How literate were our Victorian ancestors?

How many of our Victorian ancestors could read or write? Assessing levels of literacy in the past is no easy task. For a start, it’s likely that while people may not have been able to write, a skill they would rarely require, they could still read. Nonetheless, the ability to sign one’s name has been taken as a primitive measure of the ability to write.

In the 1840s and 50s one third of men in Cornwall and a half of women signed the marriage register with a mark. This then declined to around one in six for both genders by the 1880s, with the gap between men and women disappearing.

While the numbers signing with a mark steadily fell, throughout these years they remained higher than the English average although the gap remained fairly constant, both for men and for women, although it was narrower for women after 1865. Yet, improvements in literacy lagged behind many places in England. In 17 of the 40 English counties in 1845 the level of illiteracy for men was higher than in Cornwall but by 1885 only six English counties were worse. Similarly, in the case of women, ten English counties had higher rates of illiteracy in the 1840s, but only three in 1885.

Within Cornwall the registration district (RD) with the highest level of illiteracy in 1856 was Redruth, with St Austell having the second highest. The lowest levels of illiteracy in 1856 were found in Falmouth RD, there being a clear relationship between the inability to sign the marriage register and the number of people employed in mining. By 1871 Redruth was still the district with the highest rate of illiteracy, although agricultural Stratton RD in the far north was the next highest. By that year St Germans RD in the east had the lowest numbers of people signing with a mark.

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