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Sam Plank update 33: April 2021

One, two, three, four: making sense of the census

Sunday 21 March 2021 was “census day” here in the UK.  Since 1801, full censuses have taken place in the different jurisdictions of the UK every ten years – except for 1941 (because of the Second World War), Ireland in 1921 (because of the Irish War of Independence) and Scotland in 2021 (because of the pandemic).  Counting the population is nothing new; the very word comes from the Latin 'censere', meaning to assess.  Originally devised to assist with the collection of taxes, modern censuses are used more widely, to help with resource allocation to regional and local service providers.  As the Sam Plank books are set in the years 1824 to 1830 inclusive, and the nearest censuses took place in 1821 and 1831, I do not deal with them in my plots – but historically, they are fascinating.

In its early days, the UK census was pretty much a head-count: with England almost constantly at war with France, the government of the time was concerned about population numbers (to make sure that we didn’t run out of soldiers).  Apart from 1841, the census was held on a Sunday in March or April: Sunday night was when most people would be at home, and March and April was before the agricultural season (when many people would be working away from home on harvests – which they discovered when they experimented with holding the 1841 census in June).
In the 1801 census, responses were not gathered from individual households (not least because low levels of literacy and numeracy would have made this impossible); instead, information was collected on a parish basis.  Forms for recording the information were distributed to each parish where the overseers of the poor, “substantial landholders” and local clergy all had a responsibility to collect specific types of data.  This included: the number of inhabited and uninhabited houses in the parish and how many families occupied them; the number of people in the parish and their employment; and numbers of baptisms, burials and marriages.  Once the statistics had been collected, they were sworn before the local Justice of the Peace and eventually sent to the Home Office.  The results were then collated and laid before Parliament.  A similar format was followed for the censuses of 1811, 1821 and 1831, with the addition of further questions.   In 1811, the enumerators were asked to give more information about the reasons houses were unoccupied, so that the prosperity of the district could be more accurately gauged.  In 1821 a question relating to age was asked, in order to assess numbers of men able to bear arms, and to improve the tables on which life assurance was based.  And more detailed questions on occupations from 1831 provided the government with economic information.  Victorian morality was also taking hold in 1831, and a question on illegitimacy appeared.
The census of 1841 was the first to record more detailed information, including the full name, sex, age (rounded down to the nearest five, if aged over 15) and occupation of each person living in the household – and so is the first to be of much use to family historians.  In 1851, questions were added about the relationship of each individual to the head of the household and whether any member of the household was blind or dumb, and more detailed information on place of birth was recorded.  It was also the first census to record the numbers living on vessels in inland waters or at sea (including the Royal Navy and merchant navy), those serving abroad with the forces and with the East India Company, and British subjects residing overseas.  And it was the first census to take an interest in health, thanks to the influence of William Farr, an epidemiologist pushing for sanitary reforms.

Only minor changes to the census forms were made over the next 50 years.  In 1871 people were asked whether any member of the household was an “imbecile or idiot” or “feeble-minded” – a question that was retained until 1911.  In 1871 and 1881, people were asked whether they were unemployed – a question not then repeated until 1931.  From 1891, each member of the household was asked whether they were an employer or employee and in 1901 a question asking whether people were working at home was introduced.  Thanks to an article in the Economist, we know that “on his return for the 1911 census William Rigby, a plumber from Birkenhead, listed his tomcat, Tobit Crackit, as part of his household.  Mr Crackit was eight years old and had spawned 16 children, all while working three jobs: ‘Mouse-Catcher, Soloist and Thief’.”
A census form from 1841
A census form from 1901
Epidemiologist William Parr
A cartoon from Punch in 1851 - the caption: Filling up the census paper. Wife of his bosum. “Upon my word, Mr Peewitt!  Is this the way you fill up your census paper?  Call yourself the ‘Head of the family’ – do you – and me a female!”
"The Census Enumerator in A Gray's Inn-Lane Tenement" - an engraving from 1861
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