Oath-takers and tax-payers in Georgian Stokenham

By Paul Luscombe


An understanding of how and why documentary sources, such as the oath rolls, came into existence makes them more useful for family and local historians. Lists of names each had their own particular purpose, and the analysis has shown that the differences between the two lists considered above are substantial. The 1715 assessment includes non-residents, while the names in the oath rolls are those of people living in the parish, though some may be temporary residents. In 1723, a much larger proportion of women was recorded than in 1715, and over half of them were married. The tax was levied on property owners - and the only women chargeable were widows - whereas the oath-takers were a wider constituency. While the militia assessment was linked directly to economic status, pertaining to a group of people defined in legislation by the value of the property they held, oath-taking related indirectly to financial standing insofar as the penalty for not swearing was the forfeiting of estates. Further differences, which were not insignificant, were that oath-takers had to travel to discharge their responsibilities, but the tax collector was, so to speak, on the spot or just round the corner; in addition, the list of tax-payers relates to a specific date, 29th September 1715, but the oaths were taken over a period of several months in 1723 and over a period of several years prior to 1723. It should be emphasised that the 2,895 names in the pre-1723 indexes accompanying the transcription are well worth searching, particularly for the clergy and for people holding a range of public offices.37 There is a degree of similarity between the purposes of the two lists: both are concerned with security in the broadest sense, but the oath-taking was to do with sedition and with safeguarding the monarchy, while the purpose of the militia assessments was to raise money locally for the protection of local communities. Contemporaries may have said that the two issues were closely related.

The linkage between those recorded in the oath rolls and entries in the parish register (Appendix B) shows that two-thirds of the oath-takers were 'visible' to the extent that baptisms of their children were recorded in the register. Though the criterion may appear to be somewhat rudimentary, in practice all those categorised as 'visible' are represented by two or more register entries. The exercise met with many of the problems which face family historians, such as inaccuracies in the recording of names and defective registration. One familiar problem (which has not been mentioned, but is evident in Appendix B) is disentangling the many families with separate branches often sharing the same surname and sometimes the same christian name. This complexity, often found in rural parishes in the eighteenth century, is best addressed by bringing together all the available information about a family to differentiate between two Thomas Popes or three Elizabeth Luscombes.38

One of the main - and unexpected - outcomes of this study originated in names recorded incidentally or vicariously in the parish register and then linked with names in the oath rolls (e.g. Thomas Edgely) or the militia assessment (e.g. William Horsham). Paradoxically, records may have different purposes, but bringing them together may bring about, literally, unforeseen Revelation(s). Evidence for non-conformity is sometimes hidden within the documentary sources, and they have to be probed and interrogated to reveal some, but not necessarily all, of the picture. Even though there is a one in five chance that a Stokenham ancestor may have been a non-conformist at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and therefore less 'visible', at least the names of many of the families concerned can be found. Moreover, many dissenters were occasional or partial conformists and, before the end of the century, non-conformist registers and other sources begin to become available.

The transcription of the oath rolls has opened a variety of doors in Stokenham, providing an eighteenth century directory to one in four of those residents eligible to take the oath in 1723 and to one in five of the eligible residents of Devon.

Continue to Appendix A Return to previous

  1. op cit. Simon Dixon (ed.). [Back]
  2. This approach seems to have worked for the purposes of this study except, as Appendix B shows, in the case of the Philips group of families. [Back]