A Bodicote woman has played an integral part in literally thousands of momentous events.
Some might not think it would be an Oxfordshire County Council employee at the heart of life’s big occasions, seeing people at the pinnacle of happiness and the depths of despair.
But Alicja Gilroy is the county’s superintendent registrar and she, along with a team of 50 others, 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 is a job she adores and a service of which she is passionately proud after 13 years in the job.
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 the now ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
And, of course, there is a pot of special ink on her desk – the same stuff that has been used on marriage certificates since registrations first took place on July 1, 1837.
It’s such a privilege to do my job and I get the best seat at every wedding.Superintendent registrar Alicja Gilroy
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,” said 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,” she added.
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,” she said.
“It turned out the lady had been a seamstress to the Royal family.”
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.
Remarkable variety in ceremonies
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 with Alicja conducting one in which all the guests were in American Civil War costumes.
She has 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.
This attracts clients from all over the country bringing in around £63m a year to the county’s economy – supporting businesses that provide cakes, flowers, photographers, entertainment 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.
But registering marriages has not 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, yet there is no mention of mothers anywhere.
“Ignoring mothers can be so distressing and upsetting,” she said.
“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.”
Among the first civil partnerships
Civil partnerships have become a large part of a registrar’s work since they were introduced 13 years ago – 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.
And a landmark legal ruling in June 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.”
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 having gone through a stringent Home Office vetting procedure.
Last week 17 nationalities received a certificate of British citizenship when each swore an oath of allegiance or made an affirmation to respect the rights, freedoms and laws of the UK.
Famous lives in Oxfordshire
Oxfordshire is no stranger to celebrities and the births, deaths and marriages records hold a few famous names.
Among those born in the county include actor Hugh Lawrie, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, tennis player Tim Henman, celebrity chef Rick Stein and ex-Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In the married section is former PM Tony Blair, Beatles star George Harrison, actor Ben Kingsley, BAFTA-winning film director Paul Greengrass and the Sultan of Brunei’s son Bandar Al-Saud.
Meanwhile those ‘dispatched’ in Oxon include singer George Michael, author Agatha Christie, actor Ronnie Barker and singer Dusty Springfield – while Gulielmo Giovanni Bazetti Kalabergo, an Italian living near Banbury who killed his jeweller uncle, was the last person to be publicly executed in the county in 1852.
To find out more about a civil marriage or partnership ceremony visit the county council website: oxfordshire.gov.uk