Social History Before The Census

on Thursday, 27 June 2019. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

The census records from 1841-1911 are one of the first sources we turn to in the quest to find out more about our ancestors and where they lived. The censuses are a wonderful source, presenting us with a complete family, their ages, relationships, occupation and place of birth. But what happens when you want to go further back in time? What sources are there, and will they survive for your parish? In fact, there are lots of documents you can try. Some will only provide a small piece in a very large jigsaw, but they will all help to build up a bigger picture of your family, town or village. Here are ten sources you can try….

Wills and Inventories. These are fascinating, particularly if you are researching a parish. They may mention relatives, the name of the property occupied by the deceased and their occupation. The opening phrases of the will may suggest which religious denomination they followed. Inventories often describe each room in a house and the goods found in them. The History Centre’s collection of wills proved in Salisbury dates back to 1530 and is available on Ancestry.

Overseers of the Poor. Before 1834 people who fell on hard times were supported in their own parish by the ratepayers. Account books will give details of the payments made and to whom. The overseers would only pay for people they believed to be legally settled in the parish. Any family who had recently arrived and were unable to find regular employment would be sent back to their home parish. Surviving poor law documents may include removal orders, settlement certificates and settlement examinations. These will indicate a family’s movements, or, in terms of a whole parish, will give an idea as to the number of families moving in or out and the economic conditions. These documents have been transcribed and indexed by the Wiltshire Family History Society and are available at the History Centre.

Tax Lists. The first official census was taken in 1801, but 1841 was the first census where every individual was named. There are a few surviving earlier censuses produced privately which are available at the History Centre. Tax records will give an indication as to the number of people in a parish and their names, but bear in mind that the poor did not always pay tax. Taxes paid in 1334 and 1377 are recorded in volume 4 of the Victoria County History of Wiltshire. The Wiltshire Record Society has published lists for 1332, 1545 and 1576. Land Tax records survive from approximately 1780-1830 for most parishes in Wiltshire. 

Churchwardens’ Accounts. The churchwardens were usually leading members of the community and were named in the accounts. Some accounts name the rate payers and the amount each person paid. The payments made will show the maintenance work carried out on the church and the name of the man who was paid. Payment for wine will indicate how many times a year communion services were held. There may be a mention of bells, both for maintenance and the special occasions for which the ringers were paid to ring.

Churchwardens’ Presentments. It was the duty of the churchwardens to make annual ‘presentments’ which were documents sent to the Bishop or Dean of the Diocese. They were expected to report on the fabric of the church, the conduct of the minister, the morals and religious inclinations of the inhabitants. The collection for the Salisbury Diocese goes back to 1720 (with just a few surviving 17th century examples) and can be consulted at the History Centre. The early presentments are the most detailed and interesting; by the mid 18th century the wardens often contented themselves with reporting ‘omnia bene’ – all well. They are, however, worth searching, as they might mention a serious repair needed to the church, a rector who neglected to preach sufficient sermons, fathers of illegitimate children who were ‘named and shamed’, parishioners who did not follow the Church of England, schoolmasters teaching without a licence.

Leases will note the name, the location of a property and the land attached to it. If the leaseholder left a will and inventory, the combined documents will give a detailed description of the house, land, possessions and the family concerned.

Quarter Sessions. These are challenging documents to read but can be very interesting. The quarter sessions were local courts traditionally held at four set times each year. Each county had its own sessions which took place in four different towns. As well as hearing criminal cases the sessions also had some limited civil jurisdiction. These matters included the repair of roads and bridges, licensing of public houses and the punishment of vagrants. People who followed a different faith were also presented. Also included are the names of the jurors.

Family and Estate Collections. If the parish you are interested in was part of an estate, for example the Hoares at Stourhead, the Arundells at Wardour or the Pembrokes at Wilton, there may be a substantial archive at the History Centre. These family collections will often include household and personal accounts, manor court books, deeds, maps, surveys and rentals. They will be of particular interest if you are looking for an individual who lived and worked on one of these estates.

Parish archive including registers. Each parish has its own collection of documents. Some collections are larger than others depending on how much has survived. If you are lucky, there will be churchwardens’ accounts, church inventories, numerous documents concerning the church fabric, vestry minutes, surveyors of the highways accounts, overseers of the poor accounts and rate books and examinations, material relating to charities, modern PCC minutes and accounts. Parish registers can be used to indicate the rise and fall in baptisms, marriages and burials, as well as the number of people moving into a parish. They will also show which family names have been in the parish for a long time. The parish registers for Wiltshire up to 1916 have all been digitised and are available on Ancestry.

Lastly, remember the value of background reading. The inspiration for this blog came from a recently published book (Stourton before Stourhead by Stuart A Raymond, published by Hobnob Press)! Secondary sources can be just as valuable as primary, especially if they include an extensive bibliography. The Local Studies Library at the History Centre contains 50,000 books written about Wiltshire. It is good to make use of someone else’s research. You never know what you might discover…

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Helen Taylor
Senior Community History Advisor


Accredited Archive Service