Five Brides, One Wedding Dress

Beatrice, Senior Curator at Museum of London, tells an intriguing story of a wedding dress worn by postal brides.

Most brides would probably prefer to own their wedding dress. During the Second World War, two London postal workers had to make do with the gown of a colleague, dutifully handing it back after their wedding days.

Wedding dress of probably artificial silk satin, 1938 © Museum of London

When Elizabeth Marner was sewing her wedding dress in the summer of 1938, she probably did not foresee that it was going to be worn by four more brides over the next nine years.

The intriguing story of Elizabeth’s wedding gown was one of the reasons we acquired it for the Museum of London, where I am one of the curators taking care of the fashion collection. We believe two of the war-time brides to have been postal workers and would love to find out who they were.

The first wedding

Elizabeth Amelia Katherine Marner was born in 1914 in Hoxton in the East End of London. After the death of her mother in 1926, Elizabeth took care of her three siblings, before leaving work at age 14 to go into service with a Methodist minister and his wife in Hackney.

James Albert Wray, Elizabeth future husband, was born not far away, in Islington, in 1915. In 1929, James began his training to become a messenger boy. In the Postal Service Appointment Books he is listed as ‘Boy Mesgr (cert)’ at the Eastern Central Office in October 1931, as Postman in May 1934 and as a Sorter in June that year, around the time he met Elizabeth at a friend’s house. The couple courted for four years before they could get married.

James and Elizabeth Wray, nee Marner, on their wedding day in 1938

Elizabeth made her own dress in the popular style of the period: with leg-of mutton sleeves, a bias-cut skirt and 30 covered buttons at the back for fastening and decoration.

Elizabeth’s cousin Dorothy May Tombs, who was employed as a bead worker by the London couturier Norman Hartnell, put on the finishing touches. Dorothy was responsible for the embroidery on the collar and cuffs and probably the beaded tassels (one now missing) at the end of the sash. She might also have applied the satin flowers to the corners of the fine tulle veil, which was held in place by a wreath of orange blossom made of wax.

Self-covered buttons at the back of the wedding dress, 1938
Cuff on Elizabeth Marner’s wedding dress, embroidered by her cousin Dorothy Tombs, 1938
Wedding dress of probably artificial silk satin, 1938
Collar on Elizabeth Marner’s wedding dress, embroidered by her cousin Dorothy Tombs, 1938
Wedding veil with appliqued satin flowers, 1938
A wax orange blossom wreath, part of the wedding veil, 1938

First wedding in 1938, attended by (left to right) Ernest Goldstein, Emma Tombs, groom James Wray, bride Elizabeth Marner, Dorothy Tombs and Henry (Harry) Marner

The wedding took place on 21 August 1938 at St John the Evangelist in Palmers Green in north London, the area the couple was going to live. It was a small wedding party, only cousin Dorothy, her mother Emma, Elizabeth’s brother Henry (Harry) and the groom’s best man Ernest Goldstein attended.

The other brides

When war broke out at the end of 1939, James was conscripted into the Royal Engineers (Postal Section). Elizabeth moved in with her mother-in law and became a sorter at the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office until she was pregnant with her first child. To escape the London bombings, she moved to a maternity hospital in Oxfordshire around July 1942.

Some time between the end of 1939 and the summer of 1942 Elizabeth lent the dress to two work colleagues at Mount Pleasant. If this sounds familiar and you think you might know one of the brides, please get in touch!

The wedding dress was then passed to Elizabeth’s younger sister Lilian to wear at her own wedding in September 1942.

Elizabeth’s sister Lilian (Lily) Marner at her wedding to Robert George Murry, 1942

Clothes rationing continued until 1949 which might be the reason for Elizabeth’s gown having one more outing after the war. In 1947 Elizabeth’s brother Harry – the man standing next to Dorothy in the wedding photo – married Moyra Farr who borrowed the dress of her sister-in-law.

Elizabeth’s brother Henry (Harry) Marner, with his bride Moyra Farr in 1947

After the war

Already before the end of the war, Elizabeth and James, now parents to two daughters, were able to buy a house in west London. While Elizabeth’s postal service had been relatively short-lived, James continued to work for the Post Office throughout his life.

At the time of his retirement, in February 1975, James had become Superintendent in the Sales Division of the headquarters of the West Telephone Area. A few months later, the couple moved to the Isle of Wight, where they celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary in 1998.

It is a minor miracle that the dress, the fragile veil and the orange blossom wreath survived five weddings and several house moves. We were very happy to keep it together with its story at the Museum of London where this dress was recently on display.

Postal brides wanted

Recognise this wedding dress from old photographs? If you know who one of the brides who wore it between the end of 1939 and the summer of 1942 might be, and who was working at Mount Pleasant at that time, contact the Archive Team at The Postal Museum.

– Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator, Fashion & Decorative Arts, Museum of London