Tombstones and Pre-1841 Censuses as Sources for British Family History

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Article by Colin R. Chapman in World Conference on Records, 1980.

Tombstones[edit | edit source]

Although tombstones and their inscriptions have held the fascination of artists and sculptors for centuries, it is only comparatively recently that family historians have realized their real value. Of more urgent importance is the realization that these sources of genealogical data have deteriorated more quickly in the past three decades than in the previous three centuries. The weather has been aided by both pollution and vandalism in the destruction of irreplaceable data, but luckily family historians in the British Isles are now making a concerted effort to record the inscriptions before they are lost forever.

Within the Federation of Family History Societies1 the term monumental inscription refers to the wording used to describe a departed ancestor and would certainly apply to most tombstones. However, some authorities believe that memorial inscription is to be preferred, as there are many memorials both inside and outside a church, such as furniture, fonts, stained glass windows, brasses, and bells – all of which bear detailed descriptions of someone’s ancestors. Even the term tombstone can be misleading. Within the British Isles, this is normally applied to a plaque or insert affixed to a tomb or box-shaped memorial standing over a grave. Gravestone is the more usually preferred term used to describe any monument marking the grave of a deceased person. The gravestone can be a single slab of limestone, marble, granite, sandstone, or even concrete, standing upright or laid flat; and any bearing an inscription is of interest to the family historian. In many cases the inscription is carved into or painted onto a wooden panel or board supported between posts; however, the majority of these have deteriorated and vanished over the years, especially when unprotected in a graveyard or burial ground.

The origin of burial grounds in the British Isles is linked with the development of Christianity, first documented in the third century. It is more than likely that Christians gathered on the former pagan sites and incorporated some pagan traditions into the Christian faith. Folklore included the worship of stones, believed to be the spiritual homes of the dead, and there is evidence that stones were erected at or near pagan burial grounds. The vast numbers of earthwork tombs surrounding Stonehenge in Wiltshire confirm this theory. The Christian missionaries traveling throughout pagan Britain set up preaching crosses (originally of wood) to indicate where the indigenous population could assemble to listen to expositions of the new faith. As Christianity increased in popularity, churches were erected to accommodate followers meeting for corporate worship and to house sacred relics; those of the faith who died were buried nearby, following pagan tradition. Away in distant Rome, the Christian cemeteries and catacombs became the objects of barbarian plunder, and so there the remains of martyrs at least were transferred to within the churches, in keeping with the fashion, in some parts, of erecting a church over the tomb of a martyr. This procedure appears to spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire and to the British Isles.

From a variety of paths, therefore, based on tradition, borrowed beliefs, and necessity, it became accepted that converts to the Christian faith would subsequently be buried in the vicinity of a preaching cross or church. Some felt that the time spent by souls in purgatory depended on the number of masses offered for them, so a tomb in proximity to the officiating clergyman would be advantageous. The position of burial thus became a jealously coveted privilege, and financial considerations became implicated; proximity to the preaching cross or alter became an indication, not only of faith, but of wealth. The choice of burial within or without the church building itself was confused for some time, and intramural internment was originally confined to royalty, hierarchy among ecclesiastics, and the nobility. The emperor Constantine was the first to be buried inside a church, and although his successor deprecated such an act, this tradition has persisted to the present day. Subsequent authorities were similarly in discord, and the Archbishops Sandcroft and Secker of Canterbury decreed that they should be buried outside. Gregory the Great suggested a compromise by recommending churchyard burial, certainly in preference to remote cemeteries, thus enabling worshipers passing the graves before entering the church to remember the dead in their prayers. The indication of wealth, by those of the extramural school of thought, was achieved by the erection of impressive mausoleums, family vaults, and monuments in the graveyards. Another compromise was achieved by burying the dead in the churchyard and erecting a memorial in the church.

The first reference to consecration of churchyards in the British Isles was when Cuthbert, Archbishop of Canterbury, obtained approval in 752 for their establishment in cities, although even at the end of the fourteenth century they had no legal recognition. The churchyards as well as the churches were places of sanctuary, although both were also used as meeting places for secular purposes. Before our modern era of public libraries, community centers, and public parks, the church provided all such amenities. Porches were built and enlarged and rooms added above to accommodate parish meetings, the school, the library, while fairs, dancing, and archery practice were held in the churchyard. Miracle plays with the clergy participating were performed both within and without the church.

The tombs of the dead inside and outside the church were, therefore, initially used as focal points for worship and bore simple designs, often some form of cross. The design was hewn or carved from local materials, although those who had access to greater finances could import materials from other areas to erect more impressive memorials. As time went by, the tombs became more ornate, carrying life-sized effigies of the departed, either three-dimensional in wood or stone, or two-dimensional in brass, copper, or lead. As literacy improved, although for a very limited section of the population, inscriptions, originally in Latin and then in English, were included and later used exclusively on the memorials. Styles varied considerably. Weever, writing in England in 1631, suggested that, “Sepulchres should be made according to the qualitie and degree of the person deceased, that by the tombe everyone might be discerned of what ranke hee was living.” An epitaph should consist of “the name, the age, the deserts, the dignities, the state, the praises both of body and minde, the good or bad fortunes in the life, and the manner and time of the death, of the person therein interred.”

If this guidance had been followed, family historians today would have accurate biographies of the interred; however, human nature being very fickle and the bereft being easily influenced by competitive snobbery, inscriptions are more likely to highlight or even magnify the better side of the deceased’s life. Weever’s friend Camden, being practical, observed that in an epitaph, “Love was shown to the deceased Memorie was continued to posteritie Friends were comforted, and the Reader put in mind of human frailtie.”

On the other hand, Fuller asserted that for inscriptions, “The shortest, plainest and truest are the best.”

The earlier tombs of the nobility incorporated heraldry, and the College of Arms in London had to be consulted before a heraldic device was used on a brass or tomb. The heralds also gave approval to the epitaph and, moreover, supervised the way in which the funeral was conducted. In some places these practices were adhered to up to the mid-eighteenth century. The college also issued funeral certificates. A valuable series of these from 1567 to 1688 is held today by the College of Arms. This rich source of family data is rarely mentioned. However, in some cases, it describes:

  • The deceased
  • His wife
  • Her parents, brothers, and sisters
  • His ancestry and descendants
    • Their names
    • Positions
    • Occupations
    • Residences2.

The position of burial in a churchyard was often an indication of the social status of the deceased. In certain parts of the British Isles this tradition was strictly followed. On the north side of the burial grounds and in the shadow of the church away from the warmth of the sun, were buried paupers, the unbaptized, the excommunicated, and those who had committed suicide. Those of high status were interred on the sunny south side; the clergy, often on the east, following the early tradition of being near to the alter. A plan of the graveyard, produced either in years gone by or more recently by a family history society whose members have undertaken a monumental inscription project, might reveal details of the character of an ancestor or the circumstances of his death. Grouping of graves within a churchyard often provides useful information for the family historian.

Families tend to be buried in adjacent or nearby graves; thus, separate families although having the same surname and often identical Christian names, can be differentiated by the tombs, whereas in the church burial register there is no indication of identify. Different branches of the same family can similarly be distinguished.

In some areas, the churchyard was a small-scale version of the parish itself, and if an individual lived in the southeastern end of the village, he was subsequently buried in the southeast corner of the churchyard. In Holdenhurst, Hampshire, from the seventeenth century until as recently as 1834, some parishioners paid two shillings a year to ensure their burial on a particular side of Christchurch Priory.

Most graves in the burial grounds of the Established (Anglican) Church are oriented east-west, and the occupant is buried face upwards. Although commonly believed to be a Christian tradition, this was, in fact, an idea borrowed from pagan sun worship and was incorporated, with many other traditions, into Christian customs.

The style of tombstone or memorial was indicative of wealth – the large “bale” tombs of the Cotswold sheep farmers exemplify this. There are also table bombs and brick or stone-sided box tombs, some, especially in London, with cast-iron insets and others with copper plaques. However, the most common are headstones, being both economical and practicable. These generally are in local stone from the eighteenth century onwards and mostly in a band between the Severn and the Wash, where stone was readily available. Only the wealthy could afford to transport stone elsewhere, although as canals and railways were built and their network widened, others were able to afford the luxury of a stone or slate memorial.

Monuments were formerly of wood, commonly two posts with a plank between them bearing the inscription. They were known as grave-boards, but also as grave-rails, bed-heads, or, in the Home Counties3, leaping boards; few have survived today.

From the late seventeenth century the use of stone increased, the memorial being carved by both professional stonemasons and amateurs – often by the local schoolmaster. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, the inscriptions on headstones and footstones faced outward, but then there was almost a nationwide change to inward-facing inscriptions, a fact which can be misleading when locating an actual grave.

Inside Noncomformist churches tablets are not so common, and little work has been done on them in the British Isles. There have been a few articles written in the various denominational historical society journals on the burial grounds of meetinghouses from the seventeenth century. Quakers kept superb records, and Jewish ones are also reasonably good. Probably the most famous Nonconformist burial ground in England is Bunhill Fields, London, where from 1605 to 1852 they squeezed in one hundred and twenty thousand dissenters. The record of an unfinished attempt to record the inscriptions in Bunhill Fields dated 1868 is held in the Guildhall Library, London. In 1913 and 1933 two volumes were published by Alfred Light on the Bunhill Fields burial ground – the second containing photographs and many biographical sketches. Nonconformist tombstones and their inscriptions are often the only record of a Nonconformist burial as many registers have either perished or were not kept originally.

There are also public and private cemeteries. London alone between 1741 and 1831 had well over two million burials. Churchyards were overcrowded with shallow graves and became unsanitary. Private cemeteries were opened, offering cheaper rates of burial.

On Enon’s chapel in Clement’s Line, London, we read: “The space available for coffins was at the highest computation 59 feet by 29 feet, with a depth of 6 feet. And no less than 20,000 coffins were deposited there. . . . It is no matter for wonder that the sextons engaged in this gruesome business had to be drunk in order to endure the work.”

Many such cemeteries have, not only records of the location of graves, but also, if under a local authority, records of inscriptions. The cemetery authorities may be able to provide information on where members of a family are buried, the grave number, and also other members of the family in the same grave. Family grave groupings within a cemetery are also important when analyzing genealogical data.

The inscriptions themselves are the information sources most utilized by family historians. In the Genealogists’ Magazine, Volume 5, No. 12, Partridge pointed out that nearly 10 percent of Suffolk parish registers are missing before 1700 and 2.5 percent before 1740. The churchyards of some of these parishes have gravestones earlier than the earliest registers, providing unique records of departed parishioners.

The footstones and curbstones can often retain information which has been lost from the headstone.

Tombstone inscriptions can be lost for various reasons, including erosion. Erosion is least if the stone has been kept vertical or inclined slightly forward. To quote Partridge, “We do not fear Time, for he treats them gently; but we do fear the vandal who removes them and lays them flat.”

Tombstones are also misused for mending barns and churchyard walls, and the practices of churchyard clearance and stacking headstones against the wall mean that the value of the churchyard plan is lost.

In 1930 the Central Council for the Care of Churches issued a booklet in London called The Care of Churchyards. Reissued in 1962 and again in 1976 as The Churchyards Handbook for the guidance of incumbents and parochial church councils, it discourages indiscriminate churchyard clearance. The latest instructions from the council recommend that the incumbent inform the county archivist and the Society of Genealogists (or possibly today the local family history society) and take photographs before clearance is done. The loss of tombstones through clearance could have been prevented if legislation proposed 150 years ago had been introduced. S. Burns Parish Register Bill of 1830, which unfortunately did not get through Parliament, required every monumental inscription to be entered in a book kept by the clergyman with his registers.

There are lists of Monumental Inscriptions held by the Public Record Office on behalf of the register general4, by the College of Arms, by the Society of Antiquaries, by the Federation of Family History Societies and its constituent member societies, and by several county record offices for their own areas. Suffolk has been almost completely recorded after early work by the clergymen Partridge and Hazelwood. Gloucestershire has been well served by Bigland, and Bedfordshire by Weight-Matthews. Many early lists are incomplete, so one must beware; but in many counties they are invaluable because the original gravestones have since been moved or destroyed.

The importance and value of the information available to the family historian from a tombstone inscription hardly requires amplification, and the uniqueness of some genealogical data has already been mentioned. However, a few examples of monumental inscriptions are quoted in Appendix 1 to illustrate their use as sources for British family history.

Pre-1841 Censuses[edit | edit source]

Eighteen forty-one is regarded by many who are interested in British ancestry as the beginning of an era – the first year that nineteenth-century census returns become useful to the family historian. Names and occupations are quoted and ages given to the nearest five years, and the birthplace is stated as being within or outside the county of residence. Equally important, individuals are grouped together in households, each householder having filled in, possibly with assistance, a separate schedule.

In reality, however, the 1841 census is more of an end product, the acme of campaigning and correspondence which had been pursued for decades, even generations, and had achieved its major victory in 1800 when the principle of an enumeration of people was accepted in the Population Act by the government of that time. Many attempts had been made before the nineteenth century to persuade English monarchs and governments to conduct a national census; bills had even been introduced into and laid before Parliaments, but all had failed because of lack of time to debate the argument, lack of finance to implement the proposals, or a total lack of support for the intended act.

Even after the national decennial census was introduced into England and Wales in 1801, the authorities neither requested nor required the names of individuals; the only information solicited was the number of males and females employed in agriculture; the number employed in trade, manufacture, or handicraft; and the number not in either of these two categories. Although providing enumerations, a certain amount of confusion arose as many women and children and servants were put into the third category, irrespective of their actual occupations. In an attempt to resolve these anomalies the 1811 and 1821 questionnaires requested the number of families employed in each category, and the results were published as numerical analyses by counties, hundreds, Parishes, and townships or municipal boroughs. The employment categories were extended from three to seven in 1831, and the category of trade and handicraft was further divided into specific occupations, which had to be indicated on the formula compiled by the local constable or overseer who conducted the enumeration. Eighteen twenty-one was the only occasion prior to 1841 when an age structure (albeit a crude one) was requested; and although in 1801 the numbers of inhabited and uninhabited houses were required, as in all subsequent censuses, the number of houses being built was not included as a question until 1811.

The Population Act of 1800 also required every incumbent to supply the numbers of baptisms and burials in his parish for both males and females from 1700 to 1780 and also for each year from 1781 to 1800; the number of marriages in each year from 1754 to 1800; the number of marriages in each year from 1754 to 1800 was also required. The printed summaries of the enumerations include these parochial statistics by counties and hundreds and for the larger cities. In 1811, 1821, and 1831 similar questions on vital statistics for the preceding ten years were asked, and in 1831 information on the ages of deceased persons from 1813 to 1830 and the number of illegitimate births was requested as well. Again, the printed summaries provided the numerical analyses of the results submitted.

However, although the 1800 act elicited only numbers of people and the printed summaries contain the same dates in an organized format, many enumerators made detailed listings of their local populations and included names, family groups, ages, even dates of birth, and made notes of immigration patterns into their parish. As this information was not required by the authorities collating the data centrally, it was not forwarded to London, and consequently these detailed censuses survive in a variety of locations. Some appear in parish registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials, often on the inside of the front or back cover. Some returns appear in the account books of the overseers of the poor for a particular parish. Some are found with the churchwardens’ account books. Some of the detailed nineteenth-century census returns were recorded in notebooks used specifically for that purpose and are to be found in the parish chest with other parochial documents. Some of these records have found their way into county record offices; others, into museums, into local reference libraries, or into borough archives. Others remained with the personal papers of the schoolmaster, overseer, churchwarden, or incumbent who conducted the census survey and have gone the way of all such private papers – a few have survived and have been deposited in suitable archival offices; some are possibly still retained in private hands; but the majority have perished, their value being unrecognized by the recipients of such documents. Slowly, however, the detailed nineteenth-century census returns are being discovered, their presence recorded, and their content transcribed, indexed, and published. It is in this form that they are of the greatest value to the family historian today.

In an indexed transcription of a detailed nineteenth-century census, an individual will be listed, together with his age, occupation, place of birth, and the household in which he resided. His address is usually given, so that his neighbors and the area of the parish in which he lived can be identified. This provides the student of British family history with information on the social standing of the individual being researched – where he fit into the local community – the size of his family and possibly his dwelling, and whether his children were at work or at school – all details which the serious researcher will use in compiling a family history.

If the individual’s place of birth is stated (and in some cases it is not), the pre-1841 census return provides a valuable link in tracing his migration and his origins, which may be far from his nineteenth-century census residence. Throughout the British Isles in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, families and individuals moved far greater distances than is normally supposed. The quest for work, a fresh start, a new beginning, or even a spouse, took men and women from one side of a county to another, often across county boundaries, passing through many parishes, usually via recognized roads or canals, but sometimes along ill-defined routes which today cannot be discerned. The family historian is anxious to trace such migration and to discover what motivated his British ancestor to pull up his roots and transfer his allegiances to another locality.

The censuses taken in 1801, 1811, 1821, and 1831 as a result of the 1800 Population Act in many instances, therefore, provide information similar to that given in the 1841 census, and in some cases as detailed as that asked for in 1851. Some of the pre-1841 censuses listing individuals by name and giving other details are given in Appendix 2. The organization of the censuses after 1831 was greatly improved. The 1836 Registration Act, which introduced civil registration with local registrars responsible through superintendent registrars to the registrar general, provided for more reliable people to administer censuses as well as a framework through which subsequent censuses could be managed.

Although the 1800 act caused the birth, in 1801, of the decennial censuses, which became more sophisticated as they developed thorough the nineteenth century, censuses had been taken long before this time, both in the British Isles as well as further afield. Enumerations were even more frequent, the numbering of children of Israel in 1400 BC being one of the earliest documented.5 There is ample evidence that the Romans conducted a census every five or fourteen years. Certainly around 5 BC, while the census held by Governor Cyrenius in AD 6 almost led to open revolt as those involved objected to the prospect of being called into military service. However, such enumerations rarely included names of individuals; and although population numbers are of use to demographers and statisticians, alone they are of lesser value to the family historian. On the other hand, population statistics for a community in which named ancestors can be identified are another source of information through which individuals can be visualized and depicted in their contemporary context.

One of the first censuses in the British Isles was the Domesday survey of 1086. This was compiled by Norman clerks at the instruction of King William I, who wanted to know the extent of the land he had conquered and how it was managed. Landowners were listed by name, and an indication was given of their status – villain, border, or serf.6 At this time landowners were invariably male, and thus the Domesday census provides a listing of the names of adult males only. From this date very many returns were made of individuals throughout the country for various purposes and by various authorities. Both church and the state, which in some eras were inseparable and identical, conducted surveys of the people, often for the purpose of raising revenue. Some surveys were locally organized and for specific areas, while others were implemented nationally. Many of these early surveys, the originals of which are held by the public Record Office, have been transcribed and translated and published, often by historical record societies and antiquarian or archaeological societies beginning late in the last century.7

Between 1290 and 1332 sixteen grants were made by the monarchs as a method of raising revenue.8 These were not an annual tax but were voted as the need arose; therefore, each subsidy was governed by the conditions laid down in the act by which it was voted. The normal rate of assessment was four shillings on the pound per annum on land worth twenty shillings and upwards, and two shillings and eight pence on the pound per annum on personal possessions worth three pounds and upwards. One, two, or more subsidies might be granted by the same act to bring in the necessary revenue, and payment could be spread over a year or more. The returns of those liable to pay, carrying names of value in the study of British family history, were inscribed on parchment rolls and so are commonly called lay subsidy rolls. Unfortunately, no British county has a complete set of these rolls, and there were many individuals who evaded payment whose names are thus unrecorded.

A further forty-two grants were made between 1334 and 1434, but a different system was employed from that of the earlier lay subsidies, which used the wealth of individuals as a basis for taxation. Thus, the fourteenth-century returns normally show the quotas for villages only and do not name individuals. However, for Cornwall, Devon, Kent, and Sussex, names are given. These lists provide a useful source of English surnames. The originals of these grants are held in the Public Records Office.9

In 1377, 1379, 1381 England suffered some crises as a result of wars, so there were further taxes levied on all males over the age of fourteen. The taxpayers’ names are recorded on roll tax lists for those years. Like the former lists, these are not true censuses since the females and those under the age of fourteen are obviously missing and there were also several evasions, but the names of those who did pay were recorded – normally in Latin, although those for Northumberland were in French. There was less evasion in 1377, when a flat rate of a groat (four pence) were person was levied, and the returns are most useful for family historians, particularly for London, Carlisle, Colchester, Hull, and oxford. In 1379 and 1381 the rate was graded socially, and the receipts, where they survive, contain the names of taxpayers and the amounts paid.

Fifteen twenty-three marks the year for the first census (in a form similar to that used in the nineteenth century) which has so far been discovered for anywhere in the British Isles. Part of the city of Coventry was surveyed and a listing compiled of its inhabitants. The original census is held in Coventry by the city archivist.

In 1524 and 1525 further lay subsidies were imposed on a national scale and on top of previous taxes. During these two years the methods of taxation were based on three alternative assessments of the taxpayers’ capacity:

  1. The capital value of property
  2. Landed Income
  3. Wages

The value of these particular lay subsidies was emphasized by Beresford, who stated, “Where they survive the assessment rolls provide a directory of the upper, middle and lower classes and are near enough to the earliest parish registers (1538) to serve as some basis for genealogical tree planting.”10

A list of families in the archdeaconry of Stafford was compiled in 1532.11 Although not a complete census in that all inhabitants were not listed, it provides some fifty-one thousand names arranged in family groups and states the surname of the head of the family, his Christian name, and the names of his wife and children. The list is unusual in that former (deceased) wives and dead children are also included. Its original purpose is uncertain, but it was possibly a list of those entitled to prayers in return for some contribution to church fabric maintenance. As this also refers to the pre-parish register era, its value to British family history is immense.

The 1563 Ecclesiastical Return of Families is of little value to the genealogist since it contains only the number of families in every English diocese. However, to the family historian this may prove of some use. With a suitable multiplier, one can compute the total population for a particular area, and thus a family can be set in the correct local or national population context. The originals of this return are in the British Museum.12

On 5 May 1575 a survey was conducted in Poole, Dorset. In general this lists the name of the householder only and mentions “his wife” and the numbers of his sons, daughters, and servants. No ages or addresses are stated, although included in the survey are some ships obviously in Poole harbor for which the names of the vessel, the owner, the master, and the seafaring men are given. The original survey is with the borough archives, but photocopies are available in Dorset Record Office and Poole Reference Library.

From 1592 to 1691, lists were compiled on a national basis of those who absented themselves from the Established Church services. The recusants rolls now held in the Public Record Office do not contain the names of all recusants but are the annual returns to the Exchequer of the fines and forfeitures imposed. In many cases the recusant’s religious denomination is stated, thus providing more data for the family historian.

In 1599, Richard Phillips (constable) and William Gurnall (headborough) conducted a census of Ealing, Middlesex, and included the names and ages of the inhabitants. The original material is held in the Public Record Office, but a transcript was published by Ealing Local History Society in 1962. This provides a most valuable list of the inhabitants of Middlesex village now swallowed up as a suburb of Greater London.

A further enumeration to the 1563 return for ecclesiastical purposes was made in 1603, being a list of the numbers of communicants in each parish. Some of these communicants lists are in the British Museum, some in county record offices, and others in diocesan record offices. Many have been transcribed and published.

At irregular intervals from 1618 to 1628, detailed lists of the inhabitants of Cogenhoe in Northamptonshire were compiled by Christopher Spicer, the rector, and included in his parish registers. In some years he listed individuals alphabetically by Christian names, in other years alphabetically by family surname, and other years apparently arbitrarily. For those who have ancestors in that tiny village the lists would prove fascinating reading, but it is by no means a true census. The originals are in the county record office at Northampton.

In 1641, with the prospect of civil war looming over the English horizon, the Commons asked all males over eighteen to maintain “the true Reformed Protestant Religion,” “His Majestie’s Royal Person,” and “the Privileges of Parliament” among other oaths. Conducted on a national basis these protestation returns, now kept in the House of Lords Record Office, are particularly useful in determining on which side an ancestor stood at this period in history – the returns list not only those who agreed and thus signed or made their mark, but also those who refused to sign. Every return for some counties has survived, and transcripts in many cases have been published, but for other counties are lost. 13

From the mid-seventeenth century many other taxes were imposed, and lists of taxpayers are useful sources for British family history. These include poll tax listings from 1660 to 1700, listings of taxes on hearths or fireplaces form 1662 to 1688 and on windows from 1696 to 1851, and the land tax assessment lists from 1780. The majority of these may be found in county record offices and in general contain the names of the taxpayers and the amount they paid. The lists of those who contributed towards a “free and voluntary gift” in 1661 in Oxfordshire and who took the oaths of Allegiance of 1723 in Cheshire and elsewhere provide other sources of names for British ancestors. The London sewer rate list of 1770 provides useful information. There were also other enumerations made for a variety of reasons which can provide background statistics for compiling a family history. Such surveys include the bills of mortality14 from 1665 and the Compton or Sheldon Census of 1676.15 Some surveys such as those of Gregory King (in 1695), William Wales, and Dr. Richard Price (1780) resulted in pamphlets and essays being published and subsequently criticized.16 Some proved the British population to be increasing while others concluded it was falling; not until the decennial censuses of the nineteenth century was this problem finally resolved.

In the meantime detailed censuses and listings of particular towns, villages, and communities continued, some of which have survived. In 1662 a census was held in Taynton, Oxfordshire; in 1676 and 1688 William Sampson, the rector of Clayworth in Nottinghamshire, compiled what appears to be a complete list of the villagers; also in 1676 the curate-in-charge of Goodnestone-next-Wingham in Kent compiled a list of his parishioners; in 1684 a census including the names and ages of individuals was conducted at Chilvers Coton in Warwickshire. Although a list of the inhabitants of Melborne, Derbyshire, was made in 1695 and its existence noted during the last century, the whereabouts of this particular list is now unknown, thus illustrating the value of transcripts and copies of original documents. Family history societies within the Federation of Family History Societies can do much to encourage such work and where finances and resources exist can actually undertake or subscribe to these activities.

The names of inhabitants of part of the village of Pavenham in Bedfordshire in 1699 and of communicants with their ages in 1701 for part of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire provide other useful sources for specified areas. The “accurate review of all the families in Renhold,” Bedfordshire, taken in 1773 in deposited in the county record office.

The very detailed census of 1782 for Cardington in Bedfordshire has proved of great value, not only to genealogists and family historians, but to population statisticians, social historians, and analytical demographers in many fields. A less detailed listing, but nevertheless one of great interest, is that made for Corfe Castle in Dorset in 1790; but the value of a national census was by this time being appreciated by many influential politicians. After Potter’s failure in 1753 to have his Population Bill accepted by Parliament, support for similar proposals increased during the last decade of the eighteenth century culminating in the suggestions of John Rickman being incorporated into what became the 1800 Population Act. The decennial censuses of the nineteenth century, beginning in 1801 in some cases (see Appendix 2), went beyond the requirements of the 1800 act; and detailed listings of names, ages, and other information can be found in these. From 1841 the returns all carry names, but groups, and include ages and occupations; from 1851 even more detail is given.

Those returns made prior to 1841 and often dismissed by family historians and other historical students should not be overlooked. Their number, although small, is not insignificant, and as time goes by others may be discovered. Their value is indisputable, and as sources for British family history the pre-1841 censuses are recommended to all serious-minded and determined researchers.


Some inscriptions may be full of genealogical information, as the following from Wimhorne Minister, Hampshire:

Here lie the Bodies of Harry Constantine late of Merly in the County of Dorset Esq who died Decr 30 1712 and of Mary his wife (Daughter of Robert Dillington Esq deceased eldest son of Sr Robert Dillington lsate of Knighton in the Isle of Wight Baronett) who died Feb 7th 1704. Here also lieth the body of the Revd Mr. Harry Constantine Son of the above Harry Constantine He Married Williamsa Daughter of John Leigh of North Court in the Isle of Wight Esq He died April 12th 1744 She 21st September 1748 And is here also buried. His age 73. Hers 64.

Others may provide more detailed than is given in the parish burial register. A typical example can be seen at Silkstone, Yorkshire. The burial entries in the register state:

11 Feb. 1797 Mary wife of Joseph Caldwell of Cheesebottom

30 June 1801 John Womersley of Coates

22 Apr 1807 Ann wife of John Womersley

16 Dec 1815 John Womersley aged 54

On the other hand, the tombstone in the churchyard provides ages and relationships totally omitted from the register:

Mary, wife of Josephy Couldwell of Cheesebottom and daughter of John Womersley of Coates died 7 Feb 1797 aged 33. john Womersley died 27 June 1801 aged 66 Ann wife of John Womersley died 22 Apr 1807 aged 69. John Womersley their son died 16 December 1815 aged 54.

Inscriptions are more often poetic or even amusing, as in the churchyard at West Down in Devon on a 1797 tombstone:

Reader, pass on, nor waste your precious time

On bad biography and murdered rhyme;

What I was before’s well known to my neighbours

What I am now is no concern of yours.

And many describe in verse the former trade of the deceased, as found at Corby Glen in Lincolnshire, Joseph Wright, an auctioneer, was killed by falling from his horse and trap:

Until grim Death, with visage queer,

Assumed Joe’s trade of Auctioneer,

Made him the Lot to Practice on,

With “going, going” and anon,

He knocked him down to “Poor Joe’s gone.”

However, those tombstones of the greatest value to the family historian are those which provide information, not only about the deceased’s death, but also about his life and, in the case of an inscription at St. Vedart Church, Foster Lane, London, about the lives of his family also:

Here lyeth buried the body of John Davenport, late of Datchet in the County of Buck. Gent who lineally descended from that ancient family of Davenport de Davenport in ye County Palentine of Chester and also Katherine his wife who was the daughter of John Miles of Cuddington in the County Huntington Gent. They lived most vertously together 53 years and had issue 3 sons and 2 daughters John the eldest son Ambrose and Katherine living at his death he departed this life 27 Decemb 1683 age 89 years she died ye 20 August 1679 aged 72 years he was a benefactor to the poor of St. Michael Le Quern where he had formerly lived 44 years.

As a source for British family history, inscriptions such as the above are unrivaled in any other single archive.

Appendix 2: SOME 1801, 1811, 1821, AND 1831 CENSUS RETURNS
1801 Berkshire Binfield County Record Office
Cambridgeshire Cambridge, St. Edward County Record Office
Cambridge, St. Mary the Great County Record Office
Derbyshire Clowne Clowne Rectory
Dorset Melbury Osmond County Record Office
Kent Borden County Record Office
London Chelsea Chelsea Reference Library
Hampstead Swiss Cottage Library
St. James Piccadilly Westminster City Library
St. Mary Le Strand Westminster City Library
Hampshire Exton Parish register
Hertfordshire Barkway and Reed County Record Office
Hitchin County Record Office
Norfolk Thorpe next Norwich County Record Office
Somerset Radstock County Record Office
Suffolk Ipswich, St. Peter County Record Office
Surrey Oxted County Record Office
Warwickshire Warwick, St. Mary County Record Office
1811 Cambridgeshire Cambridge, St. Edward County Record Office
Cambridge, St. Mary the Great County Record Office
Kent Borden County Record Office
London Hampstead Swiss Cottage Library
St. Mary Le Strand Westminster City Library
Surrey Croydon Croydon Public Library
Sussex Kindford County Record Office
Warwickshire Warwick, St. Mary County Record Office
Yorkshire Carleton near Skipton Leeds City Library
1821 Cambridgeshire Cambridge, St. Benedict County Record Office
Essex Braintree County Record Office
London St. Mary Le Strand Westminster City Library
Nottinghamshire Old & New Radford County Record Office
Warwickshire Austrey County Record Office
Bedworth County Record Office
Kineton County Record Office
Tamworth County Record Office
Warwick, St. Mary County Record Office
1831 Cheshire Wybunbury County Record Office
London St. John at Hackney Shoreditch Central Library
Norfolk Diss County Record Office
Suffolk Ipswich, St. Margaret County Record Office
Ipswich, St. Peter County Record Office
Warwickshire Warwick, St. Mary County Record Office
Worcestershire Wolverley County Record Office

1 For details on the Federation of Family History Societies and its member societies contact the General Secretary, the Drovers, Cambridge, Gloucester, GL2 7AU, England, enclosing a self-addressed envelope. See also Colin R. Chapman, A Boon to Family Historians: Activities of the Federation of Family History Societies, World Conference on Records, 1980.

2 The following is a typical example of a funeral certificate given in Observations on Marriages, Baptisms, and Burials as Preserved in Parochial Registers by R. Bigland (1764):

Sir Francis Chaplin, Knt. Late Lord Mayor of the city of London, and alderman of Vintry Ward, one of the governors of Christ Hospital (to which said hospital he bequeathed two hundred pounds by this last will and testament) departed this life at this house in Bury-street on Sunday the 27th day of June 1680, and was privately interred in the parish church of St. Catharine Cree on Saturday the 3d day of July following. The said Sir Francis Chaplin was eldest son of Sir Robert Chaplin of Bury St. Edmond’s, in the county of Suffolk, and Elizabeth his wife, daughter of Francis Asty of Bury St. Edmond’s aforesaid; which said Robert Chaplin, and Elizabeth his wife left issue (besides the deceased) Robert Chaplin of the Parish of St. Swithin, London, Merchant, his second son, who married Anne, eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Tomkins of Mornington, in the county of Hereford, Knight, and widow of Roger Vaughan of the county of Hereford aforesaid, Esq; The said Sir Francis Chaplin the defunct married Anne, the daughter of Daniel Huett of Essex, Esq; by whom he left issue John Chaplin, his eldest son; Charles, 2d son; Robert 3d son; and Anne his only daughter. John Chaplin, Esq; son and heir of the defunct, married Elizabeth, the daughter and sole heir of Sir John Hamby of Tathwel, in the county of Lincoln, Knt. By his wife Elizabeth, daughter and sole heir of Richard Porter of Lamberhurst in Kent, Esq; by whom he hath issue three sons and one daughter; viz. Porter, eldest son; Francis, 2d son; and John, 3d son, and Anne his daughter. This certificate was taken the 23d of July 1863, by Henry St. George, Knt. Clarenceux king of arms, and attested by the subscription of Robert Chaplin, brother to the defunct.

3 The Home Counties comprise the English counties immediately surrounding London, i.e., Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire. Berkshire and Bedfordshire are sometimes also included.

4 R.G. 37 series.

5 Num. 1:1-54. All men over twenty who were fit to fight were registered according to their families. A generation later Moses took another census with the intention of dividing up the land of Canaan (see Num. 26); this was not popular.

6 The measure of land used for the Domesday census was the plowland, being the area which a plow team (eight oxen) could plow in an argricultural year and which approximated 120 acres. A villain farmed 60 acres and owned half a plow team (four oxen); a border farmed 15 to 30 acres and owned two oxen, while a serf farmed 5 acres and owned one ox.

7 A typical example is the taxation listing for Bedfordshire made in 1237 and published as a transcript and translation with explanatory commentary in 1915 by the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society.

8 In 1290, 1294, 1295, 1296, 1297, 1301, 1306, 1307, 1309, 1313, 1315, 1316, 1319, 1322, 1327, and 1332.

9 Many of the 1334-1434 series of grants have been transcribed and published as that described in footnote 7 was. The 1297 tax for Bedfordshire used to finance Edward I’s expedition to Flanders was transcribed by A.T. Gaydon and published as volume 39 of Publications of the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society in 1959.

10 M. Beresford writing in Amateur Historian 4, No. 3 (1959).

11 The archdeaconry includes Lichfield, Stafford, Tamworth, Wolverhampton, Burton upon Trent, and the surrounding villages. This list of families was published by the Staffordshire Record Society in 1976.

12 Harleian. MSS 594-95.

13 Those for Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset are most complete. For Bedfordshire no returns exist in the House of Lords collection although an original list for one village (Swineshead) has survived in the parish register.

14These lists of causes of death and the number of the dead were introduced to check on mortality due to the plague. However, they continued long after 1665 and well into the late eighteenth century. The later bills of mortality were used to compile life-expectancy tables used to calculate life insurance statistics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of the data were derived from parish registers, and erroneous results were obtained since no allowance was made for Nonconformists failing to register most baptisms and some burials.

15 Bishop Compton collected parochial statistics on families in the Province of Canterbury for Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon, hence either name is applied to this parish-by-parish listing of numbers of conformists, papists, and Nonconformists. The original census is lost, but an eighteenth-century copy is held in the William Salt Library in Stafford, England.

16 King’s Natural and Political Observations Upon the State and Condition of England was completed in 1696 but did not appear until 1802, when it was published as an appendix in G. Chambers’ Estimate of the Comparative Strength of Great Britain. Price’s Essay on the Population of England appeared in 1780 but was attacked by John Howlett (vicar of Great Baddow, Essex) in the following year. Numerous other pamphlets, many anonymous, deposited in the British Museum, both support and attack the falling population theories of Price.