Census,  Source Spotlight

Stories from an early 18th-century census: Introduction

In 1724, 77 years before the first national census in Britain, vicar Henry Dawnay took a census of the village Puddletown in Dorset where he lived. He wrote his observations down in ‘An account of the inhabitants of Piddletown Parish 1724 Dorsetshire’. In the first of a series of posts on this source, I talk about what this exceptional document could tell us about life in eighteenth-century England.

Puddletown, Dorset

Puddletown lies about five miles north-east of Dorchester. You can see the boundary of the parish in the map below. Thanks to Dawnay’s census, we know that in 1724, it had a population of around 600. At that time it was known as ‘Piddletown’, named after the River Piddle running through it. But it was later changed to Puddletown to avoid the growing association of ‘piddle’ with ‘wee’….


The Source

Dawnay’s ‘Account’ is certainly not the earliest example of a census, but sources of this type dating from the early eighteenth century are rare in England. It’s invaluable as a snapshot of the ordinary lives of one village’s inhabitants and for what it tells us about how Dawnay saw the world. Most of the entries date from 1724, but some date from 1725 or 1729, so it’s possible to trace the fortunes of some of the families we meet in 1724.

You can find the original document at Dorset Heritage Centre as well as an edition published in 1988. Historian Susannah Ottaway used it in her study of old age in the eighteenth century. I’ve used it in an article on subtenancy, and am currently using it to finish an article on women’s property ownership in 18th-century England, as well as drawing on it in my monograph on capitalist farming.

Here’s a snapshot of the start of Dawnay’s entry for a row of houses on New Street:

Extract from PE-PUD/IN/7/1, Dorset History Centre.

He worked his way around the village and organised the census by streets, numbering the houses as he went. Let’s look at some of the people living in New Street at the time. I’ve marked roughly where their houses were on the modern map below.

In the first house on the left-hand side of New Street we find:

Mary Wellstream, a Widow and Anabaptist, with 4 Children living with her. Mary grown up, Eliz., Samuel and Charles. Which three last I have baptized since I came to this place. She hath three more Children out at Service. Very poor. 5 in family.

And in the house next door, we find:

Henry Sherwing, a Farmer, and Jane his wife. Henry and Samuel Kiddle, two Orphans and his Nephews, boarding with them. John Kiddle, a Dumbman and another Servant. 6 in family.

Further down the street, in the 13th house, we find:

Richard Roper, a Day Labourer, and Ann his wife, with two Children with them, Mary born in 1721 and Henry in 1723. Ann Petty, Widow and Mother of the Wife, lives with them, aged about 67. 5 in family.

Dawnay’s descriptions of the Wellstream, Sherwing, and Roper families show the kinds of things he was interested in recording. He recorded men’s occupations and women’s marital status. He often noted children’s ages or dates of birth and the ages of any particularly old inhabitants of the village. Families that were particularly poor, such as the Wellstreams, were identified as such. Elsewhere in the census he comments on very rich families. With this type of information we can build up a picture of the demography and social structure of Puddletown.

We also get glimpses of religious life in Puddletown. In Dawnay’s description of Mary Wellstream we learn she is an Anabaptist and that he had baptized some of her children. In fact, identifying non-conformists living in Puddletown may have been one of the reasons why Dawnay as its vicar produced this census. After all, only 50 years earlier, the Compton Census had been taken, which surveyed religious affiliation across England and Wales.

But I don’t think this can have been Dawnay’s only motivation. He provides so much extra information that wasn’t necessary if he was only interested in recording non-conformity in Puddletown. He gives information on family and household structure that are hard to find in other sources. For example, we know which children have left home and gone out to service, and for some we even know which households they worked in. There’s also lots of detail about how people made a living that allows us to build up a picture of Puddletown’s occupational and social structure. We can get a sense of religious life, especially for those who Dawnay identifies as non-conformists. We also view all these things through Dawnay’s eyes, and this can tell us a lot about how he viewed (and sometimes judged) how people lived, which is really interesting in itself.

Future Posts

Over the coming weeks I’m going to explore these topics in more detail. Below you can find a list of the topics and when they’ll be available.

  • Tracing Dawnay’s route round Puddletown [coming soon]
  • Age [available tbc]
  • Work [available tbc]
  • Social status [available tbc]
  • Moral well-being [available tbc]
  • Spiritual well-being [available tbc]

Stay tuned!

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