In the recent series on all things Norman on BBC television, we were invited to imagine what it was like to live in England before and after 1066. The programmes touched on occupations, wealth, housing, aristocracy, manners, aided by all kinds of graphics to help us visualise the people and get under their skin. What none of the programmes mentioned, though, is something absolutely fundamental: the composition of that society. What sort of people would you have seen around you?

Well, young ones mainly. Here are some facts. The population of the whole of England in the early 1300s was around 5 million. There are now that many people living within just thirty miles of Manchester. After the Black Death it fell to around 4 million. It wasn’t until the 1740s that the population exceeded 5 million, and now it stands at around 60 million. There are people everywhere. Before that, the land was simply less cluttered with people, so it’s hardly surprising that people knew most of their neighbours and townsfolk.

Page from the Domesday book

Figures extrapolated from the Domesday Book of 1086, which can be a rough estimate only, are of a population in England of under 2 million. Even if we allow for a huge error and double it, we have only 4 million at most.  Around five per cent of them were over sixty-five because life expectancy was lower.  Between thirty-five and forty per cent were under fifteen. Compare that with today, when only twenty per cent of our population is under seventeen. One in every three people in Norman England was under 15 whereas today it’s closer to one in every five. There were, quite simply, many more children per adult in Norman England.

Ian Mortimer describes the consequences of this wonderfully in his book The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. Societies with youthful populations are more violent than those with a large number of older people, and medieval life was certainly more brutal. Do read his book if you can, it’s fascinating.

Tilehouse St, Hitchin, 1892 (Latchmore)

But I digress: back to those young people. When Who Do You Think You Are? and programmes of early home-made cine films show crowd scenes, have you noticed how many young boys are always in the foreground? When soldiers are marching past, or when it’s carnival day or a royal visit, there are always boys poking their heads into the picture or standing in front of the crowds, or running along beside the procession.

The Anglo-Saxon evacuation (Hastings Observer 1978)

It puts me in mind of the pictures of John Simpson walking into Kabul in Afghanistan accompanied not by local elders or soldiers but by, yes, hordes of boys. Who had the news, the gossip? Who knew where the danger spots were, the location of the enemy? The boys.

So when William of Normandy landed in Kent in 1066, who ran home to the villages to warn people? When the battle of Hastings was in full flow, who was watching from the sidelines and feeding information back to the women in the villages? When William and his vicious mercenaries moved through England destroying as they went, who was watching from the bushes, who were the look-outs who saw the Norman scouts coming, who ran home to warn their families to get out quickly? Surely the boys.

London in Victorian times was swarming with boys running messages; sometimes girls too. No email or telephone: if you wanted to arrange a business meeting at short notice, or pass on or receive news, you sent a boy. If you needed something from a neighbour or a shop you sent a boy or girl.

We have fewer young people per adult in our society today, and those we have don’t run messages, pass on news or keep watch on what’s happening beyond our village or town. We don’t rely on them any more.

This is a huge change which none of the programmes mention, and it seems such a difference that we cannot imagine what life was truly like for people in Norman England. Boys too young to fight had an important part to play in their communities. It was a very different society from ours, and not just because of the language, large moustaches  and bad haircuts.

Not good news. The General Register Office (GRO) is altering its charges for certificates of birth, death and marriage from 6th April 2010.  There will now be only two charges, one for standard service and one for priority.  If you order a certificate online it will cost you £9.25, up from the present £7, and this applies whether or not you have the GRO reference.  The priority overnight service will fall to a flat fee of £23.40.

Marriage certificate Louis Grant to Fanny Cox, Challock, Kent 1891

In effect, this means that anyone who provides the certificate reference (which means GRO staff don’t have to look for it) will be subsidising not only all those who haven’t bothered to provide one  or who have several possibilities which need checking, but also those requiring priority service.  Am I missing something here?  Are those who use the service which is the least-demanding to  GRO staff being penalised?

If these changes are implemented I can see no reason for paying to view the indexes online to provide a GRO reference any more.  I may as well  send the name and a rough date and request GRO staff do the searching instead.  Hang on, is this then GOOD NEWS because  I can save myself  the online GRO index  fee to Ancestry  or Origins or wherever, and save myself the search time to boot? Hmm, I don’t think that’s what the GRO intended somehow.

I rather think this plan will raise hackles  (although probably not among those who will be gaining – are there fewer of them? There must be).   I’ll keep you posted on how this evolves. Meanwhile if you’ve been wanting to order a certificate and just haven’t got around to it, now might be a good time to send off your request.

If so, you’ll be interested to know Medway Council has published Medway’s original parish registers online. The parishes covered lie in the Rochester Archdeaconry area which extends from Dartford and Gravesend in the west to Rainham in the east, and focuses on the Medway Towns.  The earliest registers date from 1558, and the collection continues in one form or another into the 20th century. Viewing and copying images is free. The project, known as Medway Ancestors, was made possible by a grant of £49,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the images are hosted on the Medway Archives website CityArk. You can see them at