Friday, 13 November 2015

Dodging the Census with George

I don't call my dear old great-grandfather The Elusive George for nothing - not only did he change his identity and keep the reason secret, he also managed to hide his whereabouts on four different censuses!  Okay, he probably didn't do that on purpose, but who knows.  I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the first one - it was taken at the end of March 1851, and he wasn't born until two months later, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't his fault.

But seriously, the other three are really annoying me, especially the 1871 one.  He was twenty years old then, and possibly at a crossroads in his life.  Apparently he had left the family home, but where the heck did he go?  I've searched high and low for him, using every ridiculous spelling of both Cockram and Cochrane I can think of, with wildcards and crossed fingers and even a magic spell or two.  No George. (Update - I've found him! See this post.)

And the really interesting thing is that I can't find his 24 year old sister Mary Ann or his 14 year old brother Alfred, or their 22 year old cousin William Hopper, who lived nearby in Fremington, in that census either.  All of these people show up again later in several documents, so I know they were somewhere in 1871 - but where?  And were they all together?  It seems like too much of a coincidence for all of them to disappear at once if they were in four different places.

Here are some census night theories I'm working on:
  • William and Mary Ann were in love, but being first cousins, they kept their relationship secret, and ran away together.  George figured it out and went after them, and Alfred came along for fun.  On the way back home, all four of them slept in somebody's barn and nobody knew they were there.
  • George, Mary Ann and William were celebrating someone's birthday, and got so drunk they fell asleep in somebody's barn and nobody knew they were there.  Alfred was behind the bike shed, smoking.
  • George, Mary Ann and William had all decided to leave north Devon but couldn't afford the train fare to go anywhere, so they walked, and spent the night in somebody's barn and nobody knew they were there.  Alfred had told his parents he was spending the night at a friend's house, but actually it was a girlfriend, whose parents didn't know he was there.

Or, to stop being so silly, perhaps all four of them went to Barnstaple to see their Uncle George, and stayed overnight.  Of course the census taker may not have got around to knocking on Uncle George's door for a month or more after census night, and he could easily have forgotten what night it was that four extra people were in his house.  Obviously, if something along those lines happened, I'm never going to find them.

Or another likely scenario is that wherever they were that night, the census taker was told about it, and wrote their names down, but that page of the census got badly damaged or smudged, and their names were unreadable, and may have been transcribed as anything at all, like Go#-bk Nee9lhrbn.  Believe me, I've seen a few transcriptions about as bad as that.  And sometimes, names don't get transcribed at all, for good reason.  Here's an example:

This is part of a page from the 1911 Canada census, which is the next one where George wasn't where he should have been.  You can probably make out the name Smith near the top - that's George, now known as Thomas, abbreviated to Thos on this census.  The seven names below that are Louisa and six of the children, but if I hadn't known their names I would never have found them, because the transcriber couldn't read them and just guessed, badly.  Fortunately their birthdates (not shown in this excerpt), are vaguely legible, so I used those to figure out who was who.  The names at the bottom of the page weren't transcribed at all, not surprisingly.

Ironically, finding George in this census came as a disappointment - he wasn't supposed to be in Canada in early June when the 1911 census was taken, he was supposed to have gone back to England for awhile.  I thought he had left Canada in late May that year, but if so, there's no way he was back on the first of June.  Once again, it could have been a memory thing - the census taker might have arrived several weeks after the first of June, and whoever answered the questions forgot that George wasn't home on census night.  Or, I've got his travel dates completely wrong and I need to go back to square one.

Ten years later, George disappeared again, and this time, so did Louisa and their youngest daughter Audrey.  I think they must have been travelling in the United States on census night.  But here's the twist - they lived in Regina, Saskatchewan at that time, and I know the addresses of both houses they had there, but I don't know exactly when they moved from one to the other.  So I searched the 1921 census for both of those addresses, expecting one or the other to not show up, as nobody was home.  But they're both there, each with a family in residence who I never heard of!  What the ...?!

It'll be a few years yet before I get to see the 1931 census, and I won't be at all surprised if George is missing from that one too.  He's very good at driving me crazy.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

George in Bickington

Giving myself a rest from trying to figure out why George Cockram changed his name to Thomas Smith, I'll get back to wondering why he left England.  Of course the answer to those two questions could be one and the same - but for the time being, I'm going to assume that he wasn't running away from anything, he was just looking for a better life.

So what might George's life have been like in mid 19th century Devon? Let's start with his childhood.

George was born in 1851 and grew up in northern Devon, in a little village of around 300 people called Bickington.  The nearest town was Barnstaple, about two miles away, with a population of about 11,000.  This was in the Victorian age, which saw the industrial revolution radically change the landscape and the living and working conditions of English people.   Industrialisation brought with it new jobs, a consumer boom, a shift from a mainly rural to a mainly urban population and greater prosperity for most of the propertied classes.

But George and his family weren't among the propertied classes - they were rural labourers.  His father, and siblings as each of them came to their early teens, worked as farm labourers or domestic servants, and George may have done the same.  And for the first half of the 19th century the rural and urban poor had much in common: unsanitary and overcrowded housing, low wages, poor diet, insecure employment and the dreaded effects of sickness and old age. Life expectancy at birth was only around 40 when George was born.

I think the Cockrams were not exactly poor, but father William's labouring wages would have had to feed quite a few mouths before any of the children were old enough to go to work.  In the mid 1860s, he would have earned around 10 to 12 shillings a week (25 to 40 pounds a year, at a time when a man was considered a gentleman if he earned more than 150 pounds a year), and being a farm labourer, he wasn't guaranteed work all year round.  He may have supplemented his income with other forms of work in the winter.

The family home, which was a rented cottage, was probably made of cob - unbaked clay with organic material to bind it.  This form of building, often with a thatched roof, was very common up to the late Victorian period, particularly in northern Devon, where the soil was suitable.  These were durable houses if plastered over and damp proofed top and bottom, and many of them still stand.

Cob cottages on the main road through Bickington.  George's family lived
somewhere right around here - possibly in one of these houses.

Any notions that the rustic life had its attractions can be discounted by the changing conditions and great poverty in England. I've found no specific description of Bickington at the time, but I hope it wasn't as bad as another north Devon village, Halberton, which was described as follows in the 1860s:
"The general sanitary condition of the village was very bad. Picturesque as they were externally, many of the peasant's cottages were unfit for the housing of pigs. Pools of stagnant water stood in many parts of the parish....The whole village was badly drained, open sewers ran through it frequently trickling down upon the cottages into the village brook, from which cattle slaked their thirst and the villagers and their children often drank."  
Giffard, Ann, 1981: Towards Quebec: two mid-19th century emigrants' journals

The house would have had only one sink, in a tiny scullery, and there was probably a communal toilet somewhere out back, shared by several cottages. Water would have had to be fetched each day, either from a village pump or well. Right up until the end of the century, it was common for rural houses to be lit by rushlights (rush plants dipped in fat), or candles, which were expensive. Heat would come from the fireplace, which was also used for cooking.

In the early 19th century the working class lived on plain food such as bread, butter, potatoes and bacon. Butcher's meat was a luxury. However the diet of ordinary people greatly improved in the later part of the century. Railways and steamships made it possible to import cheap grain from North America so bread became cheaper. Commercial refrigeration made it possible to import cheap meat from Argentina and Australia. Consumption of sugar also increased. By the end of the century most people (not all) were eating a much better diet.  Most cottagers kept a pig or pigs, and if they were not eating ham, sausage, bacon and lard from the pig, they were eating a diet, the scraps of which would feed the pig well and fatten him up before slaughter.
"Most rural people didn't have coal-fired ranges or access to gas, so cooking was generally done in the fireplace.  A big iron boiler was slung on a hook over the fire, and everything was cooked in the one utensil; the square of bacon... cabbage or other greens in a net, potatoes in another, and the roly-poly swathed in a cloth.  The water in which the food was cooked, and the potato parings and other vegetable trimmings were the pig's share."
Broomfield, Andrea, 2007: Food and Cooking in Victorian England

Schooling was not compulsory for children until 1880, and then, only for 5 to 10 year olds - neither was it free, except for the children of the destitute.  Nevertheless, George and all of his siblings went to school, which is an indication that their father wasn't doing too badly. When George was a child, there was no purpose-built school in Bickington, so the children had their lessons in an old barn.  By 1868 there were about a hundred children attending school there - it was time that a proper school was built.  A bazaar was held to help raise funds for it, and by 1870, a fine stone school had been built. George's youngest siblings would have attended it, but George himself had all of his schooling in a barn.

This undated photo, showing the stone school on the left, is probably from the early 20th century. 
The building next to the school was, and still is a pub.  Just beyond that are the cob cottages in the photo above.

Outside of school, he would have had chores to do, which probably included foraging for mushrooms, nuts, apples, berries and whatever other wild food was in season.  He may have had to fetch water from the well, or milk from the dairy, or bread from the baker, or if his mother baked her own bread, George may have joined her and and his siblings in 'leazing' - combing the harvested fields for missed grain.  After two or three weeks of leazing, the collected grain would be thrashed at home and sent to the miller for grinding into flour.

A rural child's leisure hours were probably very few, but when there was time for play, popular pastimes included hoop-rolling, skittles, and kicking a ball around, or in the absence of a proper football, a pig's bladder would do.  On Sundays, nearly everybody went to the parish church, which was the focal point of village social life.

One effect of the industrial revolution was the drawing of a great many people from rural areas into the towns and cities, where jobs could be got in factories or dockyards.  At some point, George was drawn away from Bickington, to Plymouth in southern Devon.  Exactly when he went there and why, I don't know, but soon I'll follow him there to see what his city life might have been like.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

It was Probably No Accident

In my last post, I mentioned that I had contacted the Canadian Immigration Museum - since then, I've had some very helpful information from Steven Schwinghamer, one of their historians, who, I think has become somewhat intrigued by George's story, and as I write this, he's busy trying to find out where George was in 1911... but that's another story altogether, which I hope to get around to writing about soon.

Frankly, I'm quite annoyed with myself for not making much better progress with this blog!  I've been working on it since June, and I've only got through the first 25 years of George's life.  He lived to be 92, so there's a long way to go.  But I'll make no excuses for being slack, and just plough ahead. (Never explain, never complain - that's my motto.)

So to get back to Steven at the Museum - he explained that at the time George arrived in Canada (1875), admission procedures were very lax, especially when it came to British immigrants.  I get the impression that just about anybody could stroll into the country as long as they weren't sick or a 'lunatic', and the ship's captain provided the port authority with an accurate passenger list.  So I still don't know if George would have been required to produce any identification or otherwise vouch for himself at all, as long as he could be ticked off the passenger list.

Steven also expressed his opinion that he thinks it's quite unlikely that George's name change came about simply because he got someone else's ticket for the ship.  As he says,
In a nutshell, while I would expect civil examination at the time to have included a check of documentation to verify a person's identity, the practice at ports was so loose that it is credible to me that a British subject might have entered at that time on weak documentation, as you describe.  It would be exceptional for someone to enter with a name so different from any other identification, though.  His actions in support of the other identity (maintaining it for the immigration process ... and for years in Canada) might indicate some agency on his part with regard to the change. 

I have to say that I tend to agree with him.  It would seem to be more trouble than it's worth to start going by a completely different name and keep it all your life, just because... well, no reason, really.  It was a theory worth considering though, and of course it hasn't been completely dismissed, and it won't be until and unless I discover the unequivocal truth of the matter - and that seems quite unlikely too.

As I said, although Steven couldn't give me a definite asnwer to my question, he did send me some very helpful information about early immigration to Canada, which I'm still reading through, and being inspired to write about in relation to George.

And for those of you who are interested in the subject generally, check out the Museum's website at or better still - go and visit it!  I wish I could do that.