Among the appeals of older books and manuscripts are the fascinating glimpses they may provide into earlier times and their inhabitants. Recently a slim volume in a plain, nondescript binding crossed my desk. The title was in typically long eighteenth century style but straight-forward: A copy of the poll, taken the eighth day of September … 1780 at the Guildhall, in the Borough of New Windsor … at an election of two representatives to serve in the ensuing Parliament … . The poll in the title refers to a fifteen page alphabetical list of voters (only men, of course) and their occupations. This seemingly straightforward list provided an unexpected glimpse of life in a late eighteenth century English town, as well as a wealth of information about its residents.
The town of New Windsor (now known simply as Windsor), 23 miles west of London, was a “free borough” and during the Middle Ages one of the fifty wealthiest English towns. After a period of decline it experienced a revival when George III began renovations to the castle there in the late 1770s. The town’s growth seems to be reflected in the 1780 poll, which shows a significant number of citizens in the construction trades: carpenters, bricklayers, glaziers, painters, and stone masons, among others. The list reveals that the town was sophisticated enough to support a perfumer (Robert Calley), a jeweler (John Snow) and a watchmaker (James Turlis) and had enough overnight visitors to keep at least four “innholders” in business. The poll also reveals broad class and economic divisions, listing several labourers, along with several gentlemen.
The occupation of the very first citizen—Thomas Adcock, staymaker— sounds delightfully archaic to a modern reader. Yet there were at least three of them in New Windsor in 1780. How many staymakers are there anywhere now? Or, how many coopers, horsebreakers, rabbit sellers, cordwainers, soap boilers, collar makers, peruke makers, or tripemen? How many of today’s occupations will sound delightfully quaint (or mystifying) 235 years from now?
On the other hand, most of the occupations in the list are recognizable, even if the vocabulary has changed, and show how the necessities of life were filled for New Windsor’s residents. There were several victuallers, shopkeepers, shoemakers, higlers, “taylors”, and bakers, and at least two butchers, a cheese-monger, fishmonger, brewer, a physician, an apothecary, tea dealer, and a milkman. Among the town’s inhabitants were at least five attorneys and a gaoler (jailer), as well as a number of family businesses: Joseph and William Cantrell (bakers) and Henry and William Coombs (ironmongers). Of course, death and taxes are always with us, as they were for the people of New Windsor, verified by the occupations of Edward Edwards (collector of excise) and Charles Jarman (taylor and undertaker).
This seemingly unremarkable 1780 poll list reminds us that such routine documents are anything but dull and may, in fact, be rich resources for historical and genealogical research.