Oath-takers and tax-payers in Georgian Stokenham

By Paul Luscombe

"Numbering the people"

Estimating the proportion of the population which took the oath in 1723 entails treading a cautious path through the pertinent numbers. In order to obtain some re-assurance that the data for Stokenham is not flawed, a broader context has been sought by using seven contiguous parishes as comparators. Detailed information is available for this group of parishes from the protestation returns of 1641/42, the hearth tax returns of 1674 and the first national census undertaken in 1801.34 Table 2 shows the numbers of names recorded in the returns, the numbers of inhabitants recorded in the census and the numbers of oath-takers. Minor adjustments have been made to take account of names lost through damage to some of the hearth tax documents, and the numbers of oath-takers includes those recorded in the 1723 oath rolls unless they had already taken the oath. In addition, recognised

Parish 1641-42 1674 1801 1723
Protestation returns Est. population (Multiplier = 2.66) Hearth tax Est. population (Multiplier = 4.3) Census Oath rolls % of adults over 18 taking the oath
Blackawton 283 750 169 730 1019 65 14.2
Chivelstone 116 310 90 390 562 41 16.8
East Allington 120 320 78 340 468 53 25.1
Sherford 120 320 65 280 380 43 24.4
Slapton 159 420 74 320 558 44 22.0
South Pool 96 260 69 300 412 29 15.5
Stoke Fleming 153 410 93 400 578 39 15.5
Stokenham 393 1050 238 1020 1301 163 25.3
Total 1440 3840 876 3780 5278 477 20.0
Table 2: Population of eight South Hams parishes (approximate estimates for 1641-42 and 1674) compared with the numbers of oath-takers under the Oath Act 1723

multipliers have been used to convert the numbers of males over 18 years of age in 1641-42, and the numbers of households in 1674, into approximate population estimates for each parish, rounding the totals to the nearest ten to avoid the impression of spurious accuracy of 'exact' figures.35 Most of the population figures are consistent with those for the other dates and parishes, allowing a margin of up to 10%, except for the 310 calculated for Chivelstone in 1641-42 and the 320 for Slapton in 1674 which, if correct, would imply respectively an increase and a decrease of a quarter between 1641-2 and 1674. A mid-seventeenth century population for Stokenham of about a thousand is a satisfactory figure. Unusually, local affirmation is available for this dull arithmetick. In a response to the Bishop's visitation enquiries in 1665, the churchwardens stated that "in o[u]r parish... ... according to common estimation there are near twelve hundred persons exceeding the age of sixteen years",36 presumably a composite figure including the two chapelries of Chivelstone and Sherford. It compares reasonably well with the corresponding figures of 1,258 derived from the protestation returns and 1,070 from the hearth tax, bearing in mind that the register records heavy mortality in Stokenham in 1671-72 when 97 were buried in twelve months instead of the norm of 28 annually in the 1660s.

In the last column of the table, the estimated proportion of oath-takers has been calculated along the same lines as the estimated proportion for Devon in Simon Dixon's introduction ('The administration of the oaths'). A figure of 37% has been deducted from the estimated population totals for 1674, representing the assumed proportion of the population aged under 18. On this basis, some 20% of the eligible population of the eight parishes took the oath required by the 1723 Act - the same figure as the proportion for the county as a whole. It is worth glancing at a few of the details in Table 2. One wonders why, for instance, the proportion of oath-takers forms a neat pattern so that in four parishes it ranges from about 20% to 25%, while the other four are in the 14% to 17% range. Perhaps Kingsbridge and Moreleigh were, on balance, more accessible to the majority of people from East Allington, Sherford, Slapton and Stokenham (in the 20-25% range) than to those from Blackawton, Chivelstone, Stoke Fleming and South Pool (in the 14-17% range). Such explanations are to some extent conjectural unless supported by similar findings from elsewhere.

The churchwardens' presentment (above) includes another telling response to the Bishop's enquiry in 1665: "The number of such as have absented themselves from the Sacrament of the Lords Supper in o[u]r parish is to[o] great to be expressed in particulars... ... .not above two hundred and fifty or three hundred were communicated at Easter last past but we have reason to hope hereafter they will be more conformable herein." If only a fifth of the parishioners (from the three parishes) attended at Easter, congregations at other times must have been smaller, not only suggesting that the religious convictions of the majority of the population were not strong enough at this time to ensure that they worshipped together regularly, but also creating the opportunities for the dissenters to establish a strong presence in this part of Devon by the end of the century.

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  1. A. J. Howard & T.L.Stoate (eds.), Devon Protestation returns 1642 (Pinner, 1973); T.L.Stoate (ed.), Devon Hearth Tax 1674 (Bristol, 1983); Abstract of the answers and returns made to the Population Act 41 Geo III, Enumeration part I (1801 Census), p 69 & 75. [Back]
  2. the multiplier for 1641-2 is calculated from Table A3.1 in E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The population history of England, 1541-1871, (London, 1981) p 258, showing that 37.5% of the population was aged under 18 years in 1641; the multiplier for 1674 is from Tom Arkell, 'Multiplying factors for estimating population totals from the hearth tax', Local Population Studies, 28, (Spring 1982) p 55. [Back]
  3. DHC Churchwardens' presentments, Exeter Diocesan Records, Box 29/5. [Back]