Did your British ancestors come from Devon? Search this extraordinarily rich set of records to find paupers and vagrants, apprentices, peddlers and tradesmen. Find out if they got married, were vaccinated against smallpox or got Christmas presents while their father was fighting WW1. Explore more than two centuries of social history to find rare details of the lives of ordinary people. This collection is published in partnership with Devon Family History Society and the Family History Federation.
Each record contains a transcript of original records. Because of the range of material available here the type and amount of information varies considerably. You can find all kinds of things out about your ancestor in these records including:
When and where they were married
Who they were married to
Where they lived
When they received Poor Law relief and why
When they were admitted and discharged to various insane asylums
Whether they received a present while their father was away fighting WW1
Who their brothers and sisters were
What ages the siblings were
Where their father was serving
Whether they received a smallpox vaccination
What trade they were apprenticed in
Who they were apprenticed to
Whether they spent time in prison or reform school
Whether they died in prison
Whether they drove a hackney carriage
Whether they were involved in a bastardy case
Whether they were a “Friendless or Fallen Girl”
Whether they were an annoying neighbour
Whether they peddled their wares
This collection of records has been gathered by the Devon Family History Society from a wide range of local records covering daily life in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are 132 separate sources mainly covering working life, but also containing a fascinating collection of criminal and poor law records. There are also several very unusual record sets including smallpox vaccinations for Brixham, Exeter Heavitree and St Thomas and Exmouth, Christmas presents for Exmouth children whose fathers were away fighting in World War 1 and the Heavitree Nuisances, which covers insanitary premises that could be closed down by the police.
There are also several specific record sets that would be familiar to family history researchers. Included in this record set are several early local censuses. There is a list of inhabitants for North Tawton from around 1800 as well as a census for Bickleigh (Tiverton) for 1801, Doddiscombsleigh for 1811, Chyst St George for 1821, Sidbury for 1819 as well as the Topsham 1841 Labouring Census. Also included are several Marriage Notice books for Axminster.
You can filter according to type of record. Most of the records are self-explanatory but some record sets benefit from a little more explanation.
Homes for Friendless and Fallen Girls, Exeter – Admission registers
Founded by the Church of England organisation, the Exeter Diocesan Association for the Care of Girls, these homes aimed to help women and girls who had nowhere else to go and who were considered to be in “moral danger” as well as those who had already fallen into “an immoral way of life”, this included “fallen” girls and women who had become pregnant.
Women and girls came to the homes from their own homes, from the streets, from prison or the workhouse. Some were sent there by the courts. Most were aged between 18 and 40, although younger girls were also admitted particularly to the Preventative Home. They were taught to wash, mend and sew and attended Bible classes. Benefactors who wished to sponsor the care of a particular girl paid 5 shillings a week. Most girls went on to domestic work in private homes but many did not stay in their positions long. Babies were boarded out with foster parents. The mothers contributed to the support of their children but the fathers paid only a nominal amount. The Association was willing to cover the legal costs of any girls, who wished to take a bastardy case, but few of the girls agreed to go to those lengths.
Prison Ladies Photographs 1870s
The Habitual Criminals Act 1869 ushered in the practice of photographing prisoners. The idea was to identify habitual criminals, who might be using aliases or false addresses. It wasn’t the most practical idea, since few warders had the time or inclination to go through hundreds of photographs every time they processed a new inmate. The practice was eventually abandoned.
The album indexed here is from the 1870s and covers Exeter Prison and Devon County Prison. The album itself contains only the names and prison numbers of the prisoners photographed, but additional information including address, age, marital status, number of children, offence and sentence have been extracted from the Receiving books of both prisons. Unfortunately the photographs themselves do not appear here but are available from the Devon Family History Society, who you can find in the Useful links section on this page.
Christmas gifts for Exmouth children 1914
Towards the end of 1914 there were various funds to provide Christmas presents for both troops at the front and their wives and families back home. The most famous of these is the fund started by Princess Mary, which raised money to send a brass gift box to every service man and nurse who were caring for the wounded. These records record a list kept by the Exmouth Seamen’s Mission of local children, who qualified to benefit from a fund to provide presents for the children of men in active service, especially those who had been orphaned by the war. Conscription was not introduced until 1916 so these are the children of volunteers or soldiers already serving. Only one Exmouth man had been killed in action at that point.
All the children in the family are listed, along with their ages in years and months, their address and fathers’ names and ship or regiment. Twenty families are listed for this small seaside town and this is an unusual record set, in that it gives the detail of the soldiers’ families who can otherwise be hard to trace during these war years.
There are vaccination registers for Brixham, Dartmouth, Exeter Heavitree and Exeter St Thomas, Haberton, Paignton, Topsham, Totnes and Woodbury for various dates between 1870 and 1905. The Vaccination Act 1840 introduced free vaccinations for smallpox, chargeable on the poor rates, but vaccination was not made compulsory until 1853. It was down to the poor law guardians to ensure that all infants were vaccinated within four months of birth but they didn’t get any powers of enforcement. In 1867 they were finally given the right to prosecute parents for noncompliance. Parents could face a fine or imprisonment if they did not get their children vaccinated. Once registration of births became compulsory in 1875 it became far easier to oversee this process.
However, the vaccination was far more dangerous than modern jabs and opposition was strong, with some parents preferring to face prison than subject their children to the practice. A child’s arm would be scored with a lancet, a sharp surgical knife, then viral material, taken from an infected child, was rubbed into the wound. Children could get infected from the wound or from diseases in the donor child’s blood. Parents were also afraid that the introduction of pauper’s lymph matter into their child’s blood would make the child degenerate. In 1898 a new act introduced a conscientious objection clause, which meant that parents could now get a certificate from the magistrates, exempting their child from vaccination. Information given in the vaccination register includes the child’s name, date and place of birth, the father’s name and occupation, or the mother’s if the child was illegitimate. Also given is the date of the vaccination certificate or the date of death if the child died in infancy.