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  • Thornbury, Gloucestershire: The Census of 1608

    Philip S. Thayer

    Published Date : August 1986
    Thornbury, a town of England, Co. of Gloucester, in Berkeley Vale, 3½ miles E. of the estuary of the Severn, and 11 miles N.E. of Bristol.  Pop. 1630.  It has an elegant church, dissenting chapels, endowed schools, almshouses, and the remains of a magnificent palatial castle. (Lippincott’s Gazetteer, 1884)

    In 1608, King James I of England, at peace with Spain but with troubles in Ireland, wanted to know how many men of his realm could be available for military service.  Accordingly, he ordered a count of the “able and sufficient men in body fit for His Majesty’s service in the wars.”  Although this must have been done throughout England, to the best of the author’s knowledge little of the survey has been published. The records for Gloucestershire, however, survived and were published in 19021.  An American with an ancestor from Gloucestershire is here given a window, however small and cloudy, on that man’s life and neighbors only a generation before the Great Migration.

    Thornbury is of interest to the Thayer family because the three progenitors of that family in America all came from the one town2,3.  For that reason, the author has examined the population of Thornbury and its neighboring villages, with a view to seeing what sort of town it was.  According to Banks4, at least three other New England immigrants were from Thornbury: Richard Dole, John Poor, and Daniel Thurston, all of Newbury, Massachusetts. None of these surnames appears in the 1608 list for Thornbury, although there was Thurston in Kyneton.

    1.  The Names and Surnames of all the Able and Sufficient Men in Body fit for His Majesty’s Service in the Wars, within the County of Gloucester. Viewed by the Right Hon. Henry, Lord Berkeley, Lord Lieutenant of the said County, by Direction from his Majesty, in the Month of August, 1608, in the Sixth Year of the Reign of James the First. Compiled by John Smith. (London, 1902).

    2.  Sprague, Waldo C., Thayer Family Genealogies (Wollaston, Massachusetts, 1949-50). 8 vols., manuscript at NEHGS.

    3.  Richardson, Douglas, “The English Origins of John Briggs of Taunton, Massachusetts,” The American Genealogist 59 (1983):

    4.  Banks, Charles F., Topographical Dictionary of 2885 English Emigrants to New England, 1620-1650, (Philadelphia, 1937; reprint, Baltimore, 1957).

    In the 1608 “census,” the data reported for each [able] male include: occupation, age, height, and any arms in his possession.  Age is given on a scale of 1-3: 1, about twenty; 2, about forty; 3, between “fyfty and threescore.”  Youths and aged men were thus excluded as not being suitable for service.  Height is defined in terms of possible military role: p, tallest, fit to be a pykeman; m, middle stature, fit to make a musketyer; ca, of lower stature, fit to serve with a calyver [firearm smaller than a musket]; and py, “of the meanest stature either fit for a pyoner, or of little other use.”  What these correspond to in feet and inches may be only guessed from our general impression that Englishmen of the 17th century were shorter than at present.  Perhaps a pykeman was somewhat short of six feet tall.  (Pioneers were a sort of engineer troops who cleared the way for the fighting men, etc.)  The information of most interest for the present purpose is the occupations of the 109 men listed in Thornbury, and, for comparison, an additional 256 in the surrounding villages (Table I).

    Thornbury was obviously the center of a mini-economy, being a market town and provided with a number of trades not found in the outlying villages: notably leather-processing, weaving and other clothing trades, food preparation and merchandising, and construction.  The villages were largely agricultural, with only a sprinkling of tradesmen, and were the seats of eight of the eleven gentlemen of the area.  Other central town occupations included a schoolmaster, scrivener, innholder and barber.  (Diligent searches through the OED and other sources has given no clue to what a “seiuger” was.)  The town boasted a bellman, or town crier, John Thomas; to fit the stereotype he was a little (“py”), old (“3”) man!

    The clergy, of course, are omitted as perhaps being not “fit” for military service, or perhaps not “able,” in any case exempt.  There were clergy, naturally, at the splendid old parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, built on a Norman site.  It has features from the Transitional Norman, Decorated (1340), and Perpendicular (before 1500) periods and was completed in essentially its present form by 1540.  It was restored in 1848, with many of the earlier features and stones retained.5

    The parish records of marriages at St. Mary’s have been published.6  Portions of the birth records for the Thayer and Briggs families have been published3,7. Their analysis is made challenging by the fact that almost all baptismal records list sponsors, but not parents!  This has led to all kinds of guessing games by genealogists, since the same set of sponsors seldom appears twice.  The records do include marriages for parties with some names listed in the 1608 "census," but many are for people outside Thornbury itself.

    5.      Thornbury Parish Church, 9th ed., Gloucester, England, undated pamphlet; copy purchased by the author in 1970.

    6.      Phillimore, W.P.W. Gloucestershire Parish Registers. Marriages. Vol. 15 (London~ 1909).

    7.    Faxon, Walter and Whorf, E.H. “Tayer (Thayer) Family Entries in the Parish Register of Thornbury, Gloucestershire, England,” in the Register 60 (1906):281-288.


    Table 1.

    Thornbury, Gloucestershire: the Census of 1608  



    According to an earlier survey, Thornbury had once been a more important, though still minor, part of the Gloucestershire woolen industry: “another small concentration of the clothing industry had grown up around the market town of Thornbury. Leland said of the place [in 1538] that ‘there hath been good clothing here in Thornbury, but now idleness much reyneth here.’  The town possessed few advantages for the manufacture of cloth, for the medieval records are silent about its existence.  It was suffering a severe depression at the time of Leland’s visit.  The great Duke of Buckingham had descended upon [Thornbury], enclosed its lands to form a wide deer-park, and employed its men in the construction of a grandiose palace-castle.  The Duke, with his large retinue and his innumerable guests had a most disturbing effect upon the economy of the town, and when Henry VIII summoned him to London, executed him, confiscated his estates and left the castle unfinished, there must have been hard times at Thornbury.”8

    There were four Thayers (all “Tayer”) in the 1608 Survey, all in Thornbury:  Edward, linnendraper, age class 2, height “p”; John, shoemaker, age 2, height “py”; Nycholas, shoemaker, age 2, height “ca,” and with military training; and Richard, shoemaker, age 2, height “p.”  The last is probably the father of Richard (b. 1601) and Thomas (b. 1596), the immigrants to Braintree, Massachusetts.

    The “gents” of Thornbury included John Hilp; Samuel Neale (father of Henry Neale, in Braintree probably by 1647); and Richard Wicksteed.  The “lord” of the area was Edward, Lord Stafford, a great-grandson of the unfortunate 3rd Duke of Buckingham.

    Does any of this help answer the classic question of why any given ancestor came to America? Gloucestershire was not a particular hotbed of Puritanism, nor does a charismatic preacher appear to have come from that area.  It is suggested that the low economic condition of Thornbury, noted as early as 1538, was a major factor in the decision of the Thayers and others to emigrate.  Richard Thayer was already widowed, with eight children, so his decision must have been particularly poignant.

    8.  Perry, R. “The Gloucestershire Woollen Industry, 1100-1690,” in Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 66 (1945): 49-137.

    By Philip S. Thayer
New England Historic Genealogical Society
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