Sources for Labourers in an Agricultural Community

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This case study on a family in an agricultural community at Walkern in Hertfordshire in the years 1660-1850 was developed to suggest some of the variety of sources that may be helpful to throw light on a family after the parish registers have been exhausted.

Walkern is a rural parish in the Beane valley to the east of Stevenage about thirty miles north of London. It had a population of about 600 to 700 people and the property was subdivided with a number of small freeholders, three Nonconformist chapels and several public houses. It was an ‘open’ rather than a ‘closed’ or ‘estate’ parish. See the article England_Land_and_Property.

Into this place in 1666 came William Aylott (or Alett, Aliott, etc). He had many descendants but an outline pedigree can be assembled from the parish registers without too much difficulty. Prior to 1812 the entries of baptism and marriage give no indication of the occupations or standing of the family, but the burial registers show two members brought from the poor house and another a pauper. The later burials show several to have been carpenters or sawyers.

The textbooks tell us that in cases like this we must consider the other parish records, referring us to W.E. Tate’s The Parish Chest (3rd ed; Chichester, England: Phillimore, 1983), for many good examples of what may be found. The chances of finding much apart from the parish registers are not, however, always very great. In this case, no account books of the overseers of the poor or of the churchwardens survive. However, by patiently casting about, scraps of information may be found which together turn the genealogy into something of a family history. All the following (except the deeds) are in the county record office at Hertford.

House Deeds

Turning then to William Aylott who came into Walkern in 1666 and died there in 1703, there is a bundle of deeds relating to a house at Walkern, running from 1613 to 1941, very typical of house deeds. Although William Aylott was not a man of property, they throw a good deal of light on him. They relate to a piece of land in Frog Hall Lane, Walkern, with one cottage on it. In 1683 it was occupied by Robert Searle, but five years later it had been ‘lately divided into two tenements’ which, in May 1700, were in the occupation of John Baker and William Aylott. Later this William is described in the deeds as William Aylard, an example of the way in which names may be corrupted in deeds and other sources. He was buried at Walkern on 14 October 1703. Eleven days later Anthony Warner, who had married at Walkern on 4 November 1703, bought the house in which William had lived. One may reasonably suppose that Anthony Warner and his bride moved into William’s house. The deeds show that Anthony Warner paid £37 for the two.

These are not deeds relating to Aylott property, but to Warner property, and yet they show exactly where William Aylott lived, the name of his landlord, roughly when his house was built, what it was worth, and indeed, who his neighbours were. It is a first lesson, never to neglect any available deed that may relate to the parish from which your ancestors came. Remember also that a deed of 1700 may give information about people at a much earlier date, even if the earlier deeds do not survive, This one of 1703 recites other deeds back to 1613.

A description of the whereabouts of a piece of land, as in a deed, will or manor court roll, often gives the names of the occupiers of the property onto which it abuts and, as with the Aylotts, these do not need to be the owners. The site of the house in Frog Hall Lane can be roughly pinpointed with the aid of the subsequent deeds and the census returns. There is no 18th century map of the houses or fields at Walkern, though such estate maps exist for many other Hertfordshire parishes. See in general the article England_Land_and_Property.

Court Depositions

The marriage of William’s son, also called William, to his wife Susan, has not been found. The Walkern registers are defective at this time and the Bishops’ Transcripts do not always fill the gaps. Fortunately, in February 1712, Susan, wife of William Aylott of Walkern, gave evidence before the local magistrate, Sir Henry Chauncy, at Ardeley Bury, that ‘about 12 years ago last Christmas she was sent for to the wife of Richard Harvey who was very ill and who subsequently died, and she believed her to have been bewitched by one Jane Wenham, and soon after her own child died, being taken very ill at her brother Jeremy Harvey’s house, and she believed it to have been bewitched’.

The trial for witchcraft which ensued excited great interest throughout the country and accounts of the depositions and proceedings were published. This one gives Susan’s maiden name and she named one of her children, Jeremy Aylott, baptised in 1709, after her brother Jeremy Harvey. The lesson is that no trial relating to people in the parish can be neglected with safety (though it may take a while even to consult a few of them).

Poll Books

The child Jeremy Aylott, a sawyer, who was buried a pauper in 1787, appears as Jeremy Elliott in the 1774 printed Poll Book for Walkern where he is shown occupying the house of William Chapman of Yardley. Printed Poll Books which show the names of the tenant occupiers are unusual. Hertfordshire is fortunate, having nine between 1754 and 1832. They are a useful source for the names of landlords who, in turn, may mention the tenants in their wills, account books and diaries. See in general the article Poll Books in England and Wales.


Jeremy’s youngest child, Thomas Aylott, baptised in 1757, began to raise a family at Walkern, but decided in 1784 to move to nearby Aspenden. There he leased a house from James Oakley, his brother-in-law, for £10 8s 0d a year. As he paid more than £10 a year that gave him, under the Act of 1662, legal settlement in the parish of Aspenden. However, in order to avoid the Land Tax payable on property worth more than £10 a year, their written agreement said that he was to pay only eight guineas.

In 1790, James Oakley sold the house and their arrangement came to light. Thomas Aylott was examined by the Justices because the overseers at Aspenden thought that he and his family were likely to become a charge on their parish and the Justices were concerned about the family’s place of settlement. If Thomas became chargeable they could send him back to his place of settlement but, under the 1662 Act, they had to examine him first. If he paid more than £10 rent for the house then Aspenden became his place of settlement. Fortunately, he could produce the receipts that James Oakley had given him for £10 8s 0d. The record of the examination was kept in the parish chest at Aspenden and presumably the family remained there as there is no further mention of them at Walkern. It shows the importance of considering the parish chests of neighbouring parishes as well as that of the parish in which your ancestor lived. This Settlement Examination is used in the example Settlement Examinations in England and Wales.

Thomas Aylott had a cousin Jeremy Aylott who was not so lucky. He left Walkern for Graveley, just a few miles away, with a wife and five children in the 1760s but could not support himself and became a charge on that parish. The churchwardens of Graveley applied to the Justices of the Peace for an order to send the family back to Walkern. In this case Walkern had given Jeremy a certificate saying that they would take him back, and accordingly the Quarter Sessions made that order, though Walkern appealed against it. This Removal Order is used in the example Removal Orders in England and Wales.

Jeremy’s settlement certificate does not survive and there is nothing about this in the parish chest at Walkern, but it shows the importance of searching the Quarter Sessions records. From the parish registers one would not have known that the family had left the parish, for the burials of the parents from the poor house appear in 1801 and 1803 and the children married there. In spite of the family’s lowly status one of these marriages was by licence. For Quarter Sessions Records see the article England County Records.

Although Jeremy and his wife were buried from the poor house there was no permanent workhouse at Walkern, else that in turn might have provided some record of its inmates. At this period few parishes had workhouses of their own. Most rented premises for the purpose and their records generally do not survive.

Land Tax records

These Aylotts apparently owned no property in the parish and so one would not expect to find them in the Land Tax records. However, for Walkern these begin in 1715 and about 50 people are listed each year, and from 1728 to 1734 William Aylott, junior (Susan’s son), is shown as paying between two shillings and six shillings tax annually on a piece of property that had belonged to William Pinnock.

There is a break in the returns from 1757 to 1780 when a new form was introduced which shows the names of the occupiers as well as the owners. Elisha Clark is then found paying tax on a group of houses occupied by ‘Messrs Aylott & Co’ which includes William Aylott (died 1801), apparently the son of the last William. Jeremy Aylott, who had returned from Graveley, lived in a house belonging to Mrs Mary Smith. These returns continue to about 1890 but are far from complete after 1832.

Accounts and Manor Books

Amongst Walkern’s records in the county record office are the account books of two tradesmen, scrappy and roughly written. One belonged to the above-named Elisha Clark, carpenter, and it has a piece of paper about four inches square pinned in at the back and dated 1779: ‘Agreement between Elisha Clark and William Ault, Juner, to let House and Close and Garden that John Munt d(w)ellt in at yearly rent of £2 10s 0d’. It is signed ‘William Aylott’ and his half-yearly payments appear until the accounts end in 1784.

In 1786 the Land Tax shows William Aylott both ‘owning’ and occupying his house. What had happened meanwhile? His will gives the clue, for it mentions his copyhold house, indicating that it was leased from the Manor of Walkern. The Manor Books show that in 1785 William Aylott took over the house formerly occupied by John Howard, paying a five on £2 5s 0d and a yearly rent of five and a half pence to the Lord of the Manor. The Manor Book identifies the position of the house and tells its later history, how when he died in 1801, William bequeathed it to his widow Sarah, and how, in 1817, she sold it to William Holliday. By then the carpentering Aylotts had converted it into three separate dwellings.

Militia Returns

In Hertfordshire there is a series of Militia Returns, 1757-1804, which list all the men between the ages of 18 and 50 (after 1763 between the ages of 18 and 45) who were liable for service in the Militia. Those for Walkern end in 1785 and nicely fill the gap in the Land Tax, though they give many more names, about 80 as opposed to the 50 in the tax. The William Aylott who died in 1801 is there from 1757, but disappears after 1769 when he must have been 45. This is valuable as his burial gives no age. As soon as his son, the fifth-generation William Aylott (who was later church clerk and died in 1811) became 18 in 1768, he too appears on the lists as liable for service.

Another William Aylott appears at the end of the list in 1758, marked as an apprentice and struck through. This is probably his cousin, baptised in 1740 and just 18. It was presumably an apprenticeship arranged within the family and not taxed, for it is not in the record of the tax on apprenticeship indentures 1710-1774 at The National Archives. It may have been an apprenticeship arranged by the parish and thus exempt from tax, but we cannot tell as the account books of the overseers of the poor are missing.

Naval Volunteers

In 1795 there are lists of persons enrolled in each Hundred of the county to serve as volunteers in the Navy. For Walkern, however, there is only one name, Daniel Lyons, a labourer from London, who was paid £21 to go instead of someone from the parish. Perhaps at Walkern they preferred to stay on the farm.

Duty on the Highways

Service of another kind was that on the roads, and again there is a list of ‘Inhabitants liable to do their Statute Duties in and upon the Highways’. That for 1777 is divided between farmers with teams of labourers, and other labourers. Amongst the latter are the brothers Jeremiah Aylott (died 1803) and William Aylott (died 1801). Statute labour was not abolished until 1835.

Window Tax

For Walkern, records of the Window Tax survive from 1715 to 1736 but they make no mention of the Aylott family, even of the William who paid Land Tax in 1728-34, and one might think that he had no windows, but cottages not having land attached worth more than £5 a year were exempt. In other places there may be records of the tax from 1696 to 1783.


Once the landlords have been identified, their wills may throw light on their tenants. At Walkern the conditions in some of the houses may be judged by a passage in the will of Thomas Ives, yeoman, who in 1811 left ‘a cottage, woodhouse and hogsty adjoining with the use of the well belonging to the cottage for the purpose of a dunghill hole with a right of way or passage to and from the same … as the present tenants use the same … now in the occupation of Thomas Spriggens and the Widow Bray’. As late as 1874 John Edwin Cussans, the historian of Hertfordshire, commented on the high mortality at Walkern due to defective drainage and overcrowding in the cottages of the poor.

Tithe Records

The annual lists of tithe payments and Easter offerings made to the Rector at Walkern throw further light on the family. The William Aylott who died in 1747 appears when the records start in 1740. He was supposed to be paying four pence a year as an Easter offering – something he had not done for eight years. He had run up a bill of 2s 8d and when it got to three shillings the Rector gave up listing him.

William’s brother was supposed to be paying two shillings each on two orchards, as well as an Easter offering of four pence, but was only paying some of the money and was also generally in arrears. William’s son, the Jeremy Aylott who went to Graveley, also appears and we can fix the date of his move, for in 1764 the tithe record actually says ‘J Aylott Jun gone away from Walkern’.


Although two generations of Aylotts were parish clerks, not all the family were Anglicans. A nephew of the first clerk was James Aylott, another carpenter, and his house in Walkern High Street was certified for meetings of Protestant Dissenters (under the Toleration Act 1689) in 1834. The record does not show his particular form of dissent.

In the 19th century three chapels were built in the parish and several houses were licensed for dissenters’ meetings. This explains why some families found in the census returns hardly appear in the parish registers. James Aylott showed his brand of dissent as one of five signatories when a house of Thomas Spriggins (perhaps the one with the dunghill hole!) was certified for meetings of Independents in 1810 but that, of course, was only found by going through all the certificates.

Illegitimate Children

Ann Aylott, a sister of the church clerk William, produced an illegitimate son Thomas when she was 23 in 1788, the only one in her immediate family. The register does not name the father of the child, she does not immediately thereafter marry anyone who might be presumed to be the father, and there are no churchwardens’ or overseers’ accounts that might have given details of maintenance payments forcibly extracted from him. She might have gone (or been taken by the overseers) to Quarter Sessions to ask for an order against him, but there is nothing there, and so his name is probably lost for ever.


Ann’s nephew, Samuel Aylott, was the gardener for many years at the local mansion, Clay Hall. During the agricultural unrest in 1830 many special constables were sworn in. The farmers at Walkern refused to act and John Pryor at Clay Hall, then Deputy Lieutenant of the County, swore in as special constables his son, his farm bailiff and his gardener, Samuel Aylott. The details appear in John Pryor’s diary, extracts from which were published in 1970. Samuel Aylott was secure in the garden at Clay Hall. He was paid, as the dairy shows, fifteen or sixteen shillings a week in the 1850s, when the labourers got nine or ten shillings. In May 1849 he took a brace of cucumbers and some rhubarb to Baldock Horticultural Show.

Poor Law Unions

With the formation of the Poor Law Unions throughout the country in 1834, Walkern joined with other parishes to support a workhouse at Hertford. The records of the Boards of Guardians of these Unions are a rich source of biographical information.

On Boxing Day 1835 James Aylott, of Walkern, carpenter, aged 49 (a younger son of the first church clerk), was ill, and as he was a widower with three children and unable to look after himself, the family was taken to the workhouse. At its meeting on 2 January the Board was told that James Aylott had run away and that his children had been lodged with Samuel Warner. The Board ordered that Warner should have ten shillings for his trouble, that the children be put back in the workhouse and that the Relieving Officer find their father. Two weeks later James appeared and said that he was generally in work at 23 shillings a week. The Board then ordered that he too be put in the workhouse and made to pay for supporting his children. In 1841 his elder brother, John Aylott, also the church clerk, was the Enumerator of the 1841 Census.


The article has been adapted from an article by Anthony Camp, ‘Sources for labourers in an agricultural community’, in Family Tree Magazine (UK;, vol. 17, no. 1 (November 2000) pages 51-52.