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For nearly 63 of the years between 1689 and 1815, England was at war with the French. No-one in Devon could ignore this as the great Naval dockyard at Dock grew and grew and defensive forts were erected all around to protect it.
In 1802, an uneasy Peace was made with the French at Amiens but within a year Napoleon had declared war again and this time, openly made plans to invade England. The reaction over here was one of pure panic with central government issuing urgent instructions that each and every parish council should make plans to deal with an invasion should this event occur.
The parishioners of North Tawton set about making their particular detailed plans. But it was a fairly large town, not a village, and in order to see the size of their problem, the officials there decided to take a census of the entire population. The task was divided between 9 or 10 of the leading citizens who went from house to house, listing not only the names and true ages of the people in each household but also their trade and the physical condition of the older inhabitants. The loose sheets of paper they used in that winter of 1803/4 still exist in Devon's Record Office - true, the ink is a little faded and some of the spelling is decidedly shaky but there it is - a town census listing almost 1200 men, women and children who were standing by, ready to be evacuated if the need arose.
The original sheets are not dated and could belong to any of the years between 1801 and 1805. We have arrived at the 1803/1804 date through detailed research on one particular family consisting of a widow called Ann Stentiford and some of her children. This family came originally from Sampford Courtenay and enough Poor Law documentation has been found to assess accurately the ages of the children named in the Census and missing children of the family who were elsewhere working as indentured apprentices during this particular winter.
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Transcription by courtesy of Devon County Council