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Summer Work Experience in the History Faculty, August 2018

In August, Zofia and Eloise, two year 10 students from Soham Village College, undertook a week of work experience with the Cambridge Group for the History of Population & Social Structure (CamPop), transcribing historical documents. Here they talk about their week:

During our work experience, we focussed on two types of manuscript documents: the Hearth Tax of c. 1670 and original returns of the 1801 Census. We were unfamiliar with our tasks, so we were excited to encounter something really new - especially because these documents we were given were unlocking great new material for the researchers whom we were working with, making us proud to commence the assignments.

The Hearth Tax was levied on fireplaces in the later 17th century. CamPop researchers want to use this source to calculate the size of local populations, but the problem is that we don’t know who was actually included in the lists, so our task was to extract information from hearth tax exemption certificates for parishes in the county of Leicestershire. The exemption certificates are hand-written lists of people certified as exempt from paying the tax because they were too poor. We had to count the number of people exempt on the certificate and identify the name of the parish. When first faced with a task like transcribing, we found the seemingly incomprehensible handwriting and confusing 17th-century spellings "challenging"! (Even our supervisors needed some time to decipher some of the more difficult certificates). We both pulled through, and worked better as each day passed.        

Horrible hearth tax handwriting and dodgy 17th-century spellings!

It actually says "Wee the Minister of the Parish of St Maries in the Burrough of Leicester". We extracted information from hundreds of these exemption certificates.

Zofia experienced two disheartening setbacks (well, she found it to be more of a learning curve): initially, she spent time deciphering certificates from the wrong county which had been included on the microfilm unknown to the researchers; and at what seemed to be the end, she discovered that there were still quite a few more certificates to finish! She never complained and genuinely enjoyed the experience of discovering all the new aspects of research. She was very keen to help, and appreciated the challenges as it taught her to certify her actions. Eloise had to pick through the very lengthy hearth tax certificates for the many parishes of the town of Leicester, since it was the largest town in the county and towns had proportionally more poor people than rural parishes.

We learned that the original returns of the first census from 1801 census do not usually survive, and that this is most unfortunate, as the manuscript returns contained far more information than what was published by the government. There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule where local men made copies that have survived and two of these are for communities in Dorset. We worked from photocopies of the manuscripts. Eloise transcribed the return for the market town of Sturminster Newton (1406 people in 1801) and Zofia transcribed the return for the rural village of Melbury Osmond (335 people in 1801).

We created spreadsheets listing people by household in terms of their gender, occupation, and whether they were adults or children. We also had to identify to which economic sector the occupation belonged (primary, secondary, tertiary). While Eloise already knew about this method for understanding the economy of different countries from school, she was not quite prepared for some of the occupations to be found in a small market town in Dorset in 1801: a hairline maker made a particular type of yarn which was a mixture of horse hair and silk; a mantua maker was a dress maker; and a white smith worked in "white" metals such as tin or pewter.

We were very impressed that Amy, our supervisor, actually knew what these occupations were! She will use the information we transcribed to study women’s employment. Mercifully, the handwriting of the returns was really easy to read - not like the hearth tax! Eloise was struck by the large number of women working in the textile trade in Sturminster Newton in 1801.

Work experience, in our opinion, is not just about the given tasks and what one can obtain from them; it is also about engaging with one’s surroundings. At CamPop morning coffee, we talked with other members of the research group including, doctoral students and their supervisors, and either discussed or listened to interesting topics in their research. Working closely with people who are mesmerized by our history inspired both of us and enabled us to wonder about our own future and studies - another aspect of how this work experience benefitted us.

All in all, we immensely enjoyed our time at Cambridge University. We gained experience of data entry skills, confidence, understanding, and ideas for future plans, and will never forget it. We really appreciated this opportunity and hope in the future other year 10s can work here, and that they will enjoy it just as much.