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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2001

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June 2001 Contents

Counting the population

This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the first census held in England. Many countries took censuses before Britain. Quebec completed one as early as 1666; Iceland in 1703, Sweden in 1749 and Germany soon followed. In the United States census taking was delayed until 179o because of religious opposition. People feared that a census might incur the wrath of God because a census of the Israelites ordered by King David was followed by a plague that killed 70,000 people.

This view was used as an argument against census taking in Britain when a Bill was introduced into the House of Commons in 1753. The people of Newcastle-upon-Tyne 'looked upon the proposal as ominous and feared .... an epidemical distemper should follow the numbering', according to Matthew Ridley, their MP. When a second Bill came before Parliament in 1Soo there was widespread concern that the growing population might be outstripping the country's ability to grow sufficient food. The debate was fuelled by Thomas Malthus's 'Essay on the Principle of Population' published in 1798 and bad harvests in 1800 ensured that the Bill was passed. The census was held on March lo, 1801.

Many early returns or lists of populations do survive. For example the parish of Binfield has returns before the national census began and the official census for 1801 includes all the names of those living in the parish with family relationships, although not birthplace. For most of the country the censuses from 180l to 1831 merely recorded the number of people in each parish, the number of houses, some information on occupations and other statistics.

It was only in 1841 that a force of enumerators was employed specifically to take the census. Before then 'overseers of the poor' and other leading members of the parish took the census. The 1841 census was also the first one to use self-completed forms. 35,000 male enumerators - who were supplied with pencils recorded almost 16 million people in this census. Women census takers first took up posts in 1891. The requirements for a good census taker have not changed much in over 150 years: 'he must not be infirm; he must be temperate, orderly and respectable, and such a person has to conduct himself with strict propriety'. In many cases the lady of the house must have taken responsibility for the census form. There are some colourful examples of women taking advantage of their position as census form fillers. In 1881, one women gave her title as 'Maid of Allwork', her occupation as 'slave' and a handicap as 'scarcity of money'. In 1851 newspapers reported that a Portsmouth women gave her occupation as 'mangleworker' and listed the occupation of her husband as 'turns my mangle'.

(Sunday Evening, April 3, 1881.)

Enumerators were often extraordinarily diligent. There is even an instance of a zealous enumerator recording people sitting on a train in a station. There was no escape. And enumerators also liked to comment on what they found. One in Preston was shocked by the poverty of a neighbourhood in his patch and was at pains to point out one particular aspect of privation he found there: 'namely the serious insufficiency of conveniences for the easement of nature'. The Registrars General in the 1800s also commented enthusiastically on the social affairs of the day. In 1851, for example, the Registrar General, George Graham, justified a decision to count women engaged in domestic duties as part of the working population and not as inactive. He said: 'It requires no argument to prove that the wife, mother, mistress of the English family discharges duties of no ordinaray importance'.

'It is a fact worth notice....' declared The Times in 1851, 'that generally among the labouring classes it was by the care of the women that the required information was secured' in the census. Enumerators were not always welcome, one in Yorkshire noted: some very nice language was indulged in at my expense. In asking some questions I run the risk of being kicked out'. The early censuses asked if people were 'lunatics' and 'imbeciles' or 'idiots'. In 1881 the Registrar General commented: 'It is against human nature to expect a mother to admit her young child to be an idiot, however much she may fear this to be true. To acknowledge the fact is to abandon all hope'. Enquiries into infirmities ceased after 1911.

Dave Annal works at the Family Records Centre and in his spare time he tracks down the famous, and infamous, recorded in the nineteenth century census returns. He knows where to find all the big names: Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, W.G. Grace, Karl Marx, Edward Elgar, and Charles Darwin. 'The strange thing about Queen Victoria', says Dave, 'is that in 1851 her occupation is recorded as The Queen and she is the Sovereign of much of the world, but for all that she doesn't rule her own household as far as the census is concerned. Albeit, her husband, who takes the title head of household at Buckingham Palace, runs that little corner of England. Ten years later, the Queen relegated Albert and he was described as husband'.

Many other women who are household names today were also sidelined in the census forms. George Eliot (her real name was Marian Evans) is recorded simply as the wife of her 'partner' George Henry Lewes in 1861 and 1871 (although she never actually married him).

There really was a Coronation Street in Manchester in 1861 and a Rovers Return in 1881. There was also a Mrs. E. Sharples living on the Street, at No. 2, and she is listed as widowed. As for Eastenders there was an Albert Square. Occupations of those living on the Square are given as brothel-keepers, sailors, pimps and prostitutes - there's even Victoria Lodge. Soaps indeed are true to life.

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updated 20th August 2001