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  • Writer's pictureSadie

Building the Local Population Before 1841

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

There are many sources available which, from 1841 to 1943, allow the researcher to place their ancestors, and the place they lived, in both a local and national context. Amongst other sources these include:

The decennial census records 1841 to 1911 and the numerous reports that were compiled from these. (1)

The Inland Revenue Valuation Survey 1910-1915. This was a review of land and property ownership in England and Wales. It was the first comprehensive national survey of land and prop

erty ownership and occupation, since the Domesday survey of 1086, and covers approximately 9 million houses, farms and tracts of land. (2)

The 1939 National Register, taken on the 29th September 1939, was designed to capture the civilian population for the preparation of identity cards. The register records 40 million names and it can act as a substitute for the 1941 census, that was not taken due to World War 2. (3)

The National Farm Survey, which was taken between 1941 to 1943, recorded approximately 300,000 farms of over 5 acres. It was designed to be a ‘permanent and comprehensive record of the conditions on the farms of England and Wales'. It would form the basis of post-war agricultural planning. The survey was heralded at the time as a 'Second Domesday'. (4)

I shall return to these sources in future blogs. But for this blog I want to concentrate on earlier sources and what they might reveal about Fletton.

Diocesan Population Returns 1563 and 1603

The earliest documents to consider are The Diocesan Population Returns and they take us back 450 years to 1563 and 1603.

Both were the result of questions circulated by the Diocese Bishops, but the reasons behind the surveys were very different. The 1563 survey was perhaps motivated by the Elizabethan Settlement, a series of policies which aimed to bring stability to religion following Elizabeth’s accession in 1558. A memorandum from Sir William Cecil asks all Bishops to answer the question ‘how many howsholds ar in ev[er}y cure’. The memorandum also states that the information is required for ‘the collection of revenues for poor relief and other alms-related purposes’. (5)

The 1603 survey was undertaken at the beginning of the reign of James I of England, by Archbishop John Whitgift. James 1 had been King James VI of Scotland from 1567 and was the first Stuart King of England from 1603. James saw himself as an absolute monarch and with an increasingly assertive Parliament the stage was set for the later rebellion against his successor Charles 1. Archbishop John Whitgift asked Bishops to provide three pieces of information from their parishes. Firstly, ‘the certeine number of those that do receive the Communion in everie parishe’, secondly, the certeine number of everie man recusant…in everie…parishe…and…of everie woeman recusant’, and thirdly ‘the certeine number…of everie man…who dothe not receive the Communion…and…of everie woeman’. (6) In other words Whitgift wanted to know how many communicants, individuals who received Holy Communion, and how many recusants, those who did not adhere to the Protestant faith there were in each parish.

The 1563 returns cover 12 dioceses, and the 1603 returns cover 9 dioceses. The extracts have been made available in A. Dyer’s and D. M. Palliser’s publication, which you might be able to find in larger libraries or archives. (7) Fletton is in the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon and from the twelfth century until the 30th May 1837, when it was moved to the Ely Diocese by Order in Council, it was a part of the Diocese of Lincoln. (8)

When looking at the population figures for Fletton, over the two Returns, we must remember that the number listed shows us very different information. In 1563 the number represents families, whilst that in 1603 represents communicants, recusants and non-participants, both male and female. (9) So, the 1603 figures could potentially give us the total adult population within the parish.

In both 1563 and 1603 Fletton was the smallest parish out of those local parishes we have information for and will discuss in this blog. In 1563 the number of families in Fletton was 24. By 1603 the number of communicants was 91.

In 1563 the number of families in Stanground was 74. By 1603 the number of communicants was 276.

In 1563 the number of families in Woodston was 25. By 1603 the number of communicants was 96.

In 1563 the number of families in Yaxley was 99. By 1603 the number of communicants was 280.

In no local parish were there any recusants recorded.

Protestation Return 1642

We now move forwards 40 years to the early 1640s when the country was in turmoil as Civil War loomed. In May 1641, the members of both Houses of Parliament swore an oath declaring their loyalty to the Church of England, the King and ‘the Powers and privileges of Parliament’. (10) This was followed, a few days later, by the passing of an Act, in the House of Commons for all men over 18 to swear such a protestation.

The following January the Speaker of the House of Commons sent instructions to the County Sheriffs that the protestation should be taken throughout the country. Once the protestation had been sworn lists of those who took the oath, and those who did not, were returned to parliament. These instructions were acted on quickly. The oath was first taken by overseers, churchwardens and constables, in front of the justices, and then these officials organised and witnessed their own parishioners take the protestation oath. This mainly occurred in the last week of February and the first week of March.

Some lists are in the parishioner’s own hand together with their signature. But many are in one hand with the parishioner’s signature or mark.

Not all the Protestation Returns survive, but where they do, they are available from the Parliamentary archives. (11)

For the historian, the Protestation Returns are valuable, not only because they give an indication of the population of a parish as they detail all males over 18, and in some cases females, but critically they give the names of the parishioners, something that none of the other sources do.

Fletton, still a small rural parish, recorded 57 adult males over 18. Woodston recorded 42, Stanground 92 and Yaxley 208. None of the parishes recorded any women or recusants.

It does not state on the Fletton Protestation Return who wrote the document, nor does it give the name of the churchwarden. But it is written in one hand with no signatures or marks of the parishioners. The Rector at the time was William Lee, so it could be his hand which we see on the document.

Interestingly few of the family names that are listed on the Protestation Return occur in the nineteenth century census returns. The reason why remains a mystery! However, there are some family groupings: Thomas, William and John Cooke, Thomas Trewin Snr and Jnr, William and Thomas Johnson, Thomas Houze Snr and Jnr, John, George and Nicholas Vicarstaffe, Richard, John and Thomas Crosby and John, Thomas and Arthur Dean.

Bishop Compton’s Ecclesiastical Census of 1676 ‘Compton Census’

A little over 30 years later Charles II’s Lord Treasurer, Lord Danby instigated another valuable survey which became known as the ‘Compton Census’. Danby was pro-Anglican and he wanted to demonstrate the inferiority of the Nonconformists. Charles II was sceptical believing that this would unite the Nonconformists. (12) As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon was infirm Danby turned to the Bishop of London, Henry Compton for assistance. Compton was charged with finding out three things. Firstly, how many persons or families were living in each parish, secondly how many of those were Popish recusants, or suspected of being such and thirdly how many dissenters there were, that is those individuals who refuse to attend or remain absent from the Communion of the Church of England. Attendance at the Church of England was law at that time.

Once Compton received the results it was calculated that nationally the number of Conformists (Anglicans) to Nonconformists was 23 to 1, Conformists to Papists (Roman Catholics) 179 to 1 and Conformists and Nonconformists to Papists 187 to 1.

The results of the Compton census can be found in a summary book edited by E. Carpenter and your local archive or library may have a copy. (13)

In Fletton the number of parishioners was 162. Of these 151 were Conformists and 11 Nonconformists. Therefore, the number of Nonconformists was higher than the national average at 14 Conformists for every 1 Nonconformist.

Fletton was more dissident than the local parishes of Stanground and Woodston. Stanground had 438 parishioners. Of these 431 were Conformists with 7 Nonconformists giving a figure of 62 Conformists to every 1 Nonconformist. Whilst Woodston had 86 parishioners, and all were Conformists.

Locally the parish with the most dissidents was Yaxley with 413 parishioners. Of these 355 were Conformists, 47 were Nonconformists and 11 were Papists. Therefore, the number of Nonconformists was very high, compared to the national picture, at 7 Conformists to every 1 Nonconformist. Conformists to Papists was higher than the national average at 28 Conformists to every 1 Papist and Conformists and Nonconformists to Papists was also higher than the national average at 32 to 1.

Bishop Wake’s Visitation Returns 1706

30 years later, in 1706, Fletton appears in Bishop Wake’s Visitation Returns. William Wake, born 26th January 1657, was the Bishop of Lincoln from 1705 until he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1716. (14) Wake was determined that English churches would resist the call of Rome and to this end his attitude to nonconformism was one of tolerance. He was even prepared to revise the prayer book if that would allay the doubt of the dissenters. The visitation returns cover the years 1705 and 1716 and portray the history of over 1,200 villages and their inhabitants. The returns cover: Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. You will find information in them about the population, religious affiliations, schooling, charities and church attendance.

A summary of the visitation returns has been published by J. Broad and may be accessible in larger libraries and archives. Fortunately, the sample material, held online, covers part of the Yaxley Deanery, and includes Fletton. At this time, the incumbent was the Reverend John Wright. The information held refers to families rather than individuals. It appears that nonconformism was decreasing in Fletton as out of 37 families living in the parish there was only one dissenter, an Anabaptist. Unfortunately, the dissenter is not named, but it would have been interesting to know who it was, whether the family’s beliefs were strong or whether the clerk or Reverend Wright disliked their view and labelled them Anabaptist.

1801 to 1831 census

140 years later the 1841 census was taken under the First Register General, John Lister. It is considered the ‘first truly modern census’. (5) But the first census records, those taken between 1801 and 1831, should not be ignored. In 1798 demographer Thomas Malthus’s essay ‘Principle of Population’ raised concerns that Great Britain’s population would outstrip food supply. It was generally agreed that a census should be conducted. After Parliament passed the Census Act in 1800 the first census was taken on Monday 10th March 1801, subsequent pre -1841 censuses were taken on Monday 27th May 1811, Monday 28th May 1821 and Monday 30th May 1831. Information was obtained from the head of each household and processed by an army of clerks using nothing more than paper and pencil. The population of Great Britain at that first census was revealed to be 9 million.

Looking at the 1821 and 1831 census data for Fletton, shows that it was a small community with its roots firmly in agriculture. The growth that would dominate the later years of the nineteenth century had not begun.

In 1821 the population of Fletton was 159 (males 76, females 83). There were 34 houses, and these were occupied by 34 families. 21 families were employed in agriculture, 8 in trade or manufacturing and 5 in other occupations.

By 1831 the population had grown to 189 (males 91, females 98). But accommodation in the village had not kept pace. There were 41 houses, and these housed 46 families. Agriculture still dominated with 25 families working on the land. But there was growth in other occupations. 10 families were employed in trade or manufacturing and 10 in other occupations.

By this time the population of Great Britain had grown to almost 14 million, but Fletton remained the smallest parish compared with its immediate neighbours. Stanground’s population was 706, Woodston 243, and Yaxley had a population of 1,140. Peterborough too was yet to see the expansion that the railways would later bring, the population of the city was 5,553.

This exploration of religious documents, together with the early census returns illustrates how the development of a parish need not be restricted to the census years 1841 to 1911. A parish can be traced over 500 years. We may not always know individual names, but we can use contextual information to build a picture of where our ancestors lived and worked.


(7) Klausner, David & Dyer, Alan & Palliser, David. (2007). The Diocesan Population Returns for 1563 and 1603. The Sixteenth Century Journal. 38. 862. 10.2307/20478562. Accessed 5/5/21.

(9) E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield’s The Population History of England 1541-1871 (Cambridge University Press, 1981; 1989). At this time the term family was often used to mean household and as such could include non-related individuals such as apprentices, lodgers and extended family members.

(13) E. Carpenter, The Protestant Bishop: Being the Life of Henry Compton, 1632-1713, Bishop of London (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1956), pp. 31 and 32. A. Whiteman (ed.) The Compton Census of 1676: A Critical Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

(14) Bishop Wake’s Summary of Visitation Returns from the Diocese of Lincoln 1706-15, Part 2: Bedfordshire, Leicestershire, Buckinghamshire, J. Broad (ed,) (Oxford University Press, 2012). Accessed 15/6/2021.

I would like to thank the Society for One – Place – Studies who provided access to copies of the Diocesan Population Returns and The Compton Census. I would also like to thank Philip Saunders of The Huntingdon Local History Society who offered advice regarding Bishop Wake’s Visitation Returns. Finally, I would like to acknowledge Simon Clenmow’s talk ‘Establishment and Dissent: Conformity and Nonconformity in Eighteenth Century Huntingdonshire'.

I would like to thank Jenny Pedley for the following information. In 1936 Granville Proby, of Elton Hall, published an informative article in the Transactions of the Cambridgeshire & Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society. In this he listed all the inhabitants of Fletton, who made their protestation in 1642 'unanimously and cheerfully', together with the names of the officials. The officials named were William Lee - 'Rector de Fletton', John Cooke - 'constabell', John Hunt and Francis Wise - churchwardens, and Thomas Brokes and Robert Edgeborough - role not specified.

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