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Berkshire Family Historian
September 1999

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main PageSeptember 1999 contents

Movers and stayers in nineteenth-century Abingdon

Mike Robbins

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 parish.

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 of names.

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 birth.

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 the area.

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 100.

Table 1. Distribution of the workforce
Occupation 1841   1851  
Clothing makers 77 (14%) 85 (19%)
Shopkeepers Et traders 52 (09%) 51 (11%)
Skilled Et semi-skilled 85 (16%) 68 (15%)
Unskilled workers 134 (24%) 148 (33%)
Professionals 7 (01 %) 7 (01%)
Independent means 20 (04%) 7 (01%)
No occupation 176 (32%) 85 (19%)
Total 551   451  
(Percentages represent 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 figures.

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 from elsewhere.

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) (Pritchard (1976)).

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 information.


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...

Primary sources

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 Drake (1994).

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

This article was based on my research for the Open University course 'DA301, Studying Family & Community History', which provides an excellent introduction to the wider aspects of family history. I have been researching my own family history for around ten years, tracing them from 20th century Dorset to 17th century Berkshire.

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