TitleLocal Census Returns 1841-1901 - Birch Centenary Chronicle 37
AbstractLocal Census Returns 1841-1901

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 37.

Published in Parish News - February 2004

Any attempt to find out what an area was like years ago relies on the interpretation of available sources. We are very lucky to have maps, of all types, to help us assess how villages and estates have changed and, if we are really fortunate, we may be able to link them with other documents to provide flesh to the bones.

Census returns contain much to assist in building up a picture of how an area developed; the information includes what buildings existed, how people made a living, and the ages and make up of families. The series of returns, taken every ten years, provides a set of snap shots for every parish in the country from 1841 to the last available returns made in 1901.

Taking our three parishes we find that the population fell by almost a fifth between 1851 and 1901. Over the 50 years the number of houses remained much the same so that in 1901 there were just over 4 persons on average per house as against over 5 in 1851. Of the 182 houses in Birch almost two thirds had less than four rooms with 2 having just one room each. Layer Breton and Layer Marney had about 40% with less than four rooms. With (by today's standards) a less than adequate water supply and a lack of main drainage, living conditions were much worse than they are today. Back in 1851 the more crowded houses made survival harder. Statistics show that life expectancy at birth in the 1860s was around 45 years, although in rural areas it would have been slightly higher.

Analysing the census details into age groups we find that the proportion of the population under 14 fell from almost 40% in 1851 to 32% in 1901. At the same time the proportion over 70 years old went up from 2.2% to 6.2% reflecting, to some extent, improvements in living standards. A series of very hot summers during the 1890s was the cause of an increase in infant mortality due to the spread of airborne and waterborne infections, which although more marked in cities and towns were, nevertheless, the cause of many deaths of those under a year old. Premature births also led to many infant deaths as did poor feeding and diarrhoea in older infants. In the Colchester Registration District about one in eight infants died before reaching their first birthday throughout much of the Victorian era. Another factor was the fall in the birth rate. In 1851 there were 305 women between the ages of 15 and 45 and 47 infants under a year old meaning that 1 in 6.5 women gave birth during the year up to the census. In 1901 265 women and 27 infants meant that just under one in ten gave birth in the preceding year.

It is said that in Victorian times they did not move around. Comparing the two census returns, in 1851 about 63% of the residents were born in the three parishes, with another 16% born in Essex. 1901 showed little change overall; perhaps agriculture led to a static work force housed in tied cottages. This contrasts with the clergy and other professionals. In Layer Marney the Rector, Samuel Farman, was born in Ipswich and his wife in London. His career had taken him to Turkey, where three of their children were born, before a short spell in Shoreham, Sussex, and a move to Layer Marney in the mid 1840s. Similarly, the Layer Breton Rector, Robert Sutton, came from Lambourne and his wife from Brixton. The Minister of the Congregational Chapel on the Heath, William Merchant, came from Ardleigh in 1798. Aged 74 by 1851, he was well settled here. Birch Rector William Harrison was from Bermondsey, his wife from Lincolnshire and they came here from London in the late 1840s. Local schoolteachers in 1851 seem to have come from the Midlands.

Fifty years later the Rectors came from Witham, Driffield (Yorks) and Westminster. The Birch schoolmaster came from Cambridge and the Congregational Minister was born in Norfolk. As noted in earlier "Chronicles" villages were much more self sufficient then, having shops available to supply the everyday needs. This combined with a lack of leisure time and transport, meant that local facilities were a case of supply meeting demand and a rather restricted range of choices.

Despite a lack of population movement it is interesting to note the occurrence of surnames in the area. In 1851 the most frequent names in Layer Breton were Abbott, Howard, Wheeler and Rowe. In Layer Marney they were Taylor, Bell and Sach, while in Birch Fisher, Smith, Taylor and Moss were the most frequent. By 1901 the picture changes - in Layer Breton it was Taylor, Johnson, Potter and Partner while the four names found in 1851 had all gone! Layer Marney names in 1901 were Pettican, Bell, Warren and Smyth with few Taylors. In Birch Smith, Everitt, Sheldrick and Taylor occurred most frequently. Taking all three parishes, Taylor had the greatest number although probably not all were from one family. Perhaps reflecting either the use of a local accent, or the need for some form of political correctness, it is noted that the family name of Bumby in 1851 had become Burmby fifty years later. This is not a case of interpreting handwriting as the Birch records for 1851 are in copperplate writing! Another feature, which would not appear today, is the notation that a person was either in receipt of parish relief or was a pauper.

In 1851 there were two nonagenarians and in 1901 three - all widows, which may tell us something, none born here. The age given for each person may not always be accurate. However, George Brewer's age is correct! in the 1901 census he was one day old, so without having to purchase a birth certificate, or search elsewhere, anyone interested in George knows exactly when he was born. Census returns provide much for local and family historians to get their teeth into and the amount of knowledge which can be gleaned from the bare essentials recorded is constantly surprising, and with maps, Tithe Maps, details in the 1911 Valuation maps and books can provide an accurate picture of areas long unseen.

PublishedFebruary 2005
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath