The UK censuses were taken every ten years from 1841 onwards. We are allowed to look at the ones which are over 100 years old. So at present the most recent one we can see is dated 1911. As family historians will know, the censuses provide a great deal of information, much of which could not be discovered from any other source. Witham’s census returns are no exception.
Some folk were just passing through. In 1841 the Rising Sun in Bridge Street (now no. 29) had five ‘excavators’ and two ‘contractors’ staying, helping to build the new railway. In 1851 there were two young Irishmen lodging in Bridge Street who were employed by the Ordnance Survey. And in 1861 there were several people ‘not in houses, travelling in vans’, including ‘Silvester Boswell, Chair Cane maker’, with his wife and eight children in Maldon Road. Mrs Boswell and three older boys helped to make the canes.
Local Christian names were usually very conventional. But in 1861, shoemaker George Pluck of Collins Lane had several children with Old Testament names, and his 14-year old son was called, ‘Jesse Fergus O’Connor Pluck’, after the great Chartist hero Fergus O’Connor. The Chartists’ radical aims included ‘one man one vote’.
The biggest 19th-century factory was the brush works, belonging to the Thomasin family. The 1841 census mentions about fifty people who probably worked there, living all over the town centre. They included brushmakers, pattenmakers, clogmakers, turners, mop makers, chairmakers and a commercial traveller. The brush yard was behind nos. 67 and 83 Newland Street (the intervening street numbers were the cottages in the yard.)
Later on, it was the Witham Junction railway station that used the most people. In 1901 there were 90 of them. Most were platelayers and porters (about twenty of each), and signalmen (thirteen), but the rest included clerks, navvies, inspectors, horsemen, stokers, telegraph men, an engine driver, a gateman, a greaser, a female charwoman, and of course the stationmaster, who was William Cole from Ipswich. Thirty percent of them lived within a hundred yards of the station.
Amongst the poorest working people were the farmworkers (see the photo). Their wages were very small, and they were often out of work, especially in the winter. They lived in small cottages, most of which do not survive today. Many of the boys joined their fathers at farm work by the age of about thirteen or younger. Some were only ten, like John Cook in 1851.
The very poorest people were the ones in the massive and forbidding Union Workhouse in Hatfield Road (now Home Bridge Court). Usually the men all lived together in one set of dormitories, and the women and children in another. The censuses show that between 150 and 200 paupers and their children were in the workhouse at any one time, sent there because they could not find work. They came from parishes round about such as Coggeshall, as well as from Witham itself.
Women’s work wasn’t all recorded in the censuses, but nevertheless they tell us of dressmakers, shirtmakers and milliners, washerwomen and laundry women. And in particular there were servants – some lived at home and others lived with their employers.
The two biggest households were at the Grove and at Witham Lodge. Witham Lodge was a large house near today’s Witham Lodge estate. The census shows that in 1881, twenty people were living in it. There were Vice Admiral William Luard and his wife Charlotte, with seven of their children aged six to twenty (some others may have been away at school) and two other relatives. They had nine live-in servants including a governess, a butler, a nurse, a cook, a page boy and a housemaid. Other servants lived nearby.
The photo shows the Golden Wedding of Admiral and Lady Luard in 1908 at the house. 106 people went to ceremonies at the Pubic Hall and the church, and had lunch. Then 200 people took afternoon tea. Nine of the Admiral’s ten children were there, including the six Miss Luards, who were well-known for good works in Witham.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in September 2015