Why the census enumerator crossed the road

Although the location of the house of Horace Byatt has been a mystery to me for some time, I might have seen things a different way by looking at old maps. I think, I really think, I’ve got it!

My visit to the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester had a few goals: find any records of the Midhurst Grammar School that might indicate which house the governors were leasing for Byatt, and look at old maps to see whether the location my students had guessed was a likely house in 1880. (I also hoped to find out about Mrs. Allin, but that’s much harder — it’s not like anyone collected the letters or diary of an ironmonger’s wife.)

While still in Midhurst, I looked across the street (literally) at a pink house that from the road looks like it’s in South Pond — it has the name South Pond Cottage on it. I walked past it on my way to the bus (turns out the closer stop is behind me — I’m so good at that.) The house looks really old. And I wondered: how was that house counted in the Census of 1880? (this is the sort of thing, of course, that people often wonder when looking at houses…)

Then I took one of my very favorite bus rides, from Midhurst to Chichester on Bus 60, the blue and green two-decker (£8 return – this is a wealthy area).

Arriving at the Records Office, I engaged in the usual formalities: leave a deposit for a locker key, fill out forms, present identification that shows my address (so they can chase me back to California if I steal anything), promise not to use pens or bring in liquid, etc. But the Records Office is also a nice place: tea and coffee, nice bathrooms, chocolate bars for sale (yes, this last does prejudice me in their favor, I admit).

I filled out a request slip for each of three items, because they can only bring you three at a time. Unlike the big libraries, you don’t have to wait. You choose a table and note the number on your slips, putting the slips in a clear plastic box. A wonderful quiet gentlemen retrieves the items when you’re not looking and brings them to your table. Then when you’re done, you put your items back on the counter and put more slips in the box.

While waiting for my order of all issues of The Midhurst Magazine and Midhurst Heritage, I looked at the shelves on local studies, finding several books on Midhurst. One was a very old “The Official Guide to Midhurst and District” (1915) with the cover detached and tied with string. It noted the school was reopened in April 1880 under Horace Byatt, but it didn’t say where he stayed in the meantime. There were also some books with old photographs. The magazines having quietly arrived, I looked through them. Many articles were by Bridget Howard, historian for the Midhurst Society. (I did not have to grieve that I’d been too cowardly to contact Ms. Howard – my landlady Sarah had done so on my behalf that morning, and although Ms. Howard was out of town, she was able to tell Sarah that she didn’t know anything about my mystery.)

Midhurst Heritage had a piece on Wells by a Lawrence Price, with nothing I don’t already know. It also had a completely unrelated item about there having been a mill at South Pond. The pond, in fact, is artificially dammed (which actual makes the strenuous efforts to reclaim it for nature kind of interesting). I thought what I always think when someone says “mill”: could it possibly have been a fulling mill? This was the area of my graduate work: medieval fulling mills. I can’t resist one. The magazine said that it was originally a corn mill. Foot fulling had apparently taken place near the stream leading to the river from South Pond (cue the usual shocked remark about fullers using urine — the acid broke down the fabric fibers, just like in Roman times). Apparently fuller’s earth was brought from Cocking, which I’d passed on Bus 60.Then in 1634, the “Lord of the Manor allowed a master clothier from West Lavingham to convert the South (corn) Mill.” There was a fulling mill here! No wonder I love this place. I made a special effort this evening, risking my life standing at the side of the road, to peek over the bridge and see where the weir pours water into the stream from the pond.

You can’t see evidence of old fulling mills really (it’s not like there are giant waterwheels dotting the landscape), so I journeyed back to the 19th century. While waiting for the school’s account books to be brought out, I consulted the head archivist, laying my case before her. I had brought the pages from the census of 1880 (with Wells’ name circled), and a copy of the map I made with the likely houses. She suggested more maps, and introduced me to Katie, who then spent much time pulling out large maps of Midhurst from various times and laying them on a gigantic table.

At first, I looked at these maps to see if they matched mine from 1895, the closest I’d been able to get to 1880 using the digitized Ordnance maps at the National Library of Scotland website. I was looking to see whether the little cluster of buildings on that map, the possible location of census record #89 as determined by me and my students, had been torn down, and therefore could perhaps have been a larger house in 1880. So we looked at maps from 1972 and 1985. The buildings looked different, but that just meant they’d been renovated recently, not that it was a big house in 1880.

But then I started thinking while looking. What if, just what if, that old pink house I saw at the pond were thought of as being located on South Street, rather than Chichester Road? The maps from 1972 and 1985 had the words “Chichester Road” south of the pond. I knew from the fulling mill information that the stream had been there then, which, as Katie noted, is a natural boundary. Now street names in England do change as you go along. The question is where that change took place, or rather where the census enumerator thought it took place. If, just if, the old pink house were on South Street, then the census taker could have crossed the road at the pond/stream bridge, and counted the pink house as record #87.

To the south of the pond, landlady Sarah assured me that those houses on the right side not only weren’t built till 1892, but that they are technically in a different parish: West Lavingham. And indeed, the map Katie brought out from 1874 did not show any houses south of the pond. It would have made logical sense, given the boundary of the pond/stream and the change of parishes, for the census taker to have turned around at the end of the pond.

If the census enumerator did count the pink house on the pond as #87, then record #88 is the big house on the corner (called South Pond House now and then, except in 1985 where for some reason it’s the White House). And #89, house of Horace Byatt and family and servant and a lodger named H.G. Wells, would be the house next to it.

Unlike the bizarre collection of little buildings immediately northward, this house (now 6 South Street) is the perfect size for that many people, and it’s nice enough to have been appropriate for a house leased by the Midhurst Grammar School to shelter its new headmaster while the school and his family’s quarters were being completed. It makes far more sense than the little buildings around the courtyard, even if all the buildings are intact.

It makes the commercial signage visible in the 1906 photo of King Edward’s visit, which I’ve been peering at suspiciously, irrelevant — those little buildings could indeed have been shops.

So after lunch (no document retrieval between 12.30 and 1.30, please) Katie got all the maps out again, plus an older map from 1840, and I looked for the pink house. Was it there before 1880? If so, it was there in 1880, because it was still there in 1897. Yes! It was there.

By this point the record books of the school had magically appeared at Table 17. I looked through the huge tome, the Midhurst Grammar School Cash Book 1877-1902. (I wish I had pictures, but a photo license cost £11 and I’m cheap.) On 25 January 1880, £10 was spent “in aid of allowance for Rent for Masters Residence”. Similar entries noted Byatt’s quarterly stipend, and one very interesting entry noted £5 for “Mr Horice [sic] Byatt for Prizes” after two £2 2d entries for “examination expenses”. Was this the money Wells earned by taking his exams? The entry for February 1883 indicated the examination expenses were for the College of Preceptors, so likely yes. But that rabbit hole had to be set aside for the moment. There was nothing about the location of Byatt’s house, there or in any of the other financial records. But it was worth checking.

Even without such verification, I’m pretty sure that Byatt, family, and Wells stayed at what is now 6 South Street. Nowadays, South Pond Cottage is definitely on Chichester Road (and worth over a million pounds, according to Zoopla, somewhat more than 6 South Street). But if I’m right, 6 South Street deserves a blue plaque to go along with the three Wells plaques in town: on the grammar school (now the South Downs Authority), on where he lodged in 1883 over the sweet shop (now the Olive and Vine), and on the chemist’s shop where he apprenticed (now a dentist’s office). And here it is:



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