History of the Amersham Area

Amersham and the Censuses

This page was created by Gwyneth Wilkie.  She has also created the attached spreadsheet with details of the Census Enumerators as part of a project for the Family & Community History Research Society.  See also her article about the Census Districts.

Taking a census every ten years began in Britain in 1801.  It was a simple head-count, carried out in each parish by the overseers of the poor and backed up by some statistics on baptisms, marriages and burials provided by the local clergy.  It had long been resisted on the grounds that it was an attack on English liberties and a prelude to taxation and/or universal conscription.  At the same time there were fears that the population was growing so fast that it would run out of food and other resources.  The need for reliable demographic information was felt not only by the government and its officials but by actuaries, medical researchers and statisticians.

Urbanisation and industrialisation meant that old forms of governance through the parish were coming under strain.  Across the channel new codes of law and a modern centralised state replaced the chaos of the French Revolution and spread to other European states by conquest.

To understand how the census came about and how it was organised after 1831, we need to glance briefly at the introduction of the New Poor Law of 1834.  Up to that date poor relief had been organised by each parish (or township in the huge parishes of the North).  Some parishes were too small to maintain a poorhouse of their own and had already banded together in what were known as Gilbert Unions to provide one central house for those for whom outdoor relief was not appropriate.  William Bryan came from Sutton in Sussex, where his father had been Governor of one such Poorhouse, to settle in Amersham and be a Relieving Officer, and his nephew Samuel Bryan was for a while schoolmaster in the Amersham Workhouse.

How the census was organised

The New Poor Law system was imposed centrally by the government and run locally by the Board of Guardians.  The Amersham Union covered the parishes of Great Missenden, The Lee, Chesham, Chesham Bois, Latimer, Chenies, Chalfont St Giles and St Peter, Seer Green, Beaconsfield, Penn and Penn Street as well as Amersham. Such was the administrative convenience of this system that when Civil Registration was introduced in 1837 the same area was delineated as the Amersham Registration District and from 1841 the Superintendent Registrar and local registrars found themselves responsible for organising the band of census enumerators who would collect the increasingly detailed data demanded by government.  To see a map of these areas, go to http://maps.familysearch.org, select Buckinghamshire, then Amersham, and from the 1851 Jurisdictions you can then choose Poor Law Union, Civil Registration District, Diocese, Rural Deanery or Parish amongst other options. (Note that this is not accessible from the main www.familysearch.org site.)  The Amersham Registration District survived until 1974.

Amersham’s Superintendent Registrars were less rooted in the town than most of the enumerators.  Thomas Marshall, a solicitor with premises in the High Street and who was also Clerk to the Guardians, was the first to officiate in the new-style census. On 15 December 1840 he had tendered his resignation as Clerk to the Board of Guardians, but continued in post as Superintendent Registrar, the new Clerk, Henry Heath, having waived his rights in the matter (Minutes of the Board of Guardians, 12 Jan 1841). Marshall died in 1842. None of the 1851 enumerators’ books are counter-signed by the Superintendent Registrar, but in 1861 Frederick Charsley performed that office.  He appeared in the Post Office Directory as Superintendent Registrar as early as 1847 and had been born in Beaconsfield in 1821, the son of a solicitor.  Next to officiate was Henry Bedford, son of an attorney, who presided over three censuses, from1871 to1891.  He, however, was born in Worcester and later died in Brackley, Northamptonshire.  Lastly in 1901 the task fell to Robert Henry Rushforth who came from further afield, as he was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, and died in Rochford, Essex. He, however, was not bred to the law as his father was a plumber. (All the Suprrintendent Registrars lived at Whyte Posts and Rushforth had an an office at 111 High Street.)  All four of them were solicitors and served at the same time as Clerk to the Board of Guardians of the Amersham Poor Law Union. Similar arrangements were in place in most parts of England and Wales.

The main burden of organising the census fell upon the Registrar of Births and Deaths of each sub-district. In Amersham these were predominantly men who had business premises close to the town centre.  This made sense as they would be available during normal business hours, people knew where to find them and their duties were fitted round their normal occupation. This was a part-time job which did not require trained lawyers, but the hours worked must have shot up around the time of the census. Before the census each registrar had to divide his territory into enumeration districts (in practice this seems to have relied heavily on precedent) and find enumerators for each one.  He then had to pass on to them all the official stationery and brief them thoroughly on their duties before and after census night.  Later he had to check that details entered in the census enumerator’s books tallied with the household schedules, sign the books and pass them on to the Superintendent Registrar. At least for Amersham delivering them would involve only a short walk.  The Registrar was also responsible for completing payment claims for himself and his enumerators.  (Instructions to the Various Officers as to their Duties in Taking the Census of 1881 can be found in the National Archives at RG 27/5 item 25.)

It fell to Richard Sims, who was born in Watford but died in Amersham, to organise four censuses, 1841-1871.  For this in 1851 he would have received £3 plus an additional ten pence for every 100 persons properly enumerated provided that ‘all the Schedules of his District, made correct, shall be received by the Superintendent-Registrar before the 22nd day of April’.  During the three weeks allowed him he also had to continue to earn his living making and repairing clocks and watches and registering births and deaths.  For 1871, when he was still in post, the rates were raised to a fixed fee of £4 plus a shilling for every 100 people properly enumerated above the first 1,200 and there was no mention of a deadline. Richard’s son James served as deputy registrar and might have been expected to succeed him, but he died in 1873.

By 1881 a new Registrar of Births and Deaths had taken over, Richard Craft Williams, the son of James Williams of Hyron’s Farm.  He was an auctioneer as well as running an outfitter’s shop in the High Street.  He died in 1883, aged only about 51, so that a new registrar had to be sought.

Frank Bryan, whose family over several generations provided many workhouse and poor law union officials, is the last registrar we are concerned with. By 1899 he was combining the role with those of Relieving Officer and Vaccination Officer, so is the first of our registrars to be earning his living solely from official functions. By 1903 the job of registering marriages had also been added to his portfolio, so for the first time in this parish one man was registering all three events, although by 1901 Henry David Wheeler Andrews, the retired police sergeant, had been deputising for both registrars.

Curiously the Registrars of Marriages seem to have remained aloof from the censuses, with the sole known exception of Ebeneezer T King  who was deputy to his father Thomas H King and enumerated District 2 in 1891.  Registrars of Marriages were concerned only with civil marriage and marriage in non-conformist premises licensed for the ceremony.  Most marriages took place in Anglican churches and were registered by the clergy.

As in any community people who became involved in organisation tended to accumulate roles.  Thus in the Kelly’s Directory of 1883 we find Henry Bedford listed as ‘solicitor, clerk to the guardians, the magistrates, the rural sanitary authority & burial board & supt registrar’.  William Bryan is ‘relieving officer 1st district & registrar of births & deaths for Chalfont sub-district & inspector of nuisances to Beaconsfield local board.’ Alfred Berry was ‘assistant overseer & surveyor of roads & collector of poor rates & income tax’.  These officials would be in frequent contact with each other and the wider community so it was almost inevitable that they would be involved in census-taking.  Their families too might be drawn in.  Richard Sims, registrar of births and deaths, and his son James both enumerated in 1861 and 1871.  William Bryan’s involvement as enumerator in 1861 was followed by that of his sons; Ernest in 1881 and Frank in 1891 and 1901.  Other people of some standing were also called upon.  They were often shopkeepers and, in one case, a retired police sergeant.

The Registrar General had a clear idea of the kind of person who should be recruited.  On the first page of the Instructions to Registrars of Births and Deaths concerning the forthcoming census issued on 13 Dec 1850 he wrote:

‘The Enumerator, in order to fulfil his duties properly, must be a person of intelligence and activity:  he must read and write well, and have some knowledge of arithmetic: he must not be infirm, nor of such weak health as may render him unable to undergo the requisite exertion: he should not be younger than eighteen years of age, nor older than sixty-five: he must be temperate, orderly, and respectable, and be such a person as is likely to conduct himself with strict propriety, and to deserve the good-will of the inhabitants of his District.  He should also be well acquainted with the District in which he will be required to act; and it will be an additional recommendation if his occupations have been in any degree of a similar kind.’

It seems likely that enumerators were recruited by personal contact as such positions do not seem to have been formally advertised.  In the case of Amersham it is very noticeable that most of the enumerators either already have some official role or are running businesses based in the centre of the town, in the High Street, Market Square or Whielden Street. Only occasionally were farmers involved.  From 1891 onwards women were eligible to be enumerators, but that did not happen in Amersham, although by 1903 Chesham had appointed a female registrar.

How the census was taken 

On average, enumerators would have about 200 households to visit, fewer in sparsely populated areas where a lot of walking was involved. Little has been known about their pay, except for some grumpy annotations complaining about its inadequacy. In 1851 enumerators were paid 18 shillings for the first 300 names and one shilling for every additional 60 names, so an enumerator would earn £1-3-0, or 23 shillings, for recording 600 people (David Annal, ‘The Census Behind the Scenes’, Family Tree, Oct 2014, p13.)

Public institutions such as hospitals, prisons and asylums were enumerated by their officials.  Details of the Amersham Union Workhouse appear in a separate book completed by the Master or Governor in every census except those of 1871 and 1881, where it is subsumed into District 4. The fee for doing this in 1851 was ten shillings, plus a shilling for every additional 60 people after the first 300. Joseph Driscoll, Governor and Coachbuilder, would have only qualified for the basic rate as he had 5 officers, 112 male and 102 female inmates to report.  Unusually John Tebbutt, who had been Master of the Workhouse for the census of 1861, was again there thirty years later and took the census in 1891.

By 1871 the fixed fee for enumerators was 1 guinea [1 pound and 1 shilling] with an additional half crown [2 shillings and sixpence] for every extra 100 persons above 400.   In both cases there was a mileage allowance when the enumerator had to cover more than the basic five miles.  This applied to the distance travelled both delivering and collecting the schedules. For this and other information concerning censuses, see www.histpop.org.

In 1871 the 8 enumerators of Amersham parish recorded the details of the following numbers of people: 457, 396, 574, 508, 478, 312, 289 and 244.  District 4’s total of 508 included the workhouse, separately enumerated in all years except 1871 and 1881.

Following the census of 1871, dissatisfied enumerators held meetings, particularly in the north and east of London.  They complained that they were having to do almost double the amount of writing which had been required in 1861, but for the same pay, that this worked out at not much over fourpence per hour and that the work involved risks, one of them having caught smallpox on his rounds (Maidstone Telegraph, 27 May 1871).

To earn their money they would have to deliver a form (the schedule) to every household, keeping track by numbering them of which form had gone to which household.  After census night, these would have to be collected and the enumerator might well have to help fill them in and was supposed to make sure that all the necessary information had been included.  The amount of intervention by enumerators varied widely, but may not be a reliable guide to rates of literacy.  In 1871 in the six districts into which Great Missenden was divided, the percentage of household schedules completed by the enumerators, not the householders, varied between 5.3 and 64.7% (Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited, 2005, p18).  Enumerators sometimes commented that advances in education were making their task easier. An enumerator working in Southwark in 1861 gives us a glimpse of how schedules were completed:

‘In most families, or in the house (for many of the houses contained five or six families), there was, if not a grown-up person, a boy or girl who had sufficient schooling to enable them to fill up the schedule, and, failing this, it was taken to the baker’s, or the publican’s, or the chandler’s shop, or to the rent collector.  From whatever cause — chiefly, I believe, from the earnest assistance given by the newspaper press to the Registrar-General in the matter, and the much greater extent to which the newspapers are read at the present day by all classes — there was an eager desire manifested to get the return of each family completed before the visit of the enumerator; nor did I meet one person the least uncivil or unwilling to give the required information.  But when I came to the “upper ten thousand” of my district — those persons whom I expected would have given me the least trouble — there was hardly one in three ready for me; I was to call again, and again, and again, or to wait, so that had my district been composed entirely of this class, and of the same extent, I should have required three days instead of one to complete the enumeration.’ (The Times, 11 April 1861, p 9)

One Lincolnshire enumerator, George Bird of Corby, kept a diary.  From it we learn that he received all his paperwork and was briefed by the registrar on 15 March 1871, a fortnight before the census. The copying of schedules took up the whole of 4 April.  On 21 June he received his money, 26 shillings, or £1-6-0, for work done over four days.  In 1881 he was allocated the bigger district of Corby and was out from 6am to 8pm collecting schedules on 4 April, having to return and finish the round the following morning.  Copying took up the rest of that day and the whole of the next (David I A Steel, ‘The Enumerator of Corby, Lincs in Local Population Studies, Vol 19, 1977, p 35). A little detective work shows that he received his 26 shillings for recording 333 people and had over twice the number, 783, in 1881.

The enumerator would have to check the forms, copy all the details into a book in the order in which the schedules had been issued, standardising the material as he went.  He then had to extract and tot up all the figures asked for and enter them in the tables provided in each book.  They then were checked, and signed, by the registrar and superintendent registrar of the district before being forwarded to London where clerks annotated them and started the process of compiling the national statistics which were the purpose of the whole enterprise.

The primary material, the householders’ schedules, were of no further use and for the 1841-1901 censuses, were then destroyed. One set, for Cainham near Ludlow in Shropshire, was recently discovered and can be compared with the information copied out by the enumerator (see Donald Davis, ‘The Householders’ Schedules in the 1841 Census’, The Local Historian, Vol 43, no 2, May 2013, pp 90-104).  Once the data from the enumerators’ books had been harvested, the books were themselves redundant and only narrowly escaped being destroyed.

The 1841 census was the first to list people by name.  It differed from later ones by not specifying relationship to head of household and by asking only whether individuals had been born in the county they resided in.  Ages above 15 were rounded down to the nearest 5.  Anyone aged 34 would, if instructions were followed, appear as 30.  Thus the presence of three alleged 15 year-olds does not imply that they were triplets. From 1851 the relationship (wife, son, niece, lodger) is recorded plus a more precise place of birth.

A continuing tussle went on between data-hungry actuaries, statisticians, demographers and medical researchers, who wanted extra questions to be included, and the Registrar General who needed to hold down costs and ensure that questions were simple enough to elicit accurate answers.

Not all the documentation has survived.  The easiest way to check for missing books or pages is via the catalogue of National Archives at http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. Just below the main search box, click on ‘advanced search’.  On the search page, enter for example RG 11 for the 1881 census, and in the ‘find words’ box try both ‘missing’ and ‘wanting’.

Although some losses have occurred through bad storage, rough handling and pilfering, the censuses are remarkably complete.  People whose working lives have been devoted to these records believe that they include about 96% of the population.  This does not result in a 96% success rate when searching, so let us consider what can go wrong and why the records can be difficult to use.

Quality of information

First of all, the people supplying the information may have made errors, whether honest or deliberate.  The first place people remember living in as a child may not have been where they were born.  Evidence of place of birth may have been lacking.  In April 1821 the Reverend FE Witts, wishing to establish Merach Lock’s birthplace, was told ‘that he was born under an oak on Halling Down as he had heard from his mother, being an illegitimate child and knowing nothing of his father’.

People pass on what they think they know and form-fillers can only attempt to record what they think they hear. The enumerator who recorded a daughter named Snowbear must have felt he was dealing with a rather whimsical family.  Had he been able to track that family through other censuses he would have discovered that she had been named Zenobia. Information may be filtered through strong local accents or through accents quite unfamiliar to the enumerator.  It is noticeable that people born in small hamlets in distant counties tend to give the name of the nearest large town, possibly as a result of a doorstep discussion with the enumerator who was trying to extract a placename he knew how to write down.

The idea of a fixed and correct spelling for surnames developed only gradually, so that Clark/Clerk/Clarke/Clerke may crop up indiscriminately in the same family.  Amersham’s schoolmaster then postmaster who died in 1854, wrote his name Bettesworth, but descendants of his grandson Edwin all spelt it Bettsworth.  ‘H’ is a frequent source of variants.  A girl at my school would introduce herself as Anna Odgen, yet the class register listed her as Hannah Hodgson.  An intrusive ‘r’, common in other parts of the country, would easily change that into Rodgen.  ‘H’ is not only dropped, it can be added by people wanting to sound posh or be hypercorrect.  Thus Mary Embury may be listed as Mary Hembury.

Even William Bryan, who must have been well known in Amersham through his activities as a Poor Law Union official, and especially well known to the enumerator George Priest, who lived in the same street and was also the parish clerk, was not proof against error. He is listed in 1861 under the surname Bryant.  This is enough to prevent a very precise search engine from finding him, so it pays to try different ones and, where you can do so, set different levels of exactitude.  In his case a search for William born in Sutton, Sussex, living in Amersham, led to a successful conclusion.

A baby born out of wedlock to a daughter might simply be added to its grandparents’ brood and recorded as a sibling of its mother. Social embarrassment probably also accounts for the tendency of couples whose ages differ widely to claim ages closer to their partner’s.

If an ancestor cannot be found it is always worth looking at the wider family and sometimes even close business associates. Staying with relatives or friends on census night can easily produce a change of surname, especially where lavish use of ‘Ditto’ is involved.  The four children of Mrs Elizabeth Hodson Joynson were recorded in 1861 under the surname Holt because her mother Ann Holt was listed after her and before the children.

An understanding of the context sometimes explains why disinformation is offered. One puzzling instance was that of a governess, paid to teach children mathematics, who seemed incapable of performing the simple calculation needed to deduce her age correctly.  Light dawned when a book on Victorian governesses stated that the age-range most appealing to potential employers was 25-35 (old enough to be reliable and experienced, young enough not to be out of date). This explained why Josephine Duckworth at first advanced and then desperately retarded her alleged age. She had the huge misfortune to enter upon middle age just when girls’ grammar schools were proliferating, offering a much more academic syllabus than had been the norm in her girlhood.  Unable to find a job or pay her rent, in desperation she offered to sell a family heirloom to a wealthy relative.  He paid her rent quarterly for the rest of her life but made quite sure that all mention of that down-at-heel branch of the family was excluded from his entry in the prestigious Burke’s Landed Gentry. So can you believe all that is recorded?

Using the index  As well as the gap created between the provider and recorder of information and the sometimes dubious quality of what is written down, family historians are dependent upon transcriptions which are used to create the index they rely upon to track down their ancestors.  This is a fertile source of error.  Standards of handwriting vary (to put it mildly).  Capital letters are readily confused T/J, W/M/N, N/V/U and B/Pr/F can be difficult to distinguish and this is often the key letter at the start of the surname.  L and S may be interchanged, leading people to believe that the sawyer of one census is the lawyer of the next. Most lawyers have more specific occupations; attorney, barrister, solicitor, etc.

The first complete index available was for the 1881 census.  It took 9,000 volunteer family historians 6½ years to produce it.  For subsequent releases, often involving an increased population, commercial firms have rushed to get the data out.  Meeting the deadline has taken priority over accuracy.  The indexes improve as researchers find families and submit corrections. But it is still possible to find astonishingly careless misinterpretations.  The 1911 census index offered ‘Walter Willsie’ [Wilkie], born in ‘Lyne Maithport’ [Tynemouth].  He is a Roundabont Ammrement Hanager [Roundabout Amusement Manager], married to Elizabeth Ditte [Ditto, ie Wilkie].  Their son Whilmorhoue [Whilmer Howe] was born in Bleethorplinad, alias Cleethorpes.

One intriguing occupation, discovered by Bev Bagnall in the 1901 index for Thomas Holmes of Witton Gilbert, Co Durham, was that of ‘Wesleyan Joy Breather’.  That turned out to be the more prosaic ‘Wesleyan Lay Preacher’.  One can but hope he lived up to both job descriptions.

Never rely on a transcription, but always try to see the original and if in doubt look for supplementary sources.  A name transcribed in two consecutive censuses as Jertins Joynson and Serlins Joynson was added to an Ancestry tree as ‘Jertins Serlins Joynson’ [waste not, want not?], a person who clearly never existed.  As he belonged to a prominent Liverpool family, a few minutes’ extra research would have unearthed Tertius Joynson, who did exist.  When surnames have been mangled it is possible to search with a forename and a year or place of birth or with an occupation and this often winkles out the person you want.  It helps also to be aware of the degree of fussiness of the search engine you are using.  Some will only produce exactly what you have asked for and the more data you add, the more likely it is that one detail will not match exactly and then nothing will be offered.  You asked for William, so you cannot possibly be shown Wm.  “Wildcards” are a useful way of getting past this sort of blockage.

Quite apart from all the time-honoured ways of introducing error every time something is passed on or copied, advances in technology have produced new ones.  So we need to be aware of typing errors and many are the Thomases, Williams and Georges who can evade your searches because keyboard errors have changed them into Thoams, Willaim or Geroge.  ‘Laice’ for ‘Alice’ is even more treacherous.

The Cainham discovery, however, shows that not all error stems from indexing.  Charles Cuyler wrote his name and those of other family members — Louisa, Theresa, Florence and Gerald — correctly on the household schedule.  The enumerator then wrote, with more deference than accuracy, ‘Sir Charles Cuyley Bart’ plus ‘Luiza, Theasa, Florinse and Gerales’.  The surname was then variously indexed as Cuyley or Bart.

An understanding of what can go wrong is a vital element in devising a successful search strategy.

House histories

Many people want to trace house histories rather than look for ancestors. The censuses are useful for this.  They can be used to follow the enumerator’s tracks as he walks along the street. You may be able to discover who lived in the property you are interested in by reference to other buildings or inhabitants. Inns, schools, chapels, shops and road junctions make useful reference points.

Numbering     Houses were not numbered until the volume of post being delivered made it imperative.  The number shown in the first column of the enumerator’s book is that of the schedule, not a house. Numbering systems can change.  Consecutive numbering, up one side of the street and down the other, might be eventually jettisoned in favour of odd numbers one side, evens the other, which allowed for more houses to be built and be allocated sequential numbers.  Houses might be knocked down, or built on vacant plots between others.  Two small cottages might be bought and knocked into one, or large buildings subdivided, so even if you can find a number it may not have remained the same into modern times.

In 1871 the Registrar General sent a circular to every mayor or Chairman of a local Board appealing for assistance particularly in the correct naming of streets and numbering of houses:

‘There are many towns containing long lines of cottage streets, formed by the gradual coalescence of of buildings erected by several small proprietors; and in such streets it is not uncommon for each proprietor to give his little row a distinctive name, and to number the houses it contains from one upwards, without the smallest regard to the numbers in the vicinity.  In Nottingham there was formerly a long street which was said to repeat its numbers up to three no less than 30 times, and which was the despair of relieving officers and parish doctors.  A resident there would give his address as “the fifth number three on the right hand side as you go up,” for such sub-names as “Matilda-place” or “Eliza-cottages” had long been swept away.  It is obvious that a similar state of things would not only be a serious source of trouble to enumerators, but that it would also greatly increase the labour of registrars in revising the enumerators’ returns.  In rural districts also, and especially in mining districts, there is often a rapid growth of unnamed cottages by the sides of lanes and by-roads; and many of these might easily be overlooked altogether.’ (The Times, 8 Feb 1871, cited by Michael Drake in Studying Family and Community History, 19th and 20th Centuries, Vol 4, Sources and Methods: A Handbook, 1997, p 40)

Amersham was not a mining community, but in this context it is interesting to see the careful attention paid in the definitions of the 1891 census districts to the temporary housing of the navvies building the railway. (Editor’s note: most of the houses in Old Amersham were renumbered in 1953 and the Museum is building up information about the old and new numbers from censuses and directories.  For more information, use the Contact Us button above.)

Change of use of the existing housing stock continued to cause problems for census-takers.  One commented:

‘The numbers of houses are anything but regular in some of the streets, owing to the demand of tenants and the march of sanitary improvement.  Single houses have been converted into double ones, and other causes have considerably upset the original numbers.  A shopkeeper has wanted a little more elbow room and he has absorbed the next house or the cottage at the back; or some householder tenaciously clinging to the old neighbourhood through growth of family has taken another house next to his own.  Thus you deliver a census paper at No 25 and proceed to leave one at No 23, when the same face re-appears and assures you it is all one house.’ (M Turner, ‘A census enumerator’s experience (by one of them), from The Eccles Journal, Friday April 10th 1891’, Local Population Studies, Vol 27, 1981, p 79).

Just occasionally a comment about a building will surface.  Schoolmaster William Chell wrote in his enumerator’s book in 1861 ‘Beal House, “A Mansion”. The property of William Lowndes Esq.  Dilapidated.’

Street names can also change.  In 1851 George Priest, officially deputed to enumerate part of Union Street, firmly wrote the older name, Wildon [now Whielden] Street.  His handwriting is such that it could easily be transcribed as Mildon Street. George was the landlord of the Hare & Hounds pub in Union alias Wildon Street, where perhaps some animated discussions about new-fangled street naming had taken place.

Other sources can be useful: images, street directories, newspapers and maps may help.  Amersham Library has put copies of the relevant parts of Buckinghamshire directories between 1792 and 1939 into one volume shelved at L 505.03. They also hold a copy of the sale by Auction in Numerous Lots of the greater part of the Old Town of Amersham which took place on 31 May 1928 when large parts of the Shardeloes Estate had to be sold off.  There are descriptions of each dwelling and usually details of the tenant and the rent are given (L 505.12). (Editor’s note: Amersham Museum has a copy with a map which makes it easier to use.)  Apart from ordnance survey maps, the Tithe Apportionment Map of 1839 has useful details of who owned and who occupied the land and again the Library has a copy (L 505.11).  In 1910 a Land Use Survey was commissioned, otherwise known as Lloyd George’s Domesday and these maps are held at the National Archives and in some County Archives.  The lesser known National Farm Survey, more restricted in scope, was carried out between 1941 and 1943.  Title deeds and plans appended to rent rolls or submitted in evidence during Chancery suits can also sometimes be consulted.

Address searches

Two of the main family history subscription websites, FindMyPast and The Genealogist, allow the census to be searched for addresses, usually a road name.  These do not always work well.  Sometimes this is simply because there is not an exact match: requesting ‘Farringdon Road’ will not conjure up ‘Farringdon Rd’.  The advice normally given is to put in one keyword: ‘Station’ should produce ‘Station Avenue, Station Close’ etc and you can then choose the one you want.  Over time names have been upgraded, Woodside Lane is now Woodside Road. They can change: Copperkins was once Coblicombe.  Gamekeeper John Wilkins, in his autobiography first published in 1892, calls it Coppeyson’s Lane. Placenames may helpfully mark the site of something which has vanished, such as the Black Horse Inn, now commemorated as a railway bridge and roundabout.

Searching for ‘High Street, Amersham’ does not work well because it is usually split between at least four different enumeration areas.  So the attached list reproduces the descriptions of all the areas and shows which part of the High Street is included in which enumerator’s beat.  The quickest way to get to your chosen area is then to search for one of the two people listed.  These are not necessarily the first and last residents enumerated, but ones with names least likely to be corrupted by transcribers and they act as placemarkers because it is now far easier to search online for a person than for a census reference.

The 1911 census and related images

The 1911 census differs from all the previous ones in that you see the actual schedules filled in by householders, not the information copied by the enumerator.  Some householders were very reticent — Mr Smith, Mrs Smith, Mr Smith junior & Miss Smith does not give you much to go on. The pleasure of seeing an ancestor’s handwriting may be counterbalanced by the difficulties of trying to make out poor calligraphy and there is no enumerator’s book to search through for similar letters or words to compare.

The 1911 household appears on the screen in isolation from the ones around it, but it is still possible to situate a family amongst its neighbours.  Using www.findmypast.co.uk look at the top righthand corner for the schedule number, which is handwritten.  In the bottom righthand corner is a button called ‘related images’.  Selecting ‘list’ from the options offered when you click on that will take you to the enumerator’s book in which he recorded the numbers of the schedules alongside the householder to whom they had been delivered. The well researched How to Get the Best from the 1911Census by John Hanson, SoG, 2009, p 92, states that the Enumerators’ Summary Books for Amersham (RG 78/389) are missing.  Now that more information has been made available it appears that this applies not to the whole of the Amersham Registration District, but to Beaconsfield.

And finally…

Searching the censuses can be a frustrating business and yet they contain a mass of information and clues which we are immensely lucky to have and which might easily (and rationally) have been destroyed.  Some notion of the immensity of the task back in 1851 can be gleaned from The Times of 13 November 1860, p 4:

‘Some faint idea of the labour that will be incurred in taking the Census of 1861 may be formed from the fact that in 1851 there were 30,610 enumerators, independent of the 2,190 local registrars and superintendent registrars employed in the revision and examination of more than 20,000,000 entries, contained on upwards of 1,250,000 pages, and the weight of the paper used by the enumerators for schedules and books in Great Britain exceeded 52 tons.’

With the rise in population in England and Wales from 15.9 million in 1841 to 32.5 million by 1901, the task increased in magnitude with each census. The enumerators’ work also increased as populations grew and the number of questions to be answered crept up.  The number of districts within the parish of Amersham remained fairly constant, from 7 districts plus the workhouse in 1841 to 6 plus the workhouse in 1901.  Henry Muckley enumerated in that year the whole of Coleshill, which had previously been taken as two separate districts.

Amersham bucked the general trend as its population, based on the enumerators’ books, was 3662 in 1851 and sank to 3001 in 1881, before climbing to 3209 in 1901.

Few enumerators took part in more than two censuses, but sometimes a son would take on the role in succession to his father. James Emmens Mead, grocer, did three. John Wilson took part in 1841, 1851 and 1861, to be followed by his son John James in 1871 and another son Henry Samuel in 1881.  Richard Sims, as registrar, organised four censuses, from 1841 to 1871, and actually enumerated no 4 district in the last of those, despite being aged 70.  His son James, who became a deputy registrar, served as an enumerator in 1861 and 1871.  This family supplied both the youngest and oldest enumerator, as James was aged only 22 in1861. He predeceased his father in 1873.  Henry Muckley was a joiner and builder, the Wilsons were saddle and harness makers and the Sims were watch and clock makers.  The Bryan family also produced a number of enumerators and they were already involved as officials with the town’s affairs: William Bryan, a relieving officer, enumerated in 1861, his son Ernest, a school attendance officer and land surveyor, in 1881, and another son Frank was registrar in 1891 and 1901, and also an enumerator in 1901.  The longest-serving participant was George Priest, the parish clerk, who from 1841 to 1871 was responsible four times for district no 2.  He did not die until 1885 but, as he was aged 64 the last time he took part, would have been over the age of 65 as specified by the Registrar General.  It seems probable that Richard Sims, as organiser, may have felt compelled to step in and take district no 4 in 1871 in default of a younger volunteer, despite breaching the age limit.

George Priest’s achievement, though notable, was topped in Buckinghamshire by that of John Pope Fordom (who, at 68, was also over age).  The Bucks Herald of 6 April 1901 reported as follows:

‘Risborough certainly boasts of a record enumerator in the person of Mr J.P. Fordom, sanitary inspector, who has acted in that capacity in the taking of the past six censuses.  He commenced in 1851, and completed his sixth on Monday last.  He has also filled the following important official capacities during that period of time: — Parish constable, overseer, surveyor, guardian, assessor, and sanitary inspector, the latter for twenty-two years, and which office he holds at the present time.’

Enumerating the enumerators of the parish of Amersham allows us to see how the census was organised locally.  The Superintendent Registrar and Registrar of Births & Deaths and usually the Master of the Workhouse were involved ex officio in the process.  We have seen how extensive the Registrar’s duties were. His involvement meant that the enumerators’ entries would be verified by someone very familiar with the overall demography and boundaries of the parish.  In 1851, having checked that the schedules tallied with what appeared in the enumerators’ books and that the entries were correct, the Registrar then had to post the householders’ schedules plus, in separate packages, the returns relating to schools and churches, to Horace Mann at the Census Office in London. The enumerators’ book were to be passed to the Superintendent Registrar who then gathered together all the books from the various parishes for which he was responsible, carried out whatever further checks were necessary, and sent them all off to the Registrar General in London.

Our only indication about how much time may have been spent checking comes from the dated signatures in the enumerators’ books.  In 1851 the enumerators took between 4 and 9 days to finish their entries. In three instances the Registrar signed on the same day.  Three others were signed the following day and one was not signed at all. In 1861 the enumerators took between 2 and 6 days to finish, the Registrar signed 1 to 6 days later and the Superintendent Registrar added his signature to all the books on 7 May, a calendar month after the census had taken place.

Once the information reached London, clerks would start compiling the data needed by the government.  The checking processes meant that many marks were added to the pages, often obscuring the numbers or words which we most want to decipher!

The enumerators of Amersham took on a demanding role. The length of the routes (and presumably the weather conditions) varied, but to carry out their duties successfully they had to be able to communicate well and persuade people to supply accurate information which then had to be meticulously recorded, copied and computed.  They had to be willing to devote considerable amounts of time and energy to a task which was not lavishly remunerated. Not all were Amersham-born, but they were people of some standing in the locality, whose jobs would have brought them into contact with many different people.  Above all, enumerators were drawn from the ranks of people prepared to serve their community.



20 shillings made up one pound and 12 pennies one shilling. A currency converter showing how the value of money has changed since 1750 is available at http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/resources/inflationtools/calculator/index1.aspx