickly. With ‘Instant Weddings’ on offer, lovesick grooms and would be brides were heading for Sandon from far and wide.

Few questions were asked and little if anything was done to verify the answers given. In many cases false names were used and many ‘Mr and Mrs Smiths’ departed happily after the ceremony. Gilbert Dillingham’s biggest coup was to marry off the daughter of a neighbouring vicar. There was only one condition – the wedding fee was to be promptly paid on the day. During his tenure the Reverent Dillingham conducted over 500 weddings which was a six fold increase on what happened previously. In 1636 Gilbert Dillingham suddenly retired and was never heard of again. The Rector who followed him was Brian Walton. He was a biblical scholar and took his duties very seriously. He was baffled when couples who had no connection with the parish began turning up hoping for a speedy wedding. Walton’s ambition was to move on greater things in the church hierarchy so he immediately put a stop to the wedding business much to the consternation of his would be customers. So while other places spring to mind as wedding destinations such as Gretna Green* or even Las Vegas it was Sandon in Essex that pioneered the quickie wedding – and not a lot people know that.

* Gretna Green did not become a ‘Wedding destination’ until 1754.
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