Stretch your imagination a bit. Cast your mind back to 1841. Picture an English village - there are no grand houses here however, no church either. There's a rumour that the Romans passed this way once and the remnants of a motte and bailey can just about be spotted to the side of the road - but all of this was a long time ago and the knowledge is now filed away with the folk memories of whirling stones and drowned settlements. Now the village comprises a cluster of farms, barns and cottages strung out along the narrow sinuous road that runs between Shrewsbury and Montgomery. It's a busy place, probably busier than it is in 2008.
It's June - the height of summer, a busy time in the countryside. In the rich leasowes around the village hay is being cut and stooked. There are cows to be milked and cheeses to be made. On the land which rises up around this little Shropshire village sheep graze, their lambs growing fat in the summer sunshine. This little community is working flat out, making the most of the long light days to reap the season's bounty.
The hedges planted during the Enclosure some 25 years previously now make significant boundaries and provide both shade and shelter for sheep and ploughboy alike and I'd like to think on this June day that both could drowse in the warmth of the sun. As I shelter from another rainy day in 2008 - 167 years later - I would like to think that the good folk of Marton - all 325 of them - were basking in sunshine and enjoying a quintessentially English summer's day. Who knows?
But who's this traipsing through the village, rapping on doors and lifting latches? An officious chap, a nosy fellow licking his pencil and asking questions, questions. It's the Census enumerator, charged with recording who was where on the night of June 6th. There's a scurry to remember mother's age, the children's ages and when the baby was born.
I've been looking through his work this week - transcribing the record for this little village which sits on the border where Shropshire meets Wales. A fascinating task in which I must remember not to let my imagination run away with me. This particular census is rather short on detailed information, asking only name of place, house number or name, name of each person that had spent the night in that household, age, sex (indicated by which column the age is recorded in), profession or occupation and where born. (The last - 'where born' - could be answered by a 'y' or an 'n' - Yes or No for born in that County or a 'S' for Scotland, 'I' for Ireland or 'F' for foreign parts. Leaves a lot to the imagination.) Ages of those over 15 were usually rounded down to the nearest 5 years - so a 24 year old might be recorded as being aged only 20. I do wonder why I was so concerned with being accurate.
So what have I learned about the 325 people who spent census night in the Township of Marton?....The obvious stuff I suppose; it's an agricultural community of Farmers and Ag.Labs. and Farm Servants. The blacksmith, wheelwright, carpenter and mason are here as well as the miller, maltster, cooper, shopkeeper and innkeeper. There is a shoemaker and a tailor too. It looks like quite a self sufficient place. With the exception of a young 'Dissenting Minister ' the people's spiritual needs are not met in the village and they are obliged to trudge nearly 2 miles to worship. (Some years later the noted moral paucity of the people of Marton encourages the diocese to build a church in the village.) Our Enumerator will be obliged to visit the next District if he wishes to hob nob with the gentry and record their details.
A picture of this farming community is thus easy to draw up. It looks industrious, self-sufficient but not particularly prosperous. I can see the villagers going about their daily business; I know what they did. I begin to wonder about 'who' they were, and not just 'what'.
To me, here comes the interesting stuff - the stuff which really makes me wonder.
Some statistics: Unsurprisingly perhaps for a village sitting on the Welsh border, 53 persons have the surname Jones. The usual suspects - Griffith, Evans, Davies and Pugh are there as well as a sprinkling of less well known names - including the highly unusual Zacharius. Descendants of some of these people live here still.
Families are large but the pool of names is remarkably small. Of the 164 females in this little community 42 are named Mary, 28 are called Elizabeth and 20 Ann - 3 names account for over half the womenfolk in the village. Good Biblical names. nothing wrong with that. The menfolk fare a little better. 32 are named John, 23 Thomas and William 20. Add the Edwards and Richards who number 16 and 13 respectively and well over half the male population share only 5 Christian names. (I use Christian names here, rather than the more politically correct 'given name' as I imagine all these people were just that. That was the way things were in these parts in them there days.)
This name thing niggles me - I don't know why. I reflect that in the 21st century more effort is put into the naming of the family dog. A child's name is a reflection of us, our personality, our status - the name is imbued with hopes and fears and ambition. But in 1841, 42 Marys for heaven's sake - even if their ages did range from 0 to 70. What does it say about that society? Is it a reflection of the parents horizons? What does it say about identity and individuality? Did identity and individuality not matter? What did each of the Marys or Elizabeths or Anns think about her commonplace name? I'm sure each of them was a personality in her own right - even the 5 Marys who also had the common surname Jones. Did their identity become attached to their husband, house, hair colour, shape of nose or temperament? The more I think about it the more curious I become. I wonder if some worthy treatise has been written about the naming of children by the peasantry in previous centuries.
Inputting data like this was a doddle with Microsoft's auto-fill function which gobbled up and spat out all those duplicate names - and way beyond the wildest dreams of our Enumerator with his well licked lead pencil. Hurrah.