I hope that you completed your census return last March! The census is an important document to record your family at a given point in time for the future. But in many ways, I found it a hollow experience. As I entered my family’s details, on my laptop, I knew that in generations to come a descendent would not experience the same thrill of seeing their ancestor’s handwriting for the first time, as I have done.
With the exception of 1841, a census has been taken every 10 years since 1801 and the censuses from 1841 to 1921 have now all been released online. (M. Wollard, ‘Census Date’ https://www.histpop.org (Accessed 9/7/2013)). The 1921 census will be the last census release until 2051 as the 1931 census was destroyed by fire in WW2 and due to the war the 1941 census was not carried out. For the period 1931 to 1941 we have an excellent resource in the 1939 National Register, which records the personal details of every civilian in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Although less than 100 years old this is now available online, although the information of anyone alive has been redacted. This redacted information can be revealed if proof of death can be submitted.
Although the statistics drawn from the census records 1801-1831 are useful for general purposes it is the census records from 1841-1921 which family and local historians turn to for their research. These censuses contain comparative detailed household information and the amount of information available increases with each census. The most comprehensive is the 1911 census, which includes information about occupation, years married, number of children born, how many survived and number of habitable rooms in the house. Unlike in previous decades where the schedules were destroyed, the 1911 forms were retained, so allows us to see the householder’s handwriting.
As with all primary sources, when using the census for research it has its limitations both in its original creation and subsequent transcription, such as those used by FamilySearch, Ancestry and FindMyPast. The census was taken on the following nights: 6 June 1841, 30 March 1851, 7 April 1861, 2 April 1871, 3 April 1881, 5 April 1891, 31 March 1901, 2nd April 1911 and 19th June 1921. With exception of 1841 these were always a Sunday. The date that the census was taken ensured that enumerators both had maximum daylight to complete their task and that the majority of the population would be at home, any later and the Registrar General feared that individuals would have ‘left their homes…and are sleeping in outhouses and fields’ due to farming practice. The enumerators themselves were not ‘particularly well paid’ and had to handwrite often inaccurate information that was given to them in a multitude of dialects that they were not always familiar with. (E. Higgs, ‘General Errors’, https:// www.histpop.org (Accessed 9/7/2013)). Consequently, the original documents make transcription a hazardous process. The handwriting is often difficult to read, faded and scored through and the transcribers do not always have the benefit of adequate training or local knowledge. For example, in the 1841 census Fletton has been inaccurately transcribed as being in Hertfordshire not Huntingdonshire. However, P. M. Tillot’s comprehensive review of the census as a source has demonstrated that provided the researcher is aware of common errors and reporting anomalies the census records provide a remarkably accurate source. (P. M. Tillott, ‘Sources of inaccuracy in the 1851 and 1861 censuses’, in E. A. Wrigley (ed.), Nineteenth-century society, (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 82-133.)
Considering a small section of the census, for an area, can reveal a lot in terms of occupation and industry. In 1861 Fletton was divided into three enumeration districts. There were 97 households and a population of 1,449, comprising 692 males and 757 females. The district analysed here is district 6 which included, ‘Part of the Parish of Fletton comprising Wyman’s Lodge and houses near railway bridge, Fletton Village including houses near Fletton Spring and houses on Stanground Road.’ This district is what we would now call Old Fletton around St. Margaret’s church. The enumerator was Rob Hurney who started his walk at William Wyman’s house, at Fletton Lodge, and ended at Arthur Hardy’s house in Fletton Spring. The population of district 6 was 299, consisting of 140 males and 159 females.
The occupations recorded by individuals in the district were divided into groups for ease of comparison. These groupings are relevant not just for the 1861 census but for later censuses as well. These are agriculture, railway, brick industry, other occupations such as clerks, wheelwright, police officer and female occupations such as house servant, laundress and slipper maker.
Agriculture:34. Railway:18. Brick industry:4. Other occupations:32. Female occupations:33
The first railway line arrived in Peterborough from Blisworth, at the East Station, which was situated in Fletton, in June 1845. Looking at the spread of occupation in the district shows that the arrival of the railways certainly had an impact and yet Fletton was still rooted in agriculture. Brick making, which was to become so important in the area later in the century, was in 1861, a small seasonal operation.
A closer analysis of the occupational groupings provides even more information about the district.
Agriculture including farmer, farmer’s boy, groom, ag lab and shepherd. This district of Fletton had three main farms and they employed the largest percentage of the labour force, 34 men and boys, showing how important agricultural work was to the economy and how labour intensive it was at this time. William Wyman farmed 600 acres and employed 13 men and 5 boys, Thomas Richardson had 200 acres and employed 5 men and 3 boys and Samuel Marriott had 22o acres and employed 6 men and 2 boys. Employment in agriculture started young and in this district boys were employed from as young as 10; Joyner Stokes aged 12, John Thomas Clarke aged 11 and George Abbott aged 10.
Railway including shunter, driver, hammerman, clerk, engine cleaner, carman, guard and platelayer. By 1861 the railway had been in Fletton for 16 years and this was reflected in the range of railway occupations that men were involved in. Men were laying tracks as new lines were built and existing lines extended. Men worked in the engine sheds making and repairing wagons. There were drivers, shunters and guards moving the numerous freight wagons around the station and sidings and operating the passenger services. Then there were clerks dealing with administration, parcels and ticket sales.
Brick industry including tile maker, labourer and brickmaker. Fletton was yet to experience the growth in the brickmaking industry that would start in the early 1880s by the Hempsted brothers from Grantham and continue with the arrival of John Cathles Hill in 1887. In the 1860s brick making was a seasonal affair operating locally when demand required. The tile maker, two labourers and brick maker listed in the 1861 census may have lived in Fletton but worked in nearby Stanground where brickyards were more prolific at this time.
Other occupations including boot and shoemaker, under ostler and ostler, inn keeper, banker, merchant and solicitor’s clerk, blacksmith, wheelwright, police officer, rector and baptist minister, civil engineer, telegraph time keeper, plumber and glazier and corn merchant. Due to the arrival of the railways Fletton was experiencing rapid population growth. In 1841 the entire parish of Fletton had 57 households with a population of 256. As we have seen above, by 1861 Fletton had 97 households with a population of 1,449. Such a growth in people and industry required services and this is reflected in the diverse range of occupations recorded in this one district of Fletton. There were the all important boot and shoemakers who, as well as manufacturing, were kept busy with repairs. The under ostler and ostler looked after the horses as travellers stopped at the inn. The five blacksmiths recorded were busy with work from the railways, local industry, farms and domestic needs. Religion in the area saw an increase in non-Conformity alongside St. Margaret’s church. In addition there were other occupations which signalled a growing economy including clerks , engineers, merchants and police officers.
Female occuaptions including laundress, domestic servant, housekeeper, cook, dressmaker, charwomen, slipper maker, milliner, glove and feather cleaner and school mistress. It is clear that women’s work was vital to the economy of the district and married women as well as single women were able to find employment. Fletton attracted families who could afford to employ servants and this is reflected in the statistics. Of the 33 women who were employed 20 were domestic servants, housekeepers or cooks. In addition providing a laundry service was another important source of income with 4 women employed as laundresses, often within their own homes. With the growth in population there was also demand for women’s clothing and Fletton had 4 dressmakers, a milliner, slipper maker and a glove and feather cleaner.
As we have seen, a brief exploration of just one small census district, at a given point in time, can provide a window into what life was like in that district. Have a look at your local district and see what you can find!