St. Michael’s, Lichfield in the 19th century. Part 1


The most common modern use for parish registers for baptism, marriage and burial is in family history research – to trace the lives of individuals and families through the centuries. But they also form a rich historical resource that can be looked at in quite another way. Where detailed registers exist, they allow a picture to be built up of the wider societal context, by looking at the entries in the register as a whole rather than individually, and considering details of birth and death statistics over time; the professions and trades of those bringing children to baptism and their places of residence.

In this post we take such a wide look at the parish registers for St, Michael’s parish in Lichfield during the 19thcentury.  These have been conveniently produced by Midland Ancestors as .rtf files, and can thus, with some manipulation, be imported in EXCEL and interrogated in a number of different ways. We begin by briefly describing the registers and the nature of St. Michael’s parish in the 19thcentury, then move on to consider statistics of baptisms and burials. The registers also give details of where the individuals lived and their trades or professions, and thus give us a snapshot of Lichfield society in the period. The marriage registers allow the level of literacy to be determined, from an analysis of those who signed the registers, and those who simply made their mark.  The registers also allow a survey of names to be carried out, which shows how the popularity of different Christian names varied over the century. Finally the registers cast some light on the ministers who performed the services, and on the nature of church practice. 

The information presented here will mainly be in the form of simple graphs and tables. Not everyone will be comfortable with such a presentation, but the material to some extent demands it. I will however attempt to describe the information shown on these figures in a more qualitative way, and try to draw out what they can tell us about church and parish in the 19thcentury. 

St Michael’s parish and the registers

Figure 1. The red solid line indicates the boundary of St. Michael’s parish around 1820. The red dotted line indicates the extra-parochial portion of Freeford township. St Michael’s church is indicated by the red cross. The green, blue and purple lines and crosses indicate the boundaries of St Chad’s parish, St Mary’s parish and the Cathedral Close and their churches respectively. The extra parochial area of the Friary is not shown.

The formation of parishes came relatively late in the Lichfield area, where the ecclesiastical organization was, until the seventeenth century, largely based on the Cathedral Prebendial system, with the Prebends appointing vicars who took responsibility for the three city centre churches. It was eventually divided into three parishes – St. Mary’s covering the city centre, St. Chad’s to the north-west and St. Michaels to the south west, south east and south (figure 1). There were three extra-parochial areas – the Cathedral Close, the area around the old Friary and part of the township of Freeford. Of the three parishes, St. Michael’s is the largest. The church itself and its large graveyard on Greenhill is just to the east of the boundary with St. Mary’s parish. In the early part of the 19th century, the parish contained the land immediately to the east and south of the city centre, and large areas further to the south and east containing a number of smaller townships – Wall to the south, Burntwood in the south west, Streethay in the north east, and Freeford and Fulfen to the east. In addition there were a number of detached portions – at Fisherwick and Haselour to the east for example. Thus, whilst the registers mainly concentrate on those who live close to the church in the more densely populated area on the eastern edge of the city, they also contain entries for a more dispersed rural population. As the 19thcentury progressed, some of the outlying townships became parishes in their own right – Burntwood in 1820 and Wall in 1845 and after those dates their inhabitants largely disappear from the St. Michael’s registers. Similarly a large area to the west of the city around the hamlet of Leamonsley formed Christchurch parish in1848. 

There are however further complications. St. Mary’s parish that encompasses the city centre has no graveyard, and used that at Greenhill. Thus the St. Michael’s burial register also contains many entries from St. Mary’ parish.  There also seems to have been a leakage across parish boundaries in baptism and marriage, with parishioners of St. Mary’s and St. Chad’s using St. Michael’s– and no doubt vice versa. The other complicating factor was the existence of the Lichfield Union Workhouse in St. Michael’s parish from 1840 onwards, which housed paupers from a wide area around Lichfield. As these were mainly men, care needs to be taken in any analysis, as the Workhouse entries in the registers can skew the statistics significantly if they are not allowed properly for. 

Before considering the detailed statistics from the registers, it is instructive to look at the general social make up of the parish in the 19thcentury. The baptismal registers contain brief descriptions of the occupation of the one who brings the child for baptism, usually the father. A statistical analysis of this information is, to say the least, difficult, so I will confine myself to only broad comments here. In total there are 6885 baptisms recorded. The number of families represented will be significantly less than this of course. But for these baptisms 2100 give an occupation as “Labourer” and around 650 are economically inactive (most often “Single Women” in the Workhouse or “Spinsters”). Thus around 2750 are at the lowest levels of the society of 19thcentury Lichfield. At the other end of the scale, there are around 35 baptisms of children of those who might be described as “Professional” – bankers, solicitors, architects etc.; 29 from the Ecclesiastical Establishment; and 40 who describe themselves as “Gentlemen”. In between there is a wide range of trades and occupations present of differing levels of skill, from low skilled gardeners and bricklayers to the highly skilled clockmakers, cordwainers and coach builders. Basically it seems that St Michael’s in the 19th century was a church for the workers and middle class artisans and tradesmen of the city – and certainly it attracted few at the higher end of the social scale to bring their children for baptism.  This is in accord with the various monuments and inscriptions within the church, few of which date from the 19th century, with most from the 18th and 20th centuries, indicating that for this period the upper reaches of Lichfield society looked elsewhere.

Population Statistics

Figure 2 shows the basic statistics from the baptismal register for the period between 1813 and 1905. Here the data is shown in nominally 20 year bands, with the first (1813-1830) and the last (1891-1905) being somewhat shorter. This variability in period can be allowed for to some extent by considering the number of baptisms / year in each band.  It can be seen that there were around 70 baptisms a year across the period, with that figure remaining relatively stable. The expected rise in baptism numbers due to population growth thus seems to have been balanced by the number of baptisms taking place in the new chapels at Burntwood, Wall and Christchurch, and also no doubt by an increase in the number of baptisms in non-conformist churches. The percentage of females was baptized was close to 50% throughout the period as would be expected, which at least shows the inhabitants of the parish in the 19thcentury did not practice female infanticide. Finally it can be seen that that the number of illegitimate children baptised is around 5 to 10% of the whole. This graph may not be wholly accurate however, as illegitimacy was recorded in different ways over the century, or not recorded at all, so some cases may have been missed, but any errors will be small.

Figure 2. Baptism statistics for number of baptisms / year, percentage of baptised females and the percentage of illegitimate children

Figures 3 show the marriage statistics . This data is given over a longer period than for the baptismal reisters, as the .rtf transcription extends back further into the 18thcentury. The number of marriages per year peaks at something over 40 marriages per year between 1811 and 1830. The register also provides an indication of the level of literacy amongst those getting married. The right hand figure gives the proportion of weddings where bride and groom both signed the register, just one of them signed, or neither signed. Very broadly, up to the middle of the nineteenth century, there were around a third of marriages where neither couple could sign their name, a third of marriages where one of them could (most often the groom) and around a third where both signed. After that time, the proportion of weddings where both signed increased rapidly, no doubt due to the establishment of the National Schools in the area, and by the start of the 20th century both partners almost always signed.

Figure 3. Marriage statistics, showing number of marriages per year and the percentage of participants signing the register.

Figure 4 shows the analysis of the burial statistics, excluding the Workhouse entries. The number of burials / year increases through the century, reflecting the increase in population. In the breakdown of burials by age group, the large infant mortality rate is clear, although burials in the 0 to 10 age group decrease from 36% of all burials to 25% over the 19th century. This same trend of reducing mortality is shown in the 11 to 20 and 21 to 30 age groups. The number of burials then increases with age, with a peak in the 71 to 80 age range, with a sharp fall off for the oldest age ranges. The percentage of female burials against age range rises from around 50% for the lowest age range, then increases to around 55% for the 11 to 20 and 21 to 30 age ranges, reflecting deaths during childbirth. There is a trough at just over 40% in the 51 to 60 age range as male mortality peaks, with a rise to around 60% in the highest age ranges, which simply reflects the greater longevity of women if they survive infancy and childbirth.

Figure 4. Burial statistics, excluding Workhouse data, showing number burials / year, burials by age range and percentage of female burials

Figure 5 shows similar figures for Workhouse burials. It can be seen that the number of burials per year is between 10 and 20 – a significant proportion of the whole. The burials by age show the same form as for the general population, although the child mortality rate remains at around 35% throughout the century rather than falling. The percentage of female burials by age do not show the same trend as for the general population, although this might possibly be because the sample size is smaller and any trend masked by statistical variation. 

Figure 5. Burial statistics, for Workhouse data, showing number burials / year, burials by age range and percentage of female burials

Part 2 of this blog post can be found here.

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