OK, I’ll admit it – it sounds a bit fantastic. But hear me out, it’s not totally crazy.
Why would I think this entry from the 1861 census of England might be James Casbon?
For starters, here is a little background. James was my fourth great uncle, the youngest brother of my third great grandfather, Thomas Casbon (1803–1888), who came to the United States in 1846. James was born in about 1813 or 1814, and followed his brother Thomas to Indiana in 1870. He has been the subject of two previous posts: “James Casbon of Meldreth, England and Porter County, Indiana” and “James Casbon in the 1880 U.S. Census, Porter Township, Porter County, Indiana.” Thanks in part to James’ propensity to father children, he is possibly the patriarch of more of today’s living Casbons than anyone else of his generation.
For a long time, I’ve been frustrated by the fact that I haven’t been able to find James or most of his children in the 1861 census. I have him in the 1841 and 1851 censuses. After 1851, he doesn’t appear in a census again until the 1880 United States Census, when he was living in Indiana (he missed both the 1870 U.S. and 1871 U.K. censuses because he emigrated in late 1870). This leaves a huge gap in my knowledge of James’ whereabouts before he came to America.
The time period between 1851 and 1880 isn’t a total blank. I know that his first wife, Elizabeth (Waller) died in August 1852, and their youngest daughter, Emma (b. 1851) died in November 1853., Their deaths left James responsible for seven children ranging from 4 to 17 years old. This must have placed a tremendous burden on him. He was a poor agricultural laborer, without a steady income, on one of the lowest rungs of the social order. His situation could have come from a Dickens novel.
In 1851, James and Elizabeth had seven children.  His oldest son, William, age 15, was already working as an agricultural labourer.
After Elizabeth died, it’s likely that some of the older children had to find work, and some might have been placed with other families, or even a public institution (daughter Emma died at the “Royston Workhouse”).
Since I was unable to find James in the 1861 census using traditional search methods, I decided to use a more broad-based approach. Sometimes surnames are so badly misspelled that they yield false negative search results. So, instead of searching by surname, I searched for any males named James born in Meldreth between 1808 and 1818.
This approach yielded 9 results. Of these, the one for James Randle caught my eye. Why? Because he was living in Cottenham.
I knew that James had lived in Cottenham shortly before coming to the United States. Specifically, James’ place of abode was listed as Cottenham when his son Amos James was baptized (in nearby Stretham) in August, 1869. I also know that James married Mary Jackson in Stretham, in 1866, so it’s also possible that he was living in Cottenham then.
Besides the location, other information in the 1861 census entry suggests that James Randle and James Casbon could be the same person. James Randle’s age is listed as 45. James Casbon would have been about 47 in 1861. Age discrepancies are common in census records, and a 2-year difference is minor. (It’s also possible that James Casbon did not know his exact age.) Like James Casbon, James Randle is listed as a widower and an agricultural laborer. And of course, both were from Meldreth.
Who was Thomas Randle? Look again at the 1851 census. James and Elizabeth’s fifth child, and second son, is recorded as “Thos,” age 6. His age is a close match to 15-year old Thomas Randle’s.
The fact that James and Thomas Randle were lodging in a public house during the census is interesting. It suggests they had recently arrived, or perhaps were looking for work.
Is there any evidence that someone named James Randle really was born in Meldreth during the eighteen teens? I’ve searched all the baptism, marriage, and burial records for Meldreth and nearby areas, and there are no entries for Randle or similar names. Nor does he turn up in censuses prior to 1861. Also, I haven’t found any records for a Thomas Randle in or near Meldreth.
Why would James Casbon be going under an assumed name? It would suggest that he did not want to be found – by the law or creditors. We know that he was a poor man, so debt could have been an issue. It’s also possible that he was on the lam for a criminal offense.
What about James’ other children – why aren’t they listed in the census along with James and Thomas? By 1861, the older children were in their late teens and early twenties, so it’s likely they were already employed elsewhere. That still leaves the two younger children, George and John, who would have been 14 and 12, respectively. After an exhaustive search, I haven’t been able to find either one in the 1861 census (although they appear again in later censuses). It’s possible that they were given up to other families after their mother’s death, but this still doesn’t explain their absence from the 1861 census.
Another possibility is that the surname listed on the census is incorrect. What I mean is that it really was James Casbon in Cottenham, but whoever recorded the information made a mistake. How could this happen? The way a census was taken is that a form, known as a schedule, was handed out to each household, to be completed by the head of household. The census enumerator collected the forms on the following day and entered the information from the schedules into the Census Enumerator’s Book (CEB). The original census schedules have not been retained, and it is only the CEB that remains. This is the census record showing James and Thomas Randle, above.
What if the head of household was illiterate? We know from the 1880 U.S. Census that James “cannot write.” So it’s possible that the owner of the public house or someone else completed the census schedule for him. The name could have been written incorrectly; or the enumerator might have transcribed the information incorrectly into the CEB.
Are you convinced? I hope not. All I’ve presented is circumstantial evidence. It’s far from a compelling argument. But I think there’s a decent possibility that I’m right. If I’m wrong, and James Randle was not James Casbon, then who was he?