Marriage and Families in the High Street
Cheshunt High Street
By Nicholas Blatchley
There’s a widespread perception that, in the past, young people were expected as a matter of course to find a husband or wife as early as possible, apart from the phenomenon of the daughter who stayed at home to look after her parents. In fact, the censuses of Cheshunt High Street show a surprising number of unmarried adults, and marriages seem to have typically taken place when the couple were well into their twenties.
An example of a largely single household was the Red Lion (here just called the Lion, for some reason) in the 1911 census. The licensee had previously been Mrs Mahalah Thomas, and in 1911 six of her children were in residence. Their ages ranged from 47 to 70, and all but two are listed as single. The eldest brother, Albert, is described in several censuses as married (not widower) but his wife doesn’t appear in any census.
Elsewhere, at number 41, a family called Blay or Blaz lived (both forms are given on different documents) which in 1911 consisted of three single sisters, aged from 32 to 41. It’s possible that one at least of their parents was simply absent on the night of the census, since all three are described as “daughter” in relation to the head of household. The two eldest, Alice and Rosina, are described as “bootmaker assisting in business”, while the youngest, Ellen, has no occupation given. Perhaps she acted as the housekeeper for the family.
In the 1911 census, information is given for married women (though not married men) indicating how long they’d been married. While it’s a sign of the times than women specifically are defined by their marriages, the information is useful to give a rough indication of the ages at which women were typically marrying at the time. The vast majority of women seemed to marry during their twenties, though this included almost as many in their later twenties as early. Eighteen were married in their teens, but this is fewer than the number married at over thirty, with three having been married at over forty. The figures seem to suggest that this was a time when women, as well as men, tended not to rush into marriage early.
The 1911 census also (again, only under the wife’s name) indicates how many children in total a couple had, including those who had died, whereas earlier censuses only mentioned children if they happened to be at the address on the appropriate night. As might be expected, families tended to be larger than now, and it was more common than not to have lost at least one child (we may assume that this would have been worse in 1851, but the figures are harder to come by). John and Margaret Spicer of number 154, for instance, are recorded as having had eleven children, of whom four had died, while William and Emma Cook of number 137 had twelve of whom five had died.
Perhaps the most appalling story of all was Elijah and Lucie Todd of number 99, a brickmaker and his wife who had been married for 23 years. All fifteen of their children were dead by this point. It’s hard to imagine how a couple could have survived such a series of tragedies, but the story has a hopeful ending. In 1911, they had a 19-month-old “boarder” (perhaps unofficially adopted) called Dora Evelyn Bevan. Records show that she lived to adulthood, and it can only be hoped that she gave the couple some compensation for their losses.
Some households would be considered appallingly overcrowded by modern standards. Number 53 (one of the shops just south of the Woolpack, with living quarters above) was occupied by the brothers Wilfred Henry Brooks and William Morden Brooks, who ran the shop below as a greengrocers. Both brothers lived there with their wives and children: Wilfred had two sons and two daughters, while William had a daughter and two sons — all of these were under ten, and only two were over five. In addition, their 75-year-old widowed father lived with them, along with their three single sisters.
These are counted as three distinct households and the living quarters may have been partitioned, but it’s hard to believe these fifteen people weren’t falling over one another. An additional problem is that three family members (Wilfred’s wife, William’s daughter and one of the sisters) were all called Florence Brooks. They’d have presumably used different diminutives (Flo, Florrie, Flossie etc.) but there must have been confusion at times.
Far less information is available for 1851, but a look through the unmarried people listed shows that both men and women were often enough remaining single through their twenties and thirties and far beyond. As far as can be ascertained, many of the 1911 trends also seem to have applied then. Children, both boys and girls, listed in 1851 are frequently described as “scholar” from a surprisingly young age (certainly as little as three) but this may not have referred to formal education.
One slight but perhaps significant difference between the censuses is the way they choose to describe people who haven’t married. In 1851, they are “unmarried”, a somewhat negative description that implies they haven’t done the obvious thing. In 1911, they are “single”, a much more positive definition. Perhaps, over the intervening years, the attitude to marriage had made a marginal shift.
Nevertheless, the great majority of adults in Cheshunt High Street, at both periods, seemed to be married with children. 1851 and 1911 had a lot more in common with one another than either does with 2014.