Monday, March 11, 2013

Things aren't always what the census appears to be telling you

Help Desk
Michael Meredith was one of the railway works employed in at Tring railway station at the time of the 1851 census, and a few years ago Carlene asked for more information about him and revealed that he had emigrated to New Zealand and had been murdered in 1863 - their murder being a tipping point in one of the Maori Wars. I provided more information, from the 1841 census and noticed that Michael's eldest daughter had not been at home in 1851 and I could not find her anywhere in the 1851 census.

Many of the teenage girls with working class backgrounds living in the Aldbury area ended up in service - and I suggested that Thomasine Meredith "may well have been working somewhere as a domestic servant and recorded inaccurately (or mis-indexed)". I noted that a Thomasine Meredith married a Rev. Edward Cooper and I went on:  "If this is the right Thomasine it looks like a major jump in social status - but occasionally a young man might marry a domestic servant. The marriage certificate will need to be examined to establish the name and occupation of Thomasine's father." 

Richard, who is a descendant of Thomasine, has now provided further information - which suggests that one reason Thomasine was not in the 1881 census could be that she went to school in France, and my analysis of the social situation was wrong! In my reply I wrote:

I am most interested to hear that Michael Meredith had fallen on bad times and Thomasine had been educated with the help of a family connection. It is useful to be reminded that in interpreting census returns things are often not as straightforward as they look, and while it is reasonable to assume that most teen-age girls who left Aldbury in the mid 19th century would have gone into service this would appear not to be the case with Thomasine.
It was not uncommon that, when one branch of the family had difficulties, others would help them out in one way or another. In particular a childless couple might informally "adopt" a child from a family who had a number of children. When my great great grandfather Francis Reynolds got into difficulties on his farm (too much money spent on the horses and possibly drink) the family broke up and my great grandfather Jacob Reynolds got a clerical job with his uncles. Undoubtedly helped by the fact he was "family" he worked his way up to being London manager of his uncles' company, as agents for Lawes patent superphosphate fertilizer - before benefiting from some family wills and returning to the business of farming and taking up other business interests. A teenage girl might well go to become a companion to an older couple - which benefitted everyone - but there may have been some cases where the child was merely seen as cheap labour. Sometime an older girl would move into the household of a recently widowed male relative to help with young children - with predictable consequences! Two of my direct ancestors ended up marrying their late wife's sister, while two others married their late wife's first cousin.
It is important to remember that while the census contains many clues to social status one has to be careful. One of my wife's cousins made pins while some of his distant cousins made nails. There was an important difference. The nail maker made nails, his wife and children made nails and most people in the street made nails - and all had little furnaces at the bottom of their gardens where they made the nails from wire provided by the local Iron Master. At the other extreme, the pin maker lived in a grand house, with a governess to look after the children - and owned a factory where hundreds of other people's children made pins, and which was described in a government report of the evils of child labour.


  1. Right Name, Wrong Body? The baptismal record matches as to age and names of parents. Father's profession looks like broker. The marriage register on Ancestry has his occupation as Esquire. Thus marriage with a clergyman (himself son of one) from Garforth does not suggest social climbing. I did an 1851 address search for Thomasine's address in the register and found a Jemima Meredith of the same age as well as a Henry Meredith 2 years her junior.

  2. The marriage register shows Henry Price Meredith and his father Michael Meredith as Gentleman. Surgeon was not considered a suitable profession for a gentleman since unlike a physician he would need to examine patients. He is, however, shown as Surgeon at the baptism of his son in 1856. Unfortunately we have only "full age" and address "St. Marylebone" in the MR for Henry but possibly he was the brother of Jemima/Thomasine at 40 Upper Seymour Street in 1851. He was the son of Michael and Eliza Meredith born 1834 and baptized 1838 when the father's profession was recorded as A Clerk (Articled Clerk?).


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