Why divorce is up and marriages are down – except in Clitheroe

Name: Marriage.

Age: The first recorded evidence of a wedding ceremony dates to 2350BC, in Mesopotamia.

Appearance: Increasingly rare.

You mean there’s less of it about than in 2350BC? Well, certainly less than in the 1960s, at least in England and Wales.

How much less? In 1961, 68% of people over the age of 16 were married, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and recently digitised.

And now? In 2011 – the most recent census for which we have figures – it was just 49%, including same-sex civil partnerships.

I guess marriage isn’t as popular as it used to be. That’s true overall, but not uniformly. In six local authorities, marriage percentages have increased. In Clitheroe, the proportion of married people went up eight points over the same 50 years.

How do you explain such an isolated outbreak of marital persistence? Hard to say, but the outliers were mostly rural districts where communities tend to be older.

All the same, I think the people of Clitheroe should stop drinking their tap water as a precaution. Perhaps they should be bottling it.

Is there any aspect of matrimony for which the people of England and Wales have shown an increased enthusiasm? Yes! But it’s divorce. In 1961, fewer than 1% of people over 16 were divorced. In 2011, the number was 9%, including dissolved same-sex civil partnerships.

Why the huge increase? The main reason is that it became a lot easier to get divorced over that 50-year period.

Have the people of Clitheroe heard about this? Maybe someone should put up posters.

You would think, with fewer couples getting married, divorces would also be falling. That has been happening, but only since 2003, when divorces reached a peak of 153,065 for the year. By 2011, they had dropped to 117,558 and have fallen further since.

What else do we know? People are getting married and divorced later in life than they were in 1961.

How come we’re only just finding this out? It’s all thanks to the work of 2,800 volunteers who have helped digitise scans of a 1961 regional ONS study, making detailed local comparisons possible.

Fascinating. Did you know, for example, that in the area of Mitford and Launditch in Norfolk, 59% of homes had no inside or attached toilet in 1961?

What does that have to do with marriage? I don’t know, but it can’t help matters.

Do say: “I do … think we should wait another year.”

Don’t say: “Don’t blame me – I’m a bigamist.”