Population, economy and family structure in Hertfordshire in 1851


Volume 2

The St Albans Region

by Nigel Goose

ISBN 0-900458-83-6 paperback 19.95

ISBN 0-900458-84-4 casebound 35

From the University of Hertfordshire Press or any good bookshop.


Census Returns

 I have reviewed this book (rather critically) below and if you want to get your local genealogy library to get a copy you may like to know that it contains transcripts of the 1851 census for

St Albans
St Albans Workhouse
St Michaels (Rural)
St Michaels (Urban)
St Peters
St Stephens
the out-hamlets in the Liberty of St Albans

Volume 1 covers the Berkhamsted region. Volumes in preparation cover Baldock, Ware and Hitchin while "forthcoming" volumes will cover Hatfield & Welwyn, Hemel Hempstead, Hertford, Royston, Watford, Bishop's Stortford and Barnet & Edmonton.


Over the last 20 years or so I have frequently accessed the census microfilms of St Albans and surrounding villages. Nearly 25 years ago I started to trace my own family tree, and this led to an investigation into the marriage and mobility of well-to-do tenant farmers - where it was clear that there was an informal network over much of the East of England. This proved much too complex to pursue with limited resources (particularly due to reduced access to computer facilities when I retired from university) so unfortunately nothing has yet been published. I am currently researching a book on into the Bernards Heath area of St Albans, (including its brickworks) and also helping people, via the Internet, to investigate their own family histories. As such this book, with its discussion of social and economic factors - and its transcription of the 1851 census for the St Albans region - contains much of interest to me - and to others researching the St Albans area.

In reviewing the book I therefore decided to see how useful it was in answering the type of questions I have already investigated, in some cases using the census microfilms, to see how the book stood up to use by the genealogist/family historian, the local historian, and the academic researcher. The following examples show what I found. In commenting I draw comparisons with other published material which is issued on CD to aid access.

(1) Genealogist: A simple search for the part of the transcription relating to a named person is general straight forward (even if it involves a lot of page turning with a common name) as there is an alphabetical name index of the census data. [Unfortunately many of the references for St Michael's Rural have been incorrectly numbered in the computer processing which could cause difficulties in locating the correct entry in the transcription without reference to the correction slip circulated a week after the book was published.]

(2) Genealogist: The following question is becoming increasingly common - particularly now that the 1881 census index on CD shows how powerful the approach can be. "Mrs Sarah Horn is shown on a later census as having been born in about 1836 in Sandridge - I don't know her maiden name - so what are the possibilities?" This is a question which can be answered for someone fitting the description anywhere in the home counties in 1881 in less time than it takes to manually scan through the printed 1851 records for the single parish of Sandridge.

(3) Family Historian: He will be more interested in the social context of the family than the genealogist, and the printed transcript is more convenient than looking at the original microfilms. However a CD (such as the 1881 UK census) would be even better as he would be able to extract data and edit it or add notes, etc, with ease.

(4) Family Historian: Any comments about the family will clearly be of interest - and Chapter 3 contains many hundred of references to individual households, etc., which could be of interest. Unfortunately Chapter 3 is over 150 pages long and has no index. If the reader wants to know if the section of the transcript that interests him is discussed he has very little option but to look all the way through Chapter 3.

(5) Local Historian: One question that particularly concerns me is that of brickmaking in the St Albans area. As a result I manually scanned the 440 pages of transcripts (taking four hours) to identify (and transcribe details by hand) of all builders and those containing "Brick" in their occupation. I found 133 such entries. By comparison a search of the 1881 census for the whole county of Buckinghamshire for occupation "Brick*" on a MACH (Mapping and Analysis of Census Households) CD  from Drake Software produced a computer file (no possibility of copying errors and accidental oversights) of 1681 full personal entries in about 3 minutes together with a distribution map.

(6) Local Historian: In local history, public houses regularly crop up and so I decided to see what the analysis said about them. As with the brick workers the only way to identify them in the transcript is to scan every page - but Appendix 2 is headed "St Albans Inns" and there is a reasonable looking discussion based in part on the 1855 Post Office Directory. Unfortunately there was an unfortunate factual error on a matter of particular interest to me which highlighted a serious editorial error.

.(7) Academic Researcher (and others): In Chapter 3 there are many references to individual entries in the transcript - and many people might wish to follow them up to see what the census returns actually said. No explicit references are given. In some cases the name of the inhabitant is given - which allows a look up via the transcript index. However other references, for instance to occupation, are sometimes impossible to tie down. (If the data had been on CD it would be possible to search the file for the data of interest at the same time as reading the analytical text.)

(8) Academic Researcher: The kind of research I was doing some years ago is only marginally quicker on an inadequately indexed transcript (in contrast to computer files). For instance in investigating mobile networks of well-to-do tenant farmers there is nothing in the book as published to help spot that William A Grigg, of Causewell Farm, Wheathampstead, (150 acres, employing 7 labourers) and Maria Smith wife of Dolphin Smith of Water End, Sandridge (480 acres employing 22 labourers) were both born in Ramsbury, Wiltshire. It turns out (from Wiltshire records) that William Grigg is Maria Smith's brother-in law. It is just this kind of clue that helps investigate the way that this group of people tended to move distances of up to 50 miles or more to farms near other relatives. What probably happened in many cases is that someone passed on the news that a suitable lease was becoming available to a relative known to have a son ready to go independent.

(9) Academic Researcher?: The book relates to St Albans and the 1851 census and in many ways the analysis is over-deep in the absence of any reference to changes over time and limited references across Hertfordshire. For instance I could find no general population tables to show how the overall population of the area changed over the century so it is hard (or perhaps impossible) to find out if the population of a parish such as Sandridge was increasing, stable or decreasing in 1851. There is also a problem of comparisons within Hertfordshire - as the vast majority relate to the Berkhamsted area (i.e. Volume 1). Presumably the next volume will contain references to Berkhamsted and St Albans, and each successive volume will contain more and more such references. While I fully understand why this is happening there is a danger that further down the series readers of a single volume will fail to realise that failure to make a comparison is an artefact of the order the series was published rather than a variation in fact across Hertfordshire. [This confusion is not helped by the fact that future volume numbers are different in Volume 1 and Volume 2.] There is also a danger that some topics will be discussed repetitively in each volume when they would be more appropriately discussed in an "All Hertfordshire" volume.

(10) General: I have actively used the transcripts in Volume 1 (only issued in paperback) very intensively over the last three years without a problem so it seemed sensible to buy the paperback version of Volume 2. Unfortunately Volume 2 is bound in a significantly inferior way, simply by gluing the sheets along the edge - which surely is not adequate for a book of 700 pages. Within a day a group of six pages had come loose (perhaps they were loose as supplied) and by the time I had finished the above commentary two further sheets in a different part of the volume had become detached. At the same time the spine was beginning to crease - something which has not happened to Volume 1 in three years use. I dread to think what would happen if I tried to photocopy a page!

Clearly the above comments suggest that little or no thought has been to who is going to use it and what they will use it for. If the identical text had been published in a 200 page normal sized book with a decent index and the census tables as a MACH style computer readable database on a CD I would have had unstinting praise. What we actually have is a 700 page tome in which information is held in a hard/impractical to access form. This means that either people will not use it (stifling further research) - or they will waste a significant amount of time hunting through the pages that are likely to fall out if turned too often.

To conclude. While the research and data are extremely useful, this book gives the impression that the author and the University of Hertfordshire have not mentally advanced beyond 1980's computer technology - so that the readers suffer. I can only hope that future volumes in this series demonstrate that there are people at the University who understand the present day needs of both amateur and professional historians and who know how to publish material using appropriate technology.

There is a web page for the 1851 Census

Locating Books
At the time this page was last updated new and second hand copies could be ordered online


Page updated April 2005