Illiteracy among watermen

Literacy among Yorkshire's watermen

In Sue Wilkes’  guide for family historians Tracing Your Canal Ancestors. A Guide for Family Historians. (2011) she pointed to illiteracy among boatmen as potentially having created “gaps in the census”. She referred to speculation by George Smith of Coalville, a campaigner for the reform of canal boat living conditions, that when it came time to collect the census forms, boats were no longer berthed in the same place or that illiteracy among boatmen led to many forms simply being thrown away. Smith was instrumental in the creation of the Canal Boats Act, 1877.

To establish the levels of illiteracy found among the watermen and women of Yorkshire, 170 marriage entries relating to the twenty watermen families were analysed looking for occasions when the bride and/or groom were obliged to make their mark “X” rather than sign the document. Marriages where the groom was either a waterman or the son of a waterman, proven by the marriage document itself or family genealogy, were chosen. 

In 1800, illiteracy rates in England and Wales were estimated to be 40% for males and 60% for females. By 1840 these had dropped to 33% for men and 50% for women and by 1870 20% and 25% respectively. By around 1900 the rates had dropped further to around 3%.[i]

Analysis of the 170 marriages produced the following table:

Ignoring the two pre 1800 marriages, during the period 1801–1900 the analysis confirms that illiteracy among Yorkshire’s watermen grooms and their brides was certainly worse than the population as a whole. Instances of poor literacy were seen when researching the twenty families but it was not perceived to be a universal problem.

As genealogists we are used to dealing with poor spelling but when researching watermen ancestors we need to be aware that there may be more instances than might have been expected. That person missing from the census may well have been there somewhere and with a bit more persistence you may actually find them.

[i] Lloyd, Amy J. (2007) Education, Literacy and the Reading Public. Gale Primary Sources. accessed 8 February 2022