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New national sources with detailed local content are a major feature of the period 1750 to 1914. The national population census is a pre-eminent example. It was introduced in 1801, in wartime and amidst industrialization, urban growth and population movement. Initially information was collected using local overseers of the poor, part of the old parish system, now groaning under the weight of change. Early censuses did not include information on individuals. Then, in 1837, civil registration was introduced (replacing parish registers with a national record of births, marriages and deaths). The Registrar General’s department, created to run the new system, was also given responsibility for the census. The next, 1841, census was the first to include extensive details of individually named individuals collected by enumerators under the direction of registrars.

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Since then both the reliable, local population totals and the mass of personal detail provided by the census enumerators’ books or CEBs (now released for each census from 1841 to 1911) have become a bedrock of local studies across a wide range of topics. See The value of comparing population levels over time has been illustrated here from Oxfordshire towns (see Framework: Modern section). Enumerators’ returns can be used to analyse the age and sex profile of localities, throwing light on growing or aging communities and relating to work opportunities. The changing experience of children, whether they were at home, school or work, living in their parents’ household or not, can be traced. Birthplaces will reflect migration patterns and horizons of outside contact. These may vary between different occupational groups or according to social status. Linking successive censuses will reveal the movers and stayers, a highly relevant theme given Oxfordshire’s history at this time and potentially of key relevance to the character and degree of community identity. These are just some of the possible avenues of research opened up by the census. The volume of material makes the effective capture, storage and analysis of information all the more crucial, with databases a valuable tool. See E.Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited….A Handbook for Historical Researchers (2005). CEBs and many transcriptions for Oxfordshire parishes may be viewed at the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies.  


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National sources developed on many fronts in the 19th century as government grew. The Ordnance Survey (see the Maps section), and Parliamentary Papers are two other treasure troves for local studies. The latter include detailed returns for topics from public health, to schools, wages, housing, transport, religious provision and much more. There was a great appetite for investigation, reflected in published verbatim evidence to many Select Committees and Royal Commissions. Individual legislation produced central as well as local records, as with the post-1834 Poor Law Board, and similar bodies dealing with issues such as enclosure, tithe commutation, public health and local government. (Many digitised Parliamentary Papers may be viewed at British History On-line and others are available at the pay site which is available through many academic institutions and libraries.) Growth in government was paralleled locally (see Modern Local Government table), and central records will be complemented by  locally held records of local government (see Finding the Sources). 


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Official records are only part of the picture. Commercial publication also grew, in response to expanding business and political life. Commercial directories and  local newspapers reflect this and are key sources (see the Historical Directories  website and British Library British Newspapers website).


Private records also proliferate. There are business and legal transactions. This was an era of voluntary organization- charities, churches, sports clubs, archaeology and history societies- all producing papers. On the personal front, increased literacy, a comprehensive and amazingly quick public mail service, a more mobile population and cultural fashions all conspired to increase letter writing, and create a market for the post card. Photographs become a mass phenomenon. (See Photography section). More personal memories survive in print or manuscript. One of the most famous, Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (1945) is based on north Oxfordshire life in the 1880s. How should we view it, and its derivatives, as historical evidence?


The volume and variety of evidence, and the unprecedented detail it offers, have made this period immensely popular with local historians. The wide availability and relatively accessible form of the sources often make it a good starting point for local studies. Sometimes the results can become routinely descriptive – yet another familiar presentation of census data, but so what? As with earlier periods the sources need to be made to work for the local historian, put in their context, linked with each other, and used to answer some of the shared questions about past experience in which this period is particularly rich.


Principal sources for modern local studies: a checklist

Central government

·         Decennial population censuses 1801- 1911; printed reports and original enumerators’ returns

·         Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths

·         Religious census, 1851

·         Parliamentary Papers

·         Tithe Commutation (following Act of 1836)

·        Central departments, e.g. poor law (post-1834); public health and local government; enclosure; education

·         Ordnance Survey

Local Government and public institutions

·       New local authorities, e.g. Boards of Guardians, Paving and Lighting Commissioners, School Boards, Boards of Health, Medical Officers of Health, Borough, Urban and Rural District and County Councils

·        Old local authorities, e.g. vestry minutes, parish officers, boroughs

·        Religious denominations e.g. Church of England parish registers, visitation returns; Methodist circuit records

·         Education e.g. National and British Schools Societies; school log books.

·        Politics e.g. poll books (pre-introduction of secret ballot, 1870), election posters, pamphlets, political party records.



·         Directories

·         Newspapers

·         Businesses

·         Landed Estates

·         Enclosure

·        Voluntary associations, e.g. trades unions, friendly societies, charities, sports and social clubs

Personal and literary

·         Letters, diaries, autobiographies, memoirs and personal papers

·         Novels and essays

·         Records of spoken history


·         Photographs

·         Buildings

·         Landscape

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