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Chipping Norton 1851 - Family and Household Structure

This article is based on my project for the Open University Course DA301, Studying Family and Community History. One of the aims of the course is to place the family in the wider social context of the community, both local and national. Various sources are used including the nineteenth century Census returns. Oxford FHS have these available on disk for research purposes. A considerable amount of travel time and expenses were saved in having the data for all five enumeration districts of Chipping Norton at home.

The OU encourage their students to relate one's own work to that of other researchers. Peter Laslett, EA Wrigley and Michael Anderson are the pioneers of modern research in this field. They challenged the theory that the Industrial Revolution was responsible for the breakdown of Family Life and accumulated evidence that it actually created conditions that maintained even stronger bonds than before.

In its original form I used Diana Rau's study of Chalcots, an emerging middle-class suburb in north London, as a model for my research and as a comparative base. Similarities and differences between the two areas were highlighted. Many of these were due to the different ages of the two communities, Chipping Norton being a long-established market town. I could not find any similar studies, with the necessary data, based on towns or villages in Oxfordshire although there are many fascinating books based on different places in the county.

The census data was transferred to a Lotus 123 Spreadsheet and 'data-sorted' to produce the various tables from which the graphs were prepared.

As anyone who has worked with transcriptions will know, errors do creep in, but the only one I found was a lady being described as an annuitant 'gentleman', instead of 'gentlewoman'. Of course the transcription did not show the marks made in the book by the enumerator, but was of little consequence in this case.

The main general advantage of using the census records for a demographic survey is that, in theory, they show every resident in the census district on census night - March 30th 1851. Most other surviving historical records have a bias towards the rich and powerful members of the community. Thus a very real idea can be gained of the background against which an ancestor lived.

There is much evidence of different census enumerators interpreting their instructions in different ways, and this has to be taken into account when comparing different enumeration districts. There are several anomalies in the Chipping Norton returns for 1851: one school has two 'Heads' of the Household; several households have a wife, but no 'Head' present. There are problems with the designation of 'servant'. One large household, headed by a master tailor, includes 1 Apprentice Draper, 1 Assistant Milliner, 1 Assistant Draper, 2 Nursemaids and 1 Housemaid. All of these are described as servants. In other districts apprentices and nurses are listed as such under the 'relationship to head' column. In 1841 these were described as servants, so perhaps the enumerator had been involved in collecting data at this census as well as in 1851.

Occupational descriptions were sometimes rather vague. William Bliss, who lived in New Street, owned two woollen mills and employed 700 people in 1870. In 1851 the enumerators were not asked to include details of employees and he was described as 'woollen manufacturer', with no mention of the size of his business. Very few secondary occupations were recorded, particularly for the lower social classes. If the census had been taken at harvest-time the picture might have looked different. Where someone like Edward Smith of New Street, was listed as Auctioneer, pawn-broker and shop-keeper, I used the first in the list to define his social class. Women's occupations may have been under-recorded due to the prejudice of the enumerator, the woman's husband or even the woman herself. In Victorian times the idea of women's work being in the home reached its peak.

Chipping Norton 1851 - Family and Household Structure

This article is a very abbreviated version of a project which I completed in 1994, as part of the Open University Course DA301, Studying Family and Community History. One of the aims of the course is to set one's own research in a wider social context. My ancestors, including the GILLETTs, SAVAGEs and MEADES  were living in Chipping Norton on the night of March 30th 1851, when the census was taken, and it is interesting to discover the social background to their lives.

There are several problems in using transcriptions and also of using census returns for comparing different places at the same time and particularly of comparing the same area at different censuses. The directions to census enumerators changed between different census years and different enumerators often interpreted these directions in different ways.

Oxford Family History Society has a transcription of the 1851 census returns on computer disks available for academic research. The data from the five enumeration districts of Chipping Norton was loaded into a Lotus 123 Spreadsheet and, after a certain amount of coding, it was 'data-sorted' to produce most of the tables from which the graphs were drawn.

The main general advantage of using the census records for a demographic survey is that, in theory, they show every resident in the census district on census night - March 30th 1851. Most other surviving historical records have a bias towards the rich and powerful members of the community. Thus a very real idea can be gained of the background against which an ancestor lived.

The original project used a study of Chalcotts, an emerging middle-class suburb in North London as a comparative base. This helped to highlight the similarities and differences between the two places. Chipping Norton, as a historic market town, had very little in common with Chalcotts and I am hoping that family historians in Oxfordshire will be motivated to get the same data for other areas, so that a fuller picture will emerge for different types of communities within the same county.


In 1851 Chipping Norton had 608 households and a population of 2,932. The sexes were almost evenly divided. The Male:Female sex ratio was 1:1.04, which is close to that for England and Wales in the same year, when the population was 17.9 million with a sex ratio of 1:1.2[i]. Chipping Norton contained a number of large households such as Inns, Lodging Houses and a work house and I have excluded these in some of my calculations to facilitate comparison with other areas which do not have some of these.

Household size

The majority of houses held between two and six people. The mean household size was 4.6, excuding the 180 people in the workhouse and the students living at the three schools. Interestingly this is the same mean as Anderson[ii] (1993) found in a national sample for the same period.

Social Class

85.7%  of the population were in socio-economic groups 3 - 5[iii]. This bias towards the middle and lower end of the scale might be expected in a rural community of this period.

Many of the higher-status citizens, like Thomas ROLLS, mayor of Chipping Norton and draper, employing 4 men, live in the central part of the town, around the Market Place. The Church of England Minister, Reverend WHISHAW[iv] lived at the vicarage in Church Street, next to the Grammar School. He was 28 and married to Anne, aged 24. His brother, Charles, lived with them, as did two servants and a visitor of the same name as one of the servants. Reverend Whishaw and his brother were born in the British Embassy in St Petersburg, Russia, although they were both British Subjects. Further research would be required to see if their father was the British Ambassador or perhaps a senior member of his staff. His wife was born in Scotland. The Reverend Ralph Mann informs me that Mr Whishaw ran a 'cramming' establishment at the vicarage at one time and the most famous/notorious of his students was Charles Stuart Parnell, the Irish Nationalist leader.

The Baptist Minister was Reverend Thomas BLISS BA, of Trinity College, Dublin, born in London (it is not known if he was related to the mayor - no - Thos ROLLS, Draper, 47 employing 4 menbut one suspects he was), and the Methodist Church Minister is Thomas Bliss, possibly cousin of the owner of the tweed mills. All of these people figure in reports, in Jackson's Oxford Journal, of various public meetings in the town and one gets the impression of a clique of upper-class residents who are involved in most of the local social events.

There were five doctors/surgeons, 1 solicitor and one Veterinary surgeon, as well as the owner of the boot and shoe factory, Henry GREENWOOD, who was recorded as employing 93 people, the owner of the brewery and William BLISS, woollen manufacturer (the owner of the two woollen mills). There were also nine or ten farmers, who lived in the town, but had land outside it.

Children and Nuclear Family Structure

60.9% of the households contained a total of 940 children under 15. The mean nuclear size of the families was 3.66. This is just below the preliminary estimate of 3.7 which Anderson gives for England and Wales in this period.[v] Being an established community, there was a fairly smooth distribution of the nuclear family size with the largest number of children in households of between three and five persons.

14.6% of households were headed by singletons ie without a spouse. Of the nuclear families, 16.4% were headed by widows or widowers, equally divided between males and females. The largest of these was one of seven - William WILKS, 'butcher master'. His children were aged between 24 and 11 and his 12 year old nephew also lived with him. His 24 year old daughter was designated as 'housekeeper', but the next two daughters were a staymaker and dressmaker respectively. The three youngest children were all scholars. His 17 year old son was a butcher and doubtless helped his father run the business.

Domestic Service

Only 17% of the households employed indoor servants in Chipping Norton in 1851. 35% of these were the only servant in the household and 25% shared their work with one other. It should be remembered that some co-residing kin were used as servants and wouldn't show as such in the census returns. Also that the returns only show which households had resident servants.

It should be noted that people described as servants included some who worked out of doors including the Doctor's Groom, several apprentices and two shop assistants and these have been excluded from the study.

Only 5.5% of the indoor servants were male. One reason for the large surplus of female servants was that a tax on male servants was imposed in the late eighteenth century to finance the wars with France. Another reason was that there were fewer alternative employment opportunities at this time for men than for women.[vi]

Further research is required to study the birth-places of these servants. Most of the female indoor servants appear to have been born outside the town, but not necessarily far away. Horn (1975)[vii] reports a former servant saying that youngsters were sent at least 20 miles from home to prevent them running away. There was also the problem of locally-recruited servants betraying  secrets of the household to their family and friends. One wonders if the locally-born servants were recruited from the local work-house. The poor souls were paid 1/- or so a week and many were treated like slaves.[viii]

Generations and Co-resident Kin

The graph shows the proportion of households containing between one and four generations.

Only 19.5 % of households contained kin in Chipping Norton. This compares with 23% of households in Preston, 27% in rural Lancashire,[ix](which may be due to family-members helping on farms) and 21 % in Ashford[x].

The largest group of co-resident kin, 54%, is of one or two generations below the head of the household. - either nephew, neice, grandchild, son- or daughter-in-law. I get the impression that many related families were living near each other, but further research is required to confirm this. If this is so, they would be able to give each other financial and emotional support without 'moving in'.

Visitors and Lodgers

8.9% of all households in Chipping Norton contained visitors and/or lodgers. There were four lodging houses lodging 35 visitors and lodgers. This is quite a low figure compared to other parts of England and Wales where there is a large immigrant population, looking for work in local industries.

Average Composition of the Households in Chipping Norton 1851

                                                                                      E & W 1851[xi]

Members of Nuclear family    79.2%                                      81%


Kin, Visitors and Lodgers       13%                                         15%

(also Assistants and Apprentices)


Servants                                  6.4%                                       5%


Pupils                                     40%


Population                             100%                                     2819


Inmates of Workhouse                                   113


TOTAL POPULATION                               2932


In my original project I have used Chalcots, an emerging middle-class suburb in North London, as a comparative base, but have excluded it from this article as I do not feel it has any relevance to Oxfordshire. BUT having other statistics with which which to compare mine did highlight similarities and differences between the two areas and suggest explanations for these.

It is hoped that other researchers will be motivated to get statistics for other towns in the county using the 1851 census returns OR for Chipping Norton, using the later census returns which, I believe, are not yet available on computer disk.


[i]Nissel, Muriel - People Count, page 155 - HMSO (1987)

[ii]Anderson 1983, quoted in Finnegan and Drake - Studying Family and Community History, Volume 1 - Cambridge University Press in association with Open University  (1994)

[iii]Armstrong's modification of the Registrar General's Classification of socio-economic               groupings was used .

[iv]There may be a transcription error here, as i am told the original spelling in the census is WHISHAW.

[v]Anderson 1983 op cit

[vi]Pamela Horn - The Victorian Country Child - Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd (1990)

[vii]op cit

[viii]op cit

[ix]Anderson, M - Family Structure in nineteenth century Lancashire - Cambridge University Press (1971) p 81

[x]Drake,  M (ed) Time, Family and Community - Oxford, Blackwell in association with the Open University (1974), p 5

[xi]Census Report on 1851 findings