Wight Life

The Island Census of 1841

by Dr Phillip Armitage

MAY 1841 — CENSUS NIGHT. Although there had been a census every 10 years since 1801, the census of 1841 was the first census that was more than simply a 'count of heads'. People were identified by name, as was their profession and other details. More than this, the 1841 census was the first to be dealt with in the same way as those of the present day. For the first time, the general population was considered sufficiently literate for the returns to be left at houses, and eventually collected by the enumerators (who doubtless helped their more bewildered compatriots to fill in the details!). The existing records are not the individually completed returns, but the official forms on which the enumerators copied the information.

The returns for 1801 to 1831 had been completed on a purely parochial basis, the parish then being a convenient local unit of size. In 1837, the country was split into 2,193 registration districts for the purposes of the Registrar General when that office began the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages. For the purpose of the 1841 Census, each of these new 'Registration Districts' was sub-divided into 'enumeration districts' in such a way that no enumerator had fewer than 25 or more than 200 inhabited houses to visit. More than 35,000 Enumeration Districts were so defined, over 70 of them covering the Island.

Because the census lists the population according to the house they occupied on census night, it is not possible to give a complete picture of any one family if members of the family lived in different parts of the Island. The Jolliffe family would be a case in point. People with this name lived in Newport, Brighstone (then called Brixton), Carisbrooke, Bowcombe, Godshill and many other hamlets. Were they linked by blood as well as by name? The census will not tell us that! But sufficient information can be obtained for the families to be traced back long before the 1840s.

For anyone who knows the Island and its people, reading the census returns is a pleasure — the old family names leap out of the pages: Flux, Attrill, Mew, Cheek, Harvey, Bull, Yelf, Pittis, Sibbick, Jacobs, Blow, Woodnutt, Gubbins, Holbrooke, Urry, Dore, Chessell, Gustav, Guy, Roach, and many, many others. All can still be found in today's telephone directory.

For each person listed, the returns show: age (which is rounded up to the nearest term of 5 years for those people over 20 years, except where the enumerator mis-understood the instructions-, occupation, full name' and, of course, family grouping. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to identify the house in which a family live. Quite often the census simply says 'a cottage' without giving more detail but where it is possible to identify the house such information is included.

Census returns are subject to the '100 year' rule, that is, no access to the documents is allowed until at least 100 years has elapsed. Thus, the most recent census in 1971 will not be subject to articles such as this until at least the year 2072!

Godshill is a good district to look at in the light of the 1841 census. Much of what happened in Godshill mirrored the goings-on in the rest of the Island. At this time, the Island was rich in working mills and Godshill embraced two — that at Yafford and that at Shorwell. Yafford Mill, recently opened to the public as a museum of rural crafts, was, in 1841, very much a working establishment, as the entry Godshill 1, 8 (ii) shows:

                Age   Occupation   Born in this county
Joseph Denham	33	Miller	    Y**			
Ellen  Denham 	6		    Y
Mary   Denham	3		    Y
Mary   Newlis	46	F.S.*	    Y
(*Familyservant	**Yes)

— which might indicate that Joseph's wife died in confinement as most millers were not wealthy enough to afford female servants. A near neighbour of Joseph was James Coombs (37) of Shorwell, who was an inn keeper. His wife Frances (30) and he had no less than seven children at the time of the census: James (15), Thomas (12-, Frances (10-, Melina (9), Maria (6-, Robert (2) and Oliver (10 months). It is not altogether surprising in the case of such a large family that the eldest son, although only 15 years old, is shown to have the occupation of a shoe maker. It seems likely that he set up in that business because Frederick Hall, an 18 year-old lodger at the inn was also a shoe maker. Frederick Hall is obviously a great asset in keeping the family's finances solvent. No indication is given in this instance as to which public house had James Coombs as its landlord.

Only the large houses generally accommodated people who were classified as 'independent', but occasionally one finds such people in more humble surroundings. In the entry Godshill 1, 5 (ii) at the property known as 'White's' the census shows that there lived a Mary Burt, a 56 year old widow perhaps, who was classified in that manner. She dwelt there with Matthias Burt (22) — her son (?) — a 28 year old baker, Belford Warne, his wife Mary (27) and a three month old daughter Fanny, and a family servant of 66 named Elizabeth Groves. It seems likely that Mary Burt was a relative of Francis Burt (69) who was classified as a man of independent means who lived with his family at Shorwell Mill. He appears to have been a widower with a twin son and daughter of 10 named Emily and Frank, and an elder daughter called Maria. In a nearby cottage lived more members of the family: John Burt, a 39 year old miller, his wife Mary (37) and three sons, John being the eldest at 5 and George the youngest at 2 months. Do any Burts still live in the area?

The fact that the Island was well stocked with mills (both wind, water and tide) indicates the presence of a great deal of grain; so it is hardly surprising that, not far from Shorwell Mill and the Burts — at Shorwell Malthouse — lived Henry Brading (25)a malster, with his wife Helen (25) and son Walter (1-. They are shown to have a 15 year old family servant called Maria Ridett.

The Godshill area was split into numerous enumeration areas and one of these deals with the south western coast of the Island — the Atherfield area. Readers must remember we are now looking at aspects of an Island without the Military Road (a useful map to have in this context is the recent David and Charles reprint of the 19th "Century 1-inch Ordnance Survey map of the Island) when communication was not easy. Atherfield was nothing more than a collection of coastguard houses but the most interesting thing is that these coastguards: Michael Hagerty, John Powers, Edward Pitt, Daniel Holds, John Oliver, etc all came from Ireland and brought with them all their families. Not one of these stout fellows had been on the Island for more than three years (the youngest dependant who is entered as having been born in thin county is aged 2) but this holds for almost every coastguard around the Island — and they were many. How strange that hardly any Vectensian should see fit (or be considered fit?) to watch over the troubled Island shore. Could it be that since coastguards and Excise men were expected to work in close liaison, it was not deemed wise to enlist 'locals' as coastguards in case their sympathies lay with the 'opposition'?

This Census information is taken from Public Record Office document HO 107/405 with permission of the Keeper of Public Records.