Birchanger in the 1851 Census

By Eddie Gilbey

The Census of 1851 was only the second to be undertaken in Britain, it gives us a snapshot of the village in the 16th year of Queen Victoria's reign.

1851 was the year of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. The Whig party were in power and the prime minister was Lord Russell. Agriculture represented 20% of the national product as the Industrial revolution was well underway, with large scale migration, from the countryside, into the towns and cities. Nationally the census revealed that for the first time, the rural population was outnumbered by those living in towns.

The parish of Birchanger included Forest Hall road and stretched from Blythwood Gardens and Stoney Common in modern day Stansted along the main road as far as the western edge of Birchanger wood. Then up to the A120 past Blacklands, and on to Start Hill. From there the boundary went to the east of Duck End roughly where the motorway now is and then on to encompass Digby Wood and Forest Hall again.

There were some dwellings included that were not on the main roads, most properties are simply described as a Cottage. So it is difficult to pinpoint exactly who lived where. There are also some larger houses like Birchanger Place, Birchanger Hall etc.

There are 76 separate properties referred to, housing 369 people.

Life in the village

Stepping back in time the villager of 1851 would have looked rather different than today. Most of the men, for example, would have sported rather more facial hair than is common today, as the safety razor had not yet been invented. The only means of shaving was the "Cut throat" style of razor that had to be stropped on a thick leather strap before use. So full beards were common, as well as bushy sideburns. He would have owned very little in the way of clothing because clothing was expensive and nothing he wore would have had the makers name emblazoned on it.

What clothing he did have would have lasted longer than modern day items, some would have been home made and would be repaired for as long as possible. While out side, he would usually have been wearing a hat or cap. On his feet well worn boots or clogs would have been the order of the day.

The ladies kept their hair long but usually it was worn tied up. Their costume was restricted in the same way that the men's was. The best clothes being reserved for Sundays and rare social occasions. Colours would have been dull as there were no synthetic dyes yet. Although rubber was available elastic had still to be invented, so clothing was fastened only by buttons or hooks and eyes and held up by belts or tied in place by drawstrings. The children of the village would have all understood the principle of "hand me down". New clothes for all except the wealthy were luxury items.

In 1851 the local roads were un-metalled, all of the traffic was horse drawn, or on foot. Birchanger Lane had drainage ditches on both sides of the road, some of which survive to this day. In the winter at least, Birchanger would have been muddy.

The footpaths would have been better used than today, as they were more direct routes to the surrounding villages and Bishop Stortford.

There are five farms listed, providing most of the employment. Of these, two Farms were run by different widows named Mary Smith. One who came from Farnham and the other from Great Hallingbury. These are Folly Farm (The Mount) and Birchanger Hall, each employed a male "Bailiff" to ensure that the work was done.

Of the 192 men of the parish 98 are listed as Agricultural labourers. They would have worked six days a week for ten hours per day, longer in the summer than the winter months. Agricultural wages were low, around 14 shillings (70p) per week at the very best, so it was important for every one who could, to contribute something to the family income. Contemporary records are scarce, the following list was found on the Internet. It shows how little the average family had to live on.

Weekly expenditure of a Farm Labourer, his Wife, and three Children.

Prices in shillings (s) and pence (d)

5 Gallons Bread 6s 3d

1/2 lb. Butter 8d

1 lb. Cheese 6d

1 lb. Bacon 8d

1/2 lb. Sugar 2d

Pepper, Salt, etc. 1d

2 oz. Tea lb. 4d

1/2 lb Candles 3 1/2 d

Soap 2d

Soda, Starch, and Blue 1d

Coals 2s

1 Faggot 2 1/2 d

Rent and Rates 1s 6d

Man's Sick Club 6d

Boots 7d

Children's Schooling 3 d

This gives a total of 12 shillings and a halfpenny, or 60p in the modern decimal equivalent. It takes no account of any monies the man spent in the pub or gambling or offertories made in the Church. Church attendance was much higher then, 60% at least and everyone would have attended at some time in the year.

Of the 76 properties in the village 53 housed someone connected to agriculture. Each of the cottages would have had a garden in which vegetables could be grown, as it would not have been economic to buy them. Some cottagers would have kept Chickens for their eggs and Rabbits for their meat. Some would have kept Goats for their milk and cheese. The animals would have been tended by the older children and their mothers.

In the cottages themselves there was no electricity, no gas and no running water. Toilet facilities were outside. Cooking was done on open fires, or in Coal fired ovens with a flat steel plate on the top. The houses, would have been lit by oil lamps or candles.

Families were large. Twenty eight properties house more than six people in each one. Of those, eight properties have sixty seven occupants between them. There were five families with eight members, five more with nine members and two with ten members.

There are ninety five Scholars listed, School began for most at the age of four. Boys would join their fathers in the fields when they were twelve. Girls stayed in school until they were fifteen. By the age of twenty-one, most girls have married. The lucky ones have a place of their own and a family. Several married couples lived with a parent.

The School teacher, thirty five year old spinster Maria Butcher from Stanmore , and Eighty year old widow, Elizabeth Knight, are the only people in the village who lived alone.

Other occupations

Not everyone worked on the land, the occupants of the larger houses had servants, some of who lived in with their employers. Others lived locally with their families. The householders were usually in trade, while the sons of the middleclass households were more likely to be apprenticed to a trade, or employed in town. There were three carpenters in the village.

There were two clergymen resident. Oddly the Rector Mr Bathurst is listed as a visitor to the Curate Mr Theopilus Pelley. I am surmising that the curate held a temporary position in Birchanger as Mr Bathurst has a long history here.

Some householders are described as "Fundholders" another as an "Annuitant" indicating a life style without the need for employment, none of these were of local origin, but all employed local domestic staff.

One villager worth a mention was William Brundle the Tollgate keeper from Brissingham in Norfolk. With the coming of the railway to Bishop Stortford in 1841, the income from road tolls was drying up. In 1851 Mr Brundle's future was bleak.

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