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The Mystery of the Missing Miners: The Perils of Studying Past Populations

Matt Pawelski | Lancaster University

View from Masson' in Henry Moore, Picturesque Excursions: Being a Brief Matlock Guide (1818)
View from Masson' in Henry Moore, Picturesque Excursions: Being a Brief Matlock Guide (1818)

In his two-volume work, A View of the Present State of Derbyshire (c.1789), the antiquarian and writer, James Pilkington of Derby, aimed to achieve something he claimed had never been done before. A systematic and precise enumeration of the population of the county of Derbyshire.

The only other writer to attempt an estimate was the Anglo-Saxon chronicler Bede, who supposed that about 7,000 families inhabited an area roughly covering the counties of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, then part of the Kingdom of Mercia. Though how he arrived at this number remains something of a mysterium fidei.

Similarly broad estimates are possible using the Doomsday Book. It is thought, for example, that 140 households belonged to the town of Derby in c.1086, making it one of the largest settlements in England at that time.

Yet, neither of these efforts represent anything close to a ‘systematic or precise’ enumeration.

In that sense, Pilkington was justified in claiming to be a pioneer, and, as any great pioneer of demographic analysis would, he proceeded by taking ‘the considerable pains’ (and I believe him) of visiting every settlement and farmstead in Derbyshire, and counting all the houses he could find during a seven-year period (c.1781-8).

Despite the crudeness of his method, the estimate he produced has its merits.

He counted a total of 25,206 houses by the time of his writing, and using a multiplier of 4.9 persons per household (arrived at by counting the number of people living in a sample of 30 parishes distributed across the county and dividing that by the number of houses observed in those same parishes) he arrived at a total population of 124,465. A figure that marries well with what we know about national and regional growth rates for the period, and with the c.1801 census figure of 168,829, for Derbyshire.

Pilkington’s example demonstrates the perils facing the researcher brave (or perhaps foolish) enough to take on the mantle of enumerating populations, even for a contemporary of the period in question. Imagine then, how brave (or foolish) one would have to be to attempt to enumerate a sub-section of that population.

Well, that is precisely what I am venturing to do for a community of lead miners living in the north west of Derbyshire during the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The driving force behind this endeavour, beyond my own interests, has been a series of findings made by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure.

Using a combination of sources, including parish registers, census records, probate inventories, wills, and county surveys, they have produced the most complete and rigorous account of the occupational structure of England and Wales to date.

However, as with any project of such scale, it comes with its own challenges. When we look a little closer, at the sub-regional and local figures, the lead miners of Derbyshire appear to be missing, or significantly fewer in number, for periods when we would expect them to be far more numerous.

For the period c.1661-1761, for example, estimates produced using the surviving probate records suggest that the miners comprised <1% of the population in key mining localities and parishes. This figure then rises to between 10 and 20% for c.1817 when parish registers have replaced the probate inventories as the underpinning source.

What we know about the history of the lead industry during this period suggests that the reverse ought to be true, namely: that the period c.1661-1761 was a ‘heyday’ in the productivity and growth of the industry, and that by the turn of the nineteenth century, the industry had entered into a period of terminal decline.

So, what hope is there for locating our missing miners?

Well, sadly, unlike Pilkington, I cannot go back in time and start knocking on doors (though I definitely would if I could). Instead, it falls to detailed analysis of the available record, combined with qualitative research of the locality in question and its economic and social structure over time.

This article represents the first of three venturing after this enigmatic group in early modern society. It is hoped they may offer some light on methods and approaches to quantitative research and the perils facing any historian seeking truths about past populations.

In short, the search must go on!


NB: I would like to thank the staff and volunteers at the Staffordshire Record Office who have kindly furnished me with the digital index of Probate Inventories and Wills for Derbyshire from c.1600-1780. Their kind assistance has made this project possible under the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Dr Matthew Pawelski carried out his doctoral research at Lancaster University, completing his thesis in 2019, under the title: The Local Origins of Industrialisation: The Case of the Derbyshire Lead Industry, c.1700-1830. He now works in Higher Education research administration and management, and continues to write, read and explore a variety of historical subjects in his spare time, from the local industrial history of Derbyshire to the history of finance and the Bank of England.


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