Most people that have tried to trace their
ancestors for more than a few generations will
soon discover that in the past, families moved
around much more than might be expected. Sons and
daughters left to get married, husbands and
brothers left in search of work, and children
were often packed off to live with relatives or
to work 'in the big house'. However, knowing that
people migrated around the country is of little
help when trying to find an elusive ancestor.
Fortunately, much work has been done to establish
patterns of migration, and some of this research
can be helpful to family historians.
Challenging the modern myth that geographical
mobility in the 19th century was small compared
to that of today, Michael Anderson (1971, 1983)
used an analysis of the 1851 census to show that
by the age of fifteen, 40 per cent of people had
moved from their birthplace, and less than half
of the entire population was living in the place
where they were born. He found also, that the
majority of migrants could be traced to addresses
only a short distance away.
Other researchers have since found that short-distance
moves occurred for economic reasons: e.g.
families tended to move to the best accommodation
they could afford. This meant, of course, that
people moved both up and down on the housing
scale as their wealth or poverty increased. It
has also been shown that unskilled workers were
most likely to migrate, and those with businesses
tended to stay put.
Putting figures to the subject has been a long
and tedious process, but with the advent of the
personal computer, the task has been eased
considerably - unfortunately leading to a
plethora of (sometimes) confusing figures.
However, if we are going to stand any chance of
finding out where to look for our ancestors, we
need to know how far, how often, and how many of
them were likely to move home. The following is a
summary of my own research into residential
persistence in the parish of Abingdon St
Nicholas, without too many boring statistics.
Abingdon sits on the banks of the river Thames.
Prior to the boundary changes in l974, it was in
Berkshire, but then 'moved' to Oxfordshire.
Abingdon Saint Nicholas was a small parish,
bordered by The Vineyard in the North, Stert
Street in the West, the river Isis (Thames)
forming a physical barrier to the South, and a
large expanse of shrubbery and open fields to the
East acting as a similar barrier to the next
parish. This research examines the area that
falls within these boundaries, with the exception
of The Vineyard which is partly in the next
The aim of this project was to look at the
relationship between employment and residential
stability in Abingdon St Nicholas between 1841
and 1851. In short, to see which groups of
workers moved home the most. Although more a
social history than family history, it might help
to explain why many of our ancestors migrated
from place to place so often. My primary sources
were the Census Enumerators Books (CEB's) for
Abingdon St Nicholas in 1841 and 1851; the Parish
Registers for Abingdon St Nicholas; and Pigots
1830 Commercial Directory for Berkshire.
Census Enumerators Books were compiled using
information from schedules completed by
householders every ten years since 1841. They (attempt
to) list every individual in the British Isles by
name, age and sex, occupation, marital status,
relationship to the head of the household in
which they are staying on census night,
additionally (except for 1841) they list address,
place of birth, if deaf-and-dumb, blind,
imbecile, idiot or lunatic.
As we know the CEB's need to be used with care.
Enumerators were liable to make mistakes in
transcribing household forms; householders may
have supplied inaccurate information -
deliberately or unintentionally. Illiterate
people needed help to fill in their household
returns: mistakes were bound to occur.
The Parish Registers were the responsibility
of religious bodies prior to the introduction of
civil registration of births, marriages and
deaths in 1837. They continue to be recorded
after this date, and are useful for tracing
baptisms, marriages and burials. They can vary
considerably in both the amount of information
they record, and in the legibility and accuracy
of records. As with the CEB'S, this is partly due
to illiteracy - many people did not know how to
read or write their names, and it was up to the
incumbent to interpret spelling and pronunciation
To carry out the research, details from the
CEB's were entered into a computer database, then
individuals were traced from the 1841 census to
determine who was still in the parish in 1851.
The parish records of Abingdon St Nicholas were
searched for women who had changed their name
through marriage in the intervening years:
additionally, I hoped to find some of the
residents who would otherwise appear to have left
the parish but were in fact still there, (albeit
in the graveyard) as most people would be buried
relatively near to where they died (people were
buried soon after death for reasons of hygiene,
and the transportation of bodies was, for most
families, not practicable).
Once details of those who remained in the
community were separated from those who left, I
compiled tables of each, grouped by the type of
employment they list in the census. Calculating
the difference between the number of people
involved in trade or business, and the number of
unskilled labourers and those in irregular
employment showed who was most likely to move.
The findings were as follows: the number of
households dropped from 175 in 1841 to 168 in
1851, with a corresponding fall in the number of
people in the parish down from 812 to 741. There
is no obvious reason for this: however, in 1856
the railway arrived in Abingdon. The terminus,
engine sheds and sidings covered a large area, so
it is possible that clearance work started in
late 1850 or early 1851, and some dwellings were
demolished (in 1851, census night was March 30).
Mean household size was 4.6 in 1841 and 4.4 in
1851 - similar to the figure of 4.4 arrived at by
Anderson using his 2 per cent sample of the 1851
census (Anderson, 1983).
In 1841, 630 people (77% of the residents)
said that they were born in Berkshire -
understandably higher than Anderson's figures of
under 50 per cent living in their place of birth,
as he had the benefit of more detailed birthplace
information in the 1851 census.
By 1851 a total of 422 (56%) residents list
their birthplace as Abingdon: of those, almost
200 people gave no precise location, 140 (19%)
give St Nicholas as their birthplace, and ill (14%)
list St Helen's - the adjacent (and almost
surrounding) parish. In other words, over half of
the local population was still living in the town
where they were born; roughly one fifth was
living in the same parish, and around one tenth
had moved no more than a mile from their place of
Moving on to look at residential stability
over the years between censuses. Just 184 people
could be found in both the 1841 and 1851 census,
giving ten year persistence rates in the same
area of 23 per cent. Bearing in mind that the
1841 census did not record precise addresses,
this is understandably higher than other studies
that have found rates of 13 to 20 per cent at the
same address (Dennis and Daniels (1981 p.204).
Examination of the Parish Register revealed
only 6 burials amongst the 628 individuals who
had apparently left: this is extremely low
compared to the 3.6 per cent traced to death
registers by Pritchard (1976) in his research. It
must be borne in mind, though, that Pritchard was
able to consult the civil registers as opposed to
parish records. Only one missing female was found
to be married in the parish - she had also left
By 1851, nearly one hundred households had
left the area and seven complete households were
still there. The other remaining households had
lost at least one person. No attempt was made to
determine relationships within the households, i.e.
members of the household could have been either
kin or employees.
The majority (over two hundred) of people that
left was aged between 15 and 25. The potential
working population, i.e. individuals over the age
of fourteen, dropped from 551 to 451 - a fall of
Distribution of the workforce
|Shopkeepers Et traders
|Skilled Et semi-skilled
the proportion of each group in relation
to the available workforce)
It is interesting to look at the occupations
listed by those who stayed. From table 1 we can
see that in ten years, the number of people
employed in the clothing industry increased by 5
per cent, shopkeepers and traders increased by 2
per cent, the skilled and semi-skilled workers
fell marginally, and the unskilled workforce rose
by 9 per cent.
A closer look at unemployment shows that in
1841 and 1851 around go per cent of the people
not listing an occupation were women. Around 16
per cent of these were wives. Many occupations
were, of course seasonal, and others 'hidden', so
no real conclusions can be drawn from these
The real differences that show up are those
concerned with trade or occupation. Around 6o per
cent of traders and shopkeepers left; other
groups showed losses of around 8o to 85 per cent
each. Comparing these figures with the size of
each group of workers in 1851, it is obvious the
people who left were soon replaced by new workers
Overall, the ten year persistence rate was 23
per cent. For shop-keepers and traders it was 40
per cent, and for labourers, unskilled workers
and the clothing industry it varied from 15 to 19
per cent. These figures appear to broadly
coincide with other research using various
sources and in other parts of the country. (For
example, Holderness (1971); Dennis and Daniels (1981)
By combining my definition of shopkeepers and
traders with clothing makers I was able to find
fifteen businesses in Pigots (1830) directory
that could be traced forwards from 1830 to the
census in 1841. Of these, seven were still there
in 1851. This suggests twenty year persistence
rates of lo per cent, and ten year persistence
rates of around 23 per cent, remarkably
consistent with figures obtained using the census
The limitations of this project and the
sources used are apparent the small number of
people involved makes some of the findings
unreliable. Clearly migration patterns vary with
different types of employment: shopkeepers and
traders dependent on a steady client base were
less geographically mobile than labourers and
traders who could carry out their occupation
independently of other people. It has been
suggested that increasing numbers of young people
were leaving home, however, this needs to be
proved by studying earlier migration patterns and
comparing results. Another suggestion is that
people tended to move no further than the
distance that could be travelled in one day,
again more research is needed. Migration is
obviously a wide ranging and tempting topic...
1841 Census Abingdon (H0107/0032)
1851 Census Abingdon (H0'07/1688)
Abingdon St Nicholas Parish Registers.
Pigot. & Co. (1830) Commercial
Directory of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire,
Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire.
London, J. Pigot & Co. (1994 Facsimile
Edition, Kings Lynn, Winton).
Anderson, M. (1971) Family structure in
nineteenth century Lancashire, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press.
Anderson, M. (1983) 'What is new about the
modern family?', Occasional Paper 31, The
Family, London OPCS.pp.2-16, Reprinted in
Dennis, R.J. and Daniels, S. (1981) '"Community"
and the social geography of Victorian
cities', Urban History Yearbook, pp.7-23,
Reprinted in Drake (1994)
Drake, M. (ed) (1994) Time,family and
community: perspectives on family and
community history; Oxford, Blackwell in
association with The Open University.
Holderness B.A. (1971) 'Personal mobility
in some rural Parishes of Yorkshire 1777-1822'
Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 42, pp.444-54.
Murray-Jones, Sally (1998) 'A stable past?
Residential persistence in Tottenham 1861-91
'Genealogists' Magazine, Vol 6, No. 3 pp 81-7
Pooley, Colin and Jean Turnbull (1998)
Migration and mobility in Britain since the
18th century, UCL Press
Pritchard, R.M. (1976) Housing & the
spatial structure of the City, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press