Half-glimpsed Figures: Women in the 1891 Talke Census

Philip R Leese

Introduction: All Present and Correct?

To some extent it is a perverse experiment, attempting to use one single source for a study when others are available, particularly as the census is, in essence, a snapshot recording a single night. Census studies are usually longitudinal, covering an area over a period, or comparative, drawing useful distinctions between different places at the same time.  By looking at only one source of evidence all comparisons are lost. As a general rule, the more sources consulted, the fuller, more complex and interesting the final picture. 

But no historian would therefore neglect to look closely at a photograph in search of what evidence it can provide. While the census can hardly help telling us something about the topic of study -  women in Talke - as useful may be revelations about the strengths and limitations of the census itself as a source of evidence.

In the first flush of enthusiasm for genealogical or local history research, the ten-yearly census returns can appear a diamond mine - acres of fact and figures, names and addresses - exhaustive, accurate, detailed, unbiased.  Surely the answers to most of our questions are here! 

Unfortunately, no.  They’re  not. 

No-one would dispute that a very great deal of uniquely available information may be extracted from these records compiled from forms filled in by heads of household over a century ago... but only if care is taken in their interpretation. The returns we have today are not an uncontaminated source.  As Edward Higgs warns, in his useful guide, ‘A Clearer Sense of the Census’, ‘the information in the enumerator’s book was several stages removed from reality, and each stage could add its own accumulation of error.’

The sheer mass of the returns, their claim to be complete and exhaustive, their apparently direct recording on factual matters of name, age, address, occupation, marital status, place of birth and so on, encourage easy acceptance. It does not take long, however, for the researcher to realize that what seems a firm platform of fact bears more relation to a bog where the tussocks offering foothold are unnevingly liable to retire into muddy depths. 

First, although the census forms were designed to be simple enough to be filled in by anyone, many people were only dubiously literate and an unknown number had to be completed by the census enumerator himself.  (How reliable was he?)  Some seem to be unsure of their own names. In Talke, is there more than a chance spelling difference between the families Pennlington and Penlington, Simkin, Simkins, Simpkin and Simpkins, Nevitt and Nevitts?  Did errors of transcription or the mishearing of an unfamiliar accent produce such names as Pheonix, Scimis, O’Gara, Brillam, Noden and Allie Axon?  Can we be sure correct ages were known and given? Many were hazy about what county their place of birth was in and many common and similar place names in Britain increase this uncertainty. 

Besides unintentional errors, an unknown amount of intended error could have been added by the householders themselves. Irregular unions and illegitimate births could be concealed. If it were thought that a child might have been working illegally, either age might be ‘upped’ to conform, or the work not admitted.  People were not willing to admit that relatives and children where either mentally or physically disabled. Even the terms used seem to us, now, harsh and crude:  deaf and dumb, blind, lunatic, imbecile or idiot.  Sometimes it might be hard to define such conditions. When does defective vision become actual blindness?  The Talke census only lists  three imbeciles and one disabled. The latter figure almost certainly underestimates that condition, considering the number of disabling accidents in mining communities. 

Occupations are another area where caution is needed.  A multitude of labels may refer to the same, or very similar, work, and while some descriptions may be vague (General labourer?), others may concern jobs or processes with which we are now unfamiliar.

Above all, the censuses were taken for specific administrative purposes and these may not always sit easily with today’s ideas and needs. They were never designed to produce historical or sociological portraits of communities, for example, and, in fact, communities can be arbitrarily split by the enumerator’s districts. This study is based on a set of schedules covering small, but no doubt to their inhabitants, separate and distinct communities such as Talke Pits, Red Street, Dunkirk. Part of an area loosely termed ‘New Road’ is included but the rest of this is included in schedules for Butt Lane and Hardingswood, which are not included in this brief study.

While the route the enumerator took can apparently be traced fairly precisely, it is not possible always to identify particular buildings.  Addresses like ‘Top End of New Road’, ‘Middle of Main Street’, ‘Off Main Road’, and ‘Near the Cross’ are too general, and some names like ‘Ring O’Bells’ have faded from memory.  Many houses have, naturally, now been demolished, which is perhaps just as well in some cases; no-one nowadays would wish to live at No.13 The Pitts, one suspects.

Families and Households

Keeping all these provisos in mind, what can we learn about the female population of Talk?  First, we have names, clearly related to family and marital status.  But very swiftly comes the realization that it is often impossible to trace family relationships through these, particularly for females. Married daughters living next door to their parents will not be traceable without recourse to other records, for example. Nor can one be sure that families living in close proximity with the same, or similar, surnames are related, though suspicions aroused by census proximity may again be checked in other sources. Close inspection of the census may usefully throw up puzzles of relationship, but will not of itself solve them. In Talke, for example, a mother aged 57 is recorded as having an unlikely seven month old baby. One might speculate whether the 21 year old unmarried daughter living at the same address is a more likely parent, or whether, as a married daughter-in-law is living next door, the infant is perhaps a granddaughter.  (Although as she has a one year old daughter, this is perhaps unlikely too)

Married couples are generally easy to identify, but although 25 men are identified as widowers in the Talke census, it is impossible thus to trace the widows of Talke.  They should have been recorded as ‘Wid’ but this abbreviation does not occur in the tables. In a community with a high male mortality throughout life, it is highly unlikely none were present, but there is no way of distinguishing whether the W in the marital status column refers to a married woman with a husband still alive.

Ellen Taylor, age 70, living alone on her own means at Colclough Street, is very probably a widow.  Younger married women listed as heads of household may be widows, or equally, their husbands may be away from home.

Neither, therefore, is it easy to tell if widows remarried, though common sense would urge the necessity for young widows with families to marry again fairly speedily.  Some remarriages do show up in the census when there are step children present.  Eleven families list these.  However, something other than what we would recognize as a step-relationship is indicated in the Durber family of Queen Street, where a 9 year old ‘SD’ (step-daughter) surnamed Wooton appears alongside 9 year old twins named Durber.  Had both parents children by previous marriages, or was the girl the child of a relative of one or other parent?

Happily, other facts about marriage are clearer.  The youngest married girl in Talke was aged 16.  There were three married 17 year olds, two 18 year olds and four 19 year olds, seeming to show that marriage in teenage years was not common, though the majority of women aged 20 and over were married.  As there were 40 young women aged between 20 and 25 who were still single (and plenty of young men available) it appears that not all Talke’s young women rushed into marriage.

Marriage in those pre-birth control days was often tantamount to raising a family, commonly a large one.  Here the census is a good deal of help.  It is easy to see (and maybe salutary to realize) that 47 year old Mary Meakin is looking after a family of ten, and that Ellen Colclough, the 34 year old wife of a miner of Dunkirk, already has eight children.  No wonder that one of them, aged 12, is already a miner like his father.  Louisa Johnson, age 50, has borne at least 9 children; by looking in Monumental Inscriptions at St Martin’s, Talke o’th’Hill, we can also discover that she buried two more at least.

The figures produced by the census returns can fruitfully be used to produce topics for historical investigation, for example on the differing longevity of men and women.  Was the labour involved in child bearing and rearing healthy, or at least more natural, than the labour involved in mining?  The women of Talke strikingly outlived their menfolk.

Three men alone survived into their 70s, a further 25 were in their 60s and 32 were in their 50s.  In contrast, there were 16 women aged over 70, the oldest being 91, and according to the returns, still working!   Full figures are as follows:

















































There were almost twice as many women as men aged over 50 in 1891.  Has this proportion change over the past century?

The large numbers of grandchildren, nieces, nephews, in-laws and their children, and even the occasional uncle and aunt, suggest that extended families living under one roof were common.  Granted, too, that the census returns do not show all the ramifications of family networks, it is still plain that these networks were richer and also physically closer than today.  Typical of a three-generation household, of a type not common today, is that of William and Jane Holland, a couple in their fifties living on ‘Main Road’.  Their 19 year old son is still at home, but the house is also shared with their 24 year old daughter, married to a 39 year old miner and their two children aged 5 and 7.

Unfortunately, the census enumerator only sporadically remembered to record the number of rooms in each dwelling as he ought, but from our knowledge of the houses which remain standing, it is clear that they were often overcrowded, especially when lodgers, boarders, servants and visitors are taken into account.  There were 88 boarders spread through 55 households of the 405 in the census.  Two lodgers are also reported at Red Street, but whether they differed greatly from boarders, it is hard to say.  About 12% of households added to their income in this way. 

Families with daughters of the requisite age would naturally use them as unpaid servants, but 25 households did list ‘servants’ as living therein.  Any hopes that the census reveals any clear direct relationship between status and wealth and employment of servants are soon dashed.  As common sense would suggest, it does appear that some employers had more wealth and position than the average.  It is not unexpected that two mining engineers, a colliery manager, the rector of Talke, the police constable and an auction house agent employed paid labour.  That 6 farmers and 4 publicans also did so may be less due to status than to the amount of labour they required for their businesses.  It is harder to account for the two plain coal miners who did so, though one also described himself as a ‘higgler’ - perhaps some sort of coal auctioneer?  A colliery cashier might be expected, from his position of trust, to have an income higher than average, but a 32 year old colliery clerk has obviously been doing well to be able to afford paid help for his wife.  Others with servants are a ‘grocer and gas stoker’, a blacksmith and a butcher.  It may be that this seemingly random list of householders with servants merely reflects the arbitrary nature of the term.  Servants were female domestic help whether related to the household or not.

The list of those with servants concludes with a 65 year old widowed ‘general labourer’ who terms the 40 year old woman living with him as his ‘housekeeper’ as a servant.  Again, one suspects some of these apparently specific terms of being arbitrary, as this household seems, on the surface, to be very little different from a number of cases where middle-aged women unrelated to male heads of household are looking after children and boarders without being termed servants.

Finally, as regards household size, it should be noted that the average number of people per dwelling - just over 5 - conceals very wide disparities in household size.  Numbers in houses of the isolated community of Dunkirk, for example, range from one up to ten.

Suitable Jobs for Women

The occupations given in the census offer some valuable sidelights on what was expected of women at the time, and paradoxically, what is omitted is almost as significant as what is admitted.

Of the 436 females of 14 and over living in Talke, and who could be viewed as potential working women, only 120 gave an occupation.  A further 18 were ‘living on their own means’.  More than 90% of the adult male population were painstakingly listed as having a job.  This disparity suggests that the full-time occupation of ‘housewife/mother’ was tacitly recorded for about three quarters of the women, while it was seen as important to record male working roles in detail.

Not that the census takers recorded either male or female occupations with great accuracy. Agricultural employments, with big seasonal variation, was almost bound to be under represented in a survey taken in April, for example. 

There is little doubt that in recording, even if tacitly, most women in Talke as occupied in domestic tasks, the census gives a broadly accurate picture, but nevertheless, as a picture expressing what women and girls actually did, the census is very imprecise. Amongst those with unrecorded occupations are many girls in their late teens and early twenties, some women with children but no apparent breadwinner and those elderly financially independent ladies.  Of only one of the latter do we learn that she was in receipt of money from the relief fund set up after the mining disaster of 1866. Income from rented property, for instance, does not show up on the census at all. 

Compared to their menfolk, the number and kinds of occupation open to women appears extremely limited. Around 120 separate job titles are given for males, over one third of them specifically mentioning a connection with coal or coke.  The full list for women is 32. But from these it is possible to realise something of what the late Victorians considered to be women’s work.  Both the employments and the numbers of women pursuing them are suggestive. 

Half the employed females in Talke were in domestic service, under seven descriptive variants. The two ‘housemaids’ listed perhaps have some status implications.  One is at the Rectory, the other at High Ash Farm.  (Nearby Linley Hall, in the same census, boasts two housemaids, a laundry maid, a kitchen and a scullery maid, which definitely sounds like one-upmanship.)  There is no clear distinction between girls working for parents or others.  As regards arbitrary labels again, the adjoining Butt Lane census includes the description ‘domestic; mother’s help’ but this, though it describes many girls in the Talke census, does not appear there.  One hesitates, therefore, to put too much significance onto such labels and numbers, as no doubt many other girls living at home worked as mothers helpers without being identified as such. 

Conversely, there seems to be a particular significance attached to the designation ‘housekeeper’.  Ten of these are listed, generally mature women acting as household head, or working for a man without a wife present.  There is an instance, though, of a 15 year old ‘housekeeper’ looking after her 69 years old father.

Aspects of domestic service could be developed further. There are two char women and three cooks.  Another had turned the weekly wash into a full time occupation as a laundress. A 64 year old had commercialized her housekeeping to become a lodginghouse keeper. 

Dressmaking was another skill girls could acquire and use as an acceptable occupation.  Thirteen, mainly young girls, termed themselves dressmakers, two more were apprentices to the trade, and a further three were seamstresses. 

These domestic trades occupied 75% of the listed working women, and that in itself suggests the limited range than available to women. 

The major visible occupation which offered what might be termed a career to girls at the time was teaching.  Five women (and one man) worked in education as school or pupil teachers, one in an as-yet embryonic stage as monitress in Board school.  Teaching did offer, in training college, both incentive and opportunity to move away from a home village; the village schoolmistress, for example, originated in Dawley, Shropshire. 

It is worth noting in passing a further caution as regards the figures given in census returns.  97 of the 424 juvenile females listed in the Talke census are classed as scholars, but this figure should be viewed with circumspection as no scholars at all are listed in the first half of these returns, the area of Talke Pits.  Two daughters of Margaret Law of Windy Arbour Hollow appear to have reminded the enumerator of this omission, after which a scattering of scholars appears through the rest of the returns.  It seems highly unlikely that no scholars were present in Talke Pits. 

Women ran or assisted in shops, again recorded with some imprecision.  There are three grocers, four grocer’s assistants, two publicans, a bookseller and an undifferentiated shop assistant.  Several male shopkeepers reported dual occupations: Levi Bolton was a farmer and grocer; and James Culverhouse, whose home is  the Co-op stores, is a ‘fireman in coal mine’ so there is little doubt that the families took over retailing when they weren’t available. Wives and daughters of farmers and publicans no doubt worked as hard as the menfolk though the  census  does not record this. James Hancock, of The Swan, was farmer and publican, and his household does include a farmer’s son but not a farmer’s daughter listed as such.  According to figures given in ‘The Miners of Staffordshire 1840-1914’ there were, besides four public houses, 9 beershops in the village. Only one of these appears in Kelly’s Directory for 1892 - Elizabeth Turnock, beer retailer - but neither she, nor the presumed eight other beersellers, record this occupation in the 1891 census. Within living memory women have made beers and wines from cultivated and wild plants both for domestic use and sale, and it is probable the activity was even more widespread in Victorian times, but this work, even if of minor economic importance, goes largely unrecorded. 

The occupations remaining are less easy to categorise.  Mary Clark, at 91 Talke’s oldest resident,  regarded herself as a railway goods agent, but imagination jibs at describing her work. Jessie Anne Harvey, a 25 year old boarder on Martin’s Bank, was an evangelist missionioner and provides a brief reminder of the large place churches and chapels and their associated social activities had in many women’s lives at that time. A 16 year old printer’s apprentice presumably travelled outside the village to work.  Similarly, a fustian cutter probably worked for Samuel Cope in his recently-opened mill in Butt Lane; this is the solitary instance of what might be termed the only industrial work then available locally. 

There remain only that village necessity, the midwife (aged 67), a teenage telegraph clerk working at the post office, and Annie Bossons, a lamp cleaner.  It is not clear whether she performed the same tasks as four male colliery lamp cleaners or cleaned domestic lamps. 

This trawl through the census has been sketchy and selective. Discussion of where the women of Talke originated, for example, has been left to other researchers. But though the picture which does emerge from the census can hardly be said to challenge an accepted picture, it is hoped that some interesting pointers have emerged on the dependability of the census returns. Often the returns are selectively scrutinised by genealogists searching mainly for particular family information, or scrutinised collectively by researchers requiring figures to bolster or confute a thesis.  It is useful sometimes to think generally about the extent and limits of what this type of information can provide. 

The census had limited aims, and even within those was sometimes unsuccessful in accurately eliciting the information required. Little wonder that any picture based upon it is partial.  It may appear that the women of Talke, despite greater longevity than the men, lived lives of domestic drudgery, often looking after large families in overcrowded houses.  But other sources may amplify or transform the generally monochrome and partial picture which emerges; health, religion, leisure, and the full complexity of family relationships are all missing or very sketchily indicated in the schedules. 

The tabulated returns look so neat, so detailed; but the lives they attempt to describe were so various that large areas remain inevitably hidden, however simple, accurate and exhaustive the census survey tried to be.


Audley Family History Society: Monumental Inscriptions at the Church of St Martin, Talke o’ th’ Hill, Staffordshire, Audley, 1995

Benson, John (ed): The Miners of Staffordshire, 1840-1914, Keele, 1993

Higgs, Edward: A Clearer Sense of the Census, London, 1996