ROGER FROST: Using the Census to trace family history

Last week I considered the Census in Burnley in very general terms. The basic figures show how our town grew from a small village in 1801 to a great industrial power house by late Victorian times though, robbed of its staple industries, it has since been condemned to a century of decline which began during the First World War.

However, if we look at the actual returns, a different and more interesting picture emerges. To do this, I am going to look at one family and one house situated between Haggate and Lane Bottom in Briercliffe. The property, properly called Haggate Hill End House, is still with us and has changed little since the picture you see before you was taken about 100 years ago.

Hill End House has played an important role in the history of Briercliffe. It probably dates from between 1690 and 1720 and was built by a prosperous family, the Smiths, who enjoyed a small agricultural estate of four farms including Hill End itself. The property had coal bearing lands as is signified by field names which include Higher Coal Pit Field and Lower Coal Pit Field.

Most of the land was put to pastoral farming – cattle and sheep – but there is evidence some crops and fruit were grown. The Smiths, like many local landowners in a small way, were not satisfied to merely sell their wool to a merchant for processing elsewhere. They realised that if they could comb, spin and weave it themselves their wool was worth more to them than if they did not do so.

A few moments studying the photo will confirm the family was involved in the textile trade. Look at the windows of the part of the property to the left. These are weavers’ windows behind which handlooms were operated by family members, and others, to produce woollen cloth which was taken to the markets in Colne, Heptonstall and Halifax.


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Hill End House is strategically placed between a number of areas where domestic textile operatives lived and worked.

In the early days, the site upon which the Victorian right wing of the house was built was occupied by a wool manufacturer’s workshop/warehouse. The huge stone steps to it have survived but there are much older reminders of this area’s economic importance. One of the fields of one of the four farms bears the name “ceping field”, the field where the market was held, the name going back more than 1,000 years.

So, what does the Census reveal? Who lived there? The first Census year for which detailed data has survived is 1841 and, in that year, at Hill End, then an area of seven dwellings, the Smiths were still resident. The head of the household was William Smith who was 40. He was described as a calico manufacturer. His wife, Fanny, was 35 and they had three children living with them Stephen, Fanny and Thomas Thornber Smith. Their ages were nine, seven and five respectively.

There were four other people living in the house – Margaret Robinson and John Halsted, both of whom were described as farm labourers, and William and Hudson Sutcliffe, both of whom were adults but whose employment is not listed.


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This was not an untypical household for the time. It was not uncommon for servants to live with their masters but notice, apart from Mr Smith himself, there is no mention of the textile industry. If we look, however, at the other six houses of Hill End we see everyone who had a job was a weaver except for one man, John Thornton who, at the same age as William Smith, was described as a warehouse man.

Now let us look at the same property in 1851. The Census for that year produced more detailed information. We find William Smith was 50, head of the household, married and was born in Briercliffe. He is described as a power loom manufacturer (cotton), employed in weaving calico. The Census confirms he had 89 men, 45 women, 35 boys and 32 girls working for him at his mill which was situated only a few hundred yards away from his house.

Fanny Smith, William’s wife, was 48 and was born in Barnoldswick. I realise there is something wrong here but it must be remembered that census enumerators did not always get things right.

Thomas Thornber Smith, son of William and Fanny, was 15 and was described as a scholar at Burnley Grammar School. Another son, William, was nine and said to be a scholar at home but there is no mention of either Stephen or the younger Fanny.


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An interesting name also appears in the 1851 household. This was that of Nicholas England who was born at Colne, was 21, unmarried and described as being employed in the counting house. The last, and sixth name, is that of Ann Elizabeth Whitehead who was 21, born at Beverley and was a house servant.

Back to Nicholas England – who might he have been? He bears a very prominent name in the history of the town of his birth. Nicholas England, father of the young man listed here, is regarded as the father of the Colne cotton textile industry and the Colne connection is stronger than might at first be suspected.

Recall Thomas Thornber Smith? His middle name is taken from the family of his mother. The Thornbers were another Colne cotton family and, along with the Englands, they appear very prominently in Robert Neill’s splendid novel “Song at Sunrise” which was published in paperback as “The Mills of Colne”.

Let us turn our attention to the Census of 1871. Hill End House was still occupied by a Smith but, at 35, Thomas Thornber Smith, described as a landowner and cotton manufacturer, was in residence along with his wife Sarah (33) who was born at Old Trafford. They had five children, all born in Briercliffe, aged from nine years to six months, and three female domestic servants, who came from Church, Ireland and Long Preston.


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In 30 years we have seen how times changed at Hill End House. The unpretentious William of 1841 and 1851, the man who founded Briercliffe Library in 1838, was replaced by his son who described himself as a landowner. The number of servants in the household increased as the family prospered. The sons were educated at the fee-paying Burnley Grammar School. One was educated at home. The Smiths were newly conscious of their status.

This is confirmed in the case of Fanny, William Smith’s, widow, who was still alive in 1871. She also lived at Hill End in one of the wings of the house. On the death of her popular husband, who had given employment to many, she now described herself as head of her own household but now as a 68-year-old “gentlewoman” with her own servant, Mary Sutcliffe, born in Bentham, living in the same property.