In the seventeenth century St Sidwell's was a parish of farms, market gardens and orchards, with a population of smallholders and labourers who mostly lived in rows of thatched cottages outside the East Gate. A valuable guide to the population and wealth of Exeter is provided by the Hearth Tax rolls of 1671-2. They show that St Sidwell's had the highest number of households (356) with the majority (223) containing just one hearth - too poor to pay the Hearth Tax. This can be compared with St Petrock's parish, where two thirds of the families occupied houses with three hearths or more. By that time St Sidwell's had become the most populous parish, overtaking the second biggest parish (St Mary Major) in the middle of that century. Hoskins uses marriage records to show that St Sidwell's roughly doubled in population between 1570-79 and 1670-79, with the average number of marriages per annum rising from 13.8 to 27.2. At the time of the Hearth Tax the population was reckoned to be rather more than 1,700. Hoskins comments "The majority of the inhabitants must have consisted of a labouring population dependent upon the energy, activity and accumulated wealth of other men" (from Industry, Trade and People in Exeter 1688-1800). Newton states "By the 1690s its population was finding a major source of employment in the developing brickfields" (Eighteenth Century Exeter). It also became home to the labourers in the flourishing wool and serge industries. Being predominantly working-class there was much poverty and associated problems such as disease (in 1695 due to a "great fever" there were 145 burials in contrast to the average of 42.5 of the 4 preceeding years) and food riots (in 1766 magistrates and constables were stoned in the parish). With the decline of the industries, it appears that the labourers of St Sidwell's, by the end of the eighteenth century, had begun to find alternative employment in what would today be described as service industries: carriers, victuallers, coach-makers, harness-makers, grooms, postboys, personal servants, etc. There were still a large number of weavers however in 1803 at the time of the Militia List (see bibliography), another very important guide to the inhabitants of Exeter before the 1841 census. In 1803 there were a total of 436 men between the ages of 17 and 55, including 40 weavers. Other professions related to the declining wool and serge industries can also still be found: 3 Sergemakers, 3 Woolcombers, 1 Woolsorter. In 1801 the parish had a population of 2,707 with 403 inhabited houses. The low thatched cottages of the weavers were gradually replaced by the brick houses of the middle-classes that began to settle in the parish - St Sidwell's was becoming part of Exeter's commuter belt with the demand for comfortable houses in more rural surroundings, but remaining within easy reach of shops and social attractions. The number of inhabited houses rose to 1,070 in 1831 (up 138 per cent from 1801, compared with 50 per cent for the city as a whole). The population was 6,602 in 1831 and 9,663 in 1851 (including 317 in the Exeter workhouse).
Edited by James Brannan - last changed 4 Jan. 1997