Wednesday, 5 January 2022

A "New" Census!

Almost all family historians will have made use of the census at some point in their research. Censuses can tell you when and where your ancestors were born, the address where they were living, their occupations, and their relationships to people living in the same household. Later censuses may even tell you how long they’d been married, how many children they had, and even how many rooms were in their house. 

In England and Wales a census has been taken every ten years since 1801 (with one exception, which we’ll come to later). Were you asked last year to complete an online census form? We’ve come a long way since the very first census in 1801, when local parish officers were dispatched in order to, quite literally, count every man, woman and child, before posting the handwritten returns off to the census office in London, so that they could be collated and printed in large statistical volumes. 

From 1841 onwards the administration of the census passed to the General Register Office, which had been set up just four years previously to oversee the introduction of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths. This was the earliest census to officially record personal information, such as names and occupations (although, extremely rarely, draft notebooks with this information survive from 1831 or earlier). Every householder was asked to complete a form with details of everyone at home on census night; the details would later be copied by clerks into a separate series of books, and the original forms destroyed. However, this process didn’t always go entirely to plan. 

Although the 1841 is the earliest census we now have access to, it provides less information than its successors: the ages of everyone over 15 were supposed to have been rounded down to the nearest five years (although this rule wasn’t always strictly followed), and people weren’t asked for their exact place of birth: only whether they were born in the same county, in Scotland, Wales or Ireland, or overseas.

From 1851 onwards we usually find more precise information concerning ages and birthplaces, although it isn’t uncommon to find ancestors ageing rather more or less than ten full years in the intervening decades (sometimes even miraculously becoming younger from one census to the next!). People couldn’t always be relied upon to give accurate information, and I have one ancestor whose birthplace is different in every census in which he appeared. The census officials had no way to check whether the information they were given was correct, and people then were no less wary of providing their personal details to the authorities than they are today. For example, in the nineteenth century there was an incentive for people to claim that they were born in the same parish where they were living, since the poor laws of the time could see them returned to their ‘home’ parish if they fell on hard times.

In order to reassure the populace that the information given to census officers wouldn’t be used against them (provided it wasn’t intentionally wrong or misleading), guarantees were made that everyone’s details would remain confidential for 100 years; this undertaking became enshrined in law in 1920. 

During the twentieth century, the earliest censuses were therefore released to the public one hundred years after they were taken – usually in the January of the following year. Initially, researchers would have to travel to the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) in London to look at the original paper returns, which had been bound into thousands of large volumes. In the 1970s these were microfilmed and distributed around the country (and even around the world), to provide greater accessibility for the growing band of family historians. 

The 1891 census was the first to be released exclusively on microfiche, rather than the more cumbersome microfilm, while the 1901 and 1911 returns could be accessed through the internet shortly after their release. This was especially important in the case of the 1911 census, which came in a different format, showing each household on a separate page (in fact these were the original forms completed by each householder, now preserved for posterity). Thus the number of images from 1911 is vastly larger than for 1901. The earlier censuses back to 1841 have also now been digitised, and are accessible through various pay-per-view sites on the internet, where they can also be searched by name or address.  

No doubt you’ll have realised that the release of the 1921 census must be imminent - the launch date is 6 January 2022. Initially the returns for England and Wales will be available exclusively through Find My Past, who have been The National Archives’ commercial partner in carefully digitising and conserving over 20 million pages – containing almost 38 million names – in full colour, and all completely indexed. The 1921 censuses for Scotland and Northern Ireland will be released separately by their own national archives. 

The format of the England and Wales returns is very similar to the 1911 census, so we’ll be able to see the individual householders’ forms, in their own handwriting, which occupy more than a mile’s worth of shelving at The National Archives. The 1921 census also provides some extra details, such as the places where people worked (not just their occupation), and whether the parents of children under fifteen had died. Ages were also to be recorded in years and months, rather than to the nearest year as in previous censuses, hopefully making them a little more accurate. 


The census will be free to view online at The National Archives in London, at Manchester Central Library, and at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. However, everywhere else you will need a personal Find My Past subscription, which will allow you to see the images on a pay-per-view basis. Until Find My Past have recouped the expense they incurred in their digitisation project, unfortunately you won’t be able to access the 1921 census free of charge at the Cheshire Record Office or in the county’s libraries, as you currently can with the earlier censuses and the rest of their collections. For full details see: 

If you’ve already traced your family back a few centuries, you may wonder whether it’s worth bothering with a source that’s so comparatively recent. But history can be full of surprises, and it’s only by collecting as much information as possible about our ancestors, or the places where we live, that we can piece together a complete picture of where we came from. 

Finally, if all this has made you giddy with excitement at the prospect of future census releases, then you may have to be a little patient. I mentioned that the census had been taken every decade except one – which was 1941, due to the Second World War, during which the returns for the whole of the 1931 census were completely destroyed by bombing. So the 1951 census will be the next to come out… and we’ll have to wait until January 2052 for that!

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Planes, Trains and Automobiles!

We’ve had lots of interest in photographs of old vehicles in some of our recent exhibitions and blogs, so we’re dedicating this blog to early vehicles and transport in Cheshire. Read on for images of planes, trains and automobiles – and more! 


This striking photograph is from 1911 and shows an aeroplane flying over the Widnes Transporter Bridge. It was taken during the Round Britain Air Race and the pilot was a James Valentine, who landed briefly in Widnes. He was one of only four pilots to finish the race, and later served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. 

Cheshire Image Bank also contains a postcard of the first arrival of an aeroplane in Northwich, in 1912 (above right). The pilot, pioneering British aviator Gustav Hamel, can be seen standing next to his plane. Demonstration flights were apparently given on nearby Leftwich Green!  

We hold archive images from Hooton Park Airfield, including this one from 1944 of an early helicopter, the Sikorsky ‘Hoverfly’, designed by helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky. Also photographed at Hooton is the iconic Spitfire aeroplane. 


Our Local Studies collection contains many dozens of books, pamphlets and articles about trains and railways of Cheshire, as well as the images on the Cheshire Image Bank. This photograph of an unusual-looking locomotive was deposited at Cheshire Record Office with the information "Silver Jubilee, taken at Wrenbury Station, 1936" inscribed on it.  The Silver Jubilee was a streamlined train designed to travel at exceptionally high speeds - although we have since been informed that this locomotive may in fact be a Coronation Scot, introduced in 1937. 

Railway records also feature in our Archives, including the Basil Jeuda photographic collection (ref: D 7386) - an extensive railway-related collection of photographs from the 1860s to the 1980s. Many trains have been captured, such as this one at Prestbury Station in the 1880s below left, and the image of the ‘Ludwig Mond’ engine taken at Brunner Mond works in Winnington in 1912. 


We hold vehicle licensing records for Cheshire and Warrington going back to 1903, and regularly fulfil requests for copies from vehicle enthusiasts wishing to re-license restored cars. We have some images of very early cars, such as this one of motorised vehicles on the High Street at Winsford, taken in the early 1900s. 

The image below left shows the Mayor of Winsford pictured in his first official car – it also dates from the first decade of the 20th century. And from the 1910s, we have an image of Tom Booth’s Cycle and Motor Depot on Main Street, Frodsham (below right). Pictured in the car is a Mr Philbin, who was apparently the chauffeur to the local bank manager. 

This early advert for car hire is taken from the Nantwich Almanack and Directory of 1916.  And from our Archive collections, one of our favourite images is from a 1930s scrapbook of the Royal Chester Rowing Club: an early roof rack! Captioned ‘Henley 1937’, sadly we don’t know if the car was photographed at the Henley Regatta, or driven there like this from Chester.  

Another popular search and copying request at Cheshire Record Office is of the records of Fodens commercial vehicle manufacturers of Elworth, Sandbach. They started producing agricultural engines in the 1870s and became a leading manufacturer of steam engines and later of diesel trucks - we hold production records, technical drawings, photographs and more covering over 100 years (collection ref: DFO). Though made in Cheshire, the vehicles went far and wide – the one below to a famous company from Nottingham! 

Whilst they haven’t been seen on the roads for the past hundred years, we do have some images of charabancs, an early type of open-topped motor coach. The name comes from the French char à bancs ('carriage with benches') and was popular for sightseeing or ‘works outings’. These images relate to just that: the first (below left) is of a Helsby Ladies charabanc outing circa 1920 and the second is a 1919 outing from Lynch’s Garage in Northwich. 

This is an image of a Daimler charabanc, taken in Northwich during the 1910s – with the young boy stood next to it, we wonder whether this could have been an early school bus?

There are plenty of images and information about buses in both our Archives and Local Studies collections. The photograph below left is captioned ‘first bus in Widnes’ and was taken between 1900 and 1909. And on the right is a Nantwich and Crewe motor bus, photographed around 1910.  


With Cheshire having a significant canal network, we hold many items related to the canals and barges of the county – as well as rivers and boats. The image below left is of a barge stranded in a semi-dry canal after the famous canal burst at Kerridge near Macclesfield in February 1912. And below right is a picture of salt being loaded onto a canal barge for transport, taken at Middlewich in the early 1900s. 


Do you consider bicycles to be vehicles? If so, we have some lovely early examples, such as these two, including a penny farthing, photographed in Alderley Edge in the 1880s.  And on the right, these enthusiasts are members of the West Cheshire Bicycle Club, photographed in 1884. 


Moving on to motorcycles, this image is from the 1910s, and shows an early motorcycle outside the shop of Fred Wakefield, a cycle agent in Sandbach. 

Also from the 1910s is this image of plumber Frank Turner and storekeeper Fred Basnett, pictured at Castle Park in Frodsham with a motorcycle and side car – and, on the subject of side cars, this Bollington butcher has a novel way of transporting livestock! 

With all these vehicles, we will end on a note of safety. This image is undated, but comes from Simms Cross School in Widnes, and shows children taking part in a Road Safety campaign. We wish them happy driving! 

All these images and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester. For images of early fire engines and ambulances, see our recent blog on Cheshire’s Emergency Services here.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Explore Your Archive: Archive Extremes!

Explore Your Archive is an annual celebration of archives and the collections held in them. This year’s event runs from 20th to 28th November, with themes for each day including ‘small’ and ‘big’. Inspired by this, here are some contenders for not just the smallest and biggest items held at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, but also the oldest, heaviest, longest, brightest and oddest!


Some of our smallest items are diaries from the Swindells of Bollington collection. These three on the right, belonging to mill owner Frederick Swindells, have pages measuring less than 9cm x 6cm and are full of tiny writing giving an account of each day. In collection D8714 we have some miniature notebooks by Chester artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott, dating from 1855, that are full of practice sketches.  And in the Baker-Wilbraham family collection, there is a wooden box measuring 9cm x 7cm x 4cm, full of small deeds dating from the 13th to 18th centuries, some complete with seals.


Our oldest royal charter is almost 850 years old, dating from around 1175. It is a City of Chester Charter (ref: ZCH 1) relating to matters outside the city, in which King Henry II “re-affirmed trading rights enjoyed by the burgesses of Chester in Dublin since the time of Henry I”, and still has its seal. 

Amongst several centuries worth of deeds in our oldest family and estate collections, are even older documents from the early 1100s. They usually don't include a date - this can be narrowed down based on what we know about the transaction and the people involved.

Our Local Studies department holds many collections of photographs, including some taken by pioneering Cheshire photographers Thomas Davies and W.H. Hanmer, dating from the 1850s. This early photograph from a Hanmer album is of children at a school in Wincham run by Charles Hanmer, presumed to be the photographer’s father. And on the right is a self-portrait of Thomas Davies – a very early selfie! They are not the oldest items in our collections, but they are our oldest photographs.


Many of our maps are on the large side. To give an idea of the scale, this one measures around 9 feet or 2.7m on its shortest side and was photographed on the floor next to our staff member Heather - she is just under 5 feet 2 inches tall, or 1.56m. We tried taking the photo standing up, but our ceiling was too low! 

One of the longest maps we hold is a 1721 map of the River Weaver from Frodsham Bridge to Winsford Bridge, which measures 75cm x 3.35m. The image below left has been stitched together digitally from the 10 individual images we had to take to capture the whole map. This 1564 pedigree (below right) is even longer than the River Weaver map, and measures around 55cm x 4.2m. It shows three generations issuing from the marriage of Sir Randle Brereton of Malpas, who died in 1530, to Eleanor Dutton of Hatton. 


Our archives are stored carefully in seven large strong rooms at Cheshire Record Office in Chester, and also offsite at a salt mine storage facility in Winsford. Until we open a box, folder or roll, we don’t know what the item inside will look like, and we’re often taken aback at how vibrant some very old documents still look. The pedigree above is a good example of how well the colours have lasted, but this one, of the Eyton family of Denbighshire dates from 1674 and the colours, including the touches of gold paint, look as bright as a much newer document. It is also over 5m long!


We thought a contender for the heaviest item would be a City of Chester Assembly Minute book, ref: ZAB 1. It is frequently requested in our search room, and is very large and heavy to handle. But its 11kg weight and 43x32x14 cm dimensions pale in comparison to this wages and holiday pay book from Brunner Mond & Co Ltd’s Lostock works, from 1913 (DIC 9026/1). Measuring 58x50x12cm, it weighs in at a whopping 25kg. 

Just a couple of kilos lighter is our Thomas Hughes collection of copper engraving plates, dating from c.1810 to c.1860. The 44 plates in the collection weigh a total of 23kg - this one features an engraving of the Dee Bridge railway disaster.


We certainly have some unusual items in our collections – from some coffin plates removed from a vault in Malpas church (DCH/WW/24), to a lady’s single riding glove containing a calling card from 1680 (D5154/30), and a single brick that arrived with our collection from Foden (DFO) commercial vehicle manufacturers. 

But arguably the most unusual, or oddest, are locks of people’s hair. There are several – including one within a collection of late 17th century correspondence of the Arderne family of Alvanley (DAR/A/89) - but the one pictured below is from the collection of Colonel Hugh Robert Hibbert of Macclesfield, who served in the Crimean war. It is contained in a small envelope inscribed ‘Hugh’s hair, April 4th, 1854. Cut off at Manchester the evening before he left’ for the Crimea. 
So these are some of our Archive Extremes – the smallest, oldest, biggest, brightest, heaviest and oddest in our collections. Can you think of any others we should add? 

We’re featuring the themes of Explore Your Archive on our social media – check out @CheshireRO on Twitter and cheshire_archives on Instagram to see more. All these items are available to view at Cheshire Record Office – information about visiting can be found here.

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Cheshire's Forgotten Playwright

29th March, 1729. Men and women tumble out of the Little Theatre at Haymarket, London. There is a strange atmosphere in the air: delight, confusion, anger. The audience don’t know what to make of it – have they just witnessed a comedy, tragedy, satire, opera, or baffling mix of them all? Almost 300 years later and Hurlothrumbo still refuses to be pigeon-holed.

However hard to describe, audiences loved it, and the play was performed 29 times that season – a very considerable run for the time. So popular was it that a Hurlothrumbo society was formed and references to it were made in many other plays of the period such as Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’. The saying “Mere Hurlothrumbo” became an acceptable term for anything remotely inconsistent in the 18th century.

Hurlo was penned by Cheshire’s Samuel Johnson in the 1720s, notorious for performing in his own production – dancing, playing the fiddle and walking on stilts. His witticisms were so desired that he made a living going from one wealthy family to another and being hired to entertain guests at their parties. 

The story goes as follows:

Three noblemen and the King’s general, Hurlothrumbo, plot to overthrow the kingdom by shooting guns from their rooftops to incite a riot. They succeed and the King is captured but swaps clothes with his brother-in-law Theorbeo in prison and escapes back to his troops. The rebels are defeated by the King’s forces and an assortment of supernatural beings. All the rebels are generously pardoned but Hurlothrumbo is condemned to wear Harlequin’s clothes as a reminder of his foolishness. Meanwhile romantic intrigues abound between Lord Flame (played by Johnson), the rebels, Princess Cademore and other ladies at court.

Hurlo opened doors for Johnson and made him some powerful friends. Only a few weeks after opening night was it published with the financial backing of 112 people, many of whom were distinguished Cheshire names. We are lucky enough to have a copy of Hurlo in the historic county, at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies. Although liberally stamped at some point with ‘Chester Public Library’ in blue ink and suffering a little foxing (brown spots), it is still in remarkable condition. Beautiful wood block illustrations of flowers, cherubs and birds appear at the beginning and end of each Act. A pastoral scene adorns the dedication to Johnson’s patron, the Lady Delves of Doddington Hall near Nantwich.

Very little is known about Johnson’s early life but the Biographia Dramatica of 1767 provides this contemporary clue: “Mr Johnson is a native of Cheshire, and was bred to and followed the profession of a dancing master". After his career on the stage and as a ‘jester for hire’ dwindled, he retired to Gawsworth and died there in 1773 at age 82. 

Cheshire Archives hold the original parish record of his funeral. He was buried in woods near Gawsworth New Hall where he resided for the last 30 years of his life. It was the local villagers that nicknamed him ‘Old Maggoty’ due his unusually advanced age, and it is unfortunate that this name is now most associated with the eccentric but talented playwright whose Lord Flame burned brightly but all too briefly.”

Hurlothrumbo may have been a one hit wonder but, as the Manchester poet John Byrom wrote in the epilogue, “So true a Stage, so fair a Play for Laughter, / There never was before nor ever will come after”.