The national census returns which are still today carried out parish by parish every ten years started in 1801. They remain confidential for 100 years for obvious reasons, since they contain much information of a personal nature, but when the returns do become available, they are a rich source for the local historian. From the Maidwell returns of 1861 and 1881 we can find out a good deal about the people of the village, who they were, where they came from, what they did for a living and hence what sort of a community it was.
Maidwell has never been a large village, and remained relatively stable in population through most of the nineteenth century – there were 273 inhabitants in 1831, 282 in 1861 and 288 in 1881. (Earlier returns of the medieval and Tudor periods seem to indicate a very similar size of population even then.) What is noticeable from these figures is that the decline in rural population, which gathered pace in the last quarter of the nineteenth century throughout England as the towns expanded and factory wages offered a more reliable income than agriculture and its associated trades, did not start so early in Maidwell as in many other Northamptonshire parishes, where the population declined between 1871 and 1881.
Agriculture was certainly, and predictably, the major occupation. Maidwell’s working population (i.e. excluding all the children and women at home with no paid occupation, was 122 in 1861, of whom exactly half were farmers or farm workers; by 1881 the figure had fallen slightly to 56 people working on the land out of a total working population of 128. There is the normal scatter of tradesmen and craftsmen – one shopkeeper, a tailor, a baker, a butcher (two in 1861) and an innkeeper. There were two shoemakers in 1861 but none in 1881, so unless the villagers suddenly decided to go barefoot they must have gone to one of the larger villages nearby – it is unusual to find a village without its own cobbler at this time. There were three blacksmiths (including apprentices) in 1861, four in 1881, in this case rather more than the size of the village would normally support, but there would have been some passing trade from the main road and plenty of work from the Maidwell Hall Estate; it is no doubt the latter which also accounts for the four carpenters and wheelwrights shown in the 1881 return, although some may even have been employed outside the village at Lamport or Cottesbrooke.
It is certainly Maidwell Hall which mainly accounts for what was in fact the second largest category of employment in the village – domestic and estate service. One third of all the people with paid occupations worked in service of some sort. Most of the farmers employed a domestic servant (there were six farmers altogether), and the Rector had a cook, a housemaid and a parlour maid. The establishment at the Hall, however, was something else again. Although the Lord of the Manor in 1881 was Mr. John Holdich Hungerford, the census shows the occupier of the Hall as Major John Orred, J.P., with his wife and two daughters aged four and one, so presumably he had the Hall on some kind of tenancy – relatively long-term, as the younger child had been born in Maidwell. To support this not over-large family seems to have needed a Butler and a housekeeper, a Head Nurse and an Under Nurse, a Ladies Maid, a Head Housemaid, an Under Housemaid, a Kitchen Maid and a Scullery Maid, a Footman and a Hall Boy, a Coachman, a Groom and three Stablemen. These of course were just the resident employees. It is a fair supposition that the Gamekeeper, the Woodman, the Gardener and the Farm Bailiff, not to mention the five laundresses and other general servants all living in the village, were on the payroll as well.
The accepted image of the Victorian English Village is of a fairly settled community with families that had been there for generations. This is an oversimplification almost everywhere, and it was certainly not true of Maidwell. The census figures have to be treated with care, but if we look first at the total population we find an unexpectedly low number of people born in the village – only 54% in 1861 and 42% in 1881. Add to these the people born within 10 miles of Maidwell, and the figures go up to 74% and 66% respectively. It must be remembered however that a fairly high proportion of the total population are also children (40% under 5 years old in 1861, 45% twenty years later) and there is a much higher probability of their having been born in the village. If we take only the married population, as typical of the adults, we find only 29% Maidwell-born, with a further 31% born within ten miles. We also find that Maidwell men were not all that keen on Maidwell maidens, notwithstanding the legends of the latter bathing in the stream at Midsummer to the delight of the male population. In 1861, out of 31 married men born in the village, only two had selected their partner from the native female population; the situation was rather different by 1881, with one man in five choosing a local wife, but this is still a very low proportion. Many more went to neighbouring villages – the imagination can run riot at the prospect of secret assignations down the Draughton Road or along the track to Cottesbrooke – and at least the vast majority stayed loyal to their native county: 85% of Maidwell men took Northamptonshire brides. And of the total population, over 80% were Northamptonshire born.
So the population was in fact highly mobile but within a limited area. Given that the people directly employed by the Hall were very largely imported – the gentry normally took their more senior staff with them when they moved, and tended to recruit by recommendation from friends and relatives rather than from the locality – this Northamptonshire village was populated by Northamptonshire people. It depended almost entirely on the Lord of the Manor for its living – the farmers were all tenant farmers, the day labourers took work by the day when it was available, the tradesmen and craftsmen were the service industries to agriculture and the Estate. The village had a basically inward-looking economy. There could be little chance for expansion; people could not move in from elsewhere and build houses or set up businesses without the consent of the Hall, and if the Hall wanted the village to stay small, and to avoid the risk of having to support the poor (there is no-one described as a pauper in either of the two censuses), then small it would remain. Probably people who wanted to get up and go, and chance their luck in the more open world outside, got up and went. That would leave jobs to be filled for others to move in. But it was to be another fifty years, with the final sale of the Maidwell Estate in 1931, before freeholding became the norm or enterprise possible.