Making sense of the census

Newbury Branch meeting 9th May 2018

Speaker: Tom Doig

Tom Doig is a social historian rather than a family historian, so his use of the census is a little different from ours. Generally, he is looking for much broader trends than individual families, or people.

          He introduced some of the censuses before the familiar 1841 – 1911 set, many of which were, initially at least, set up to for taxation or ecclesiastical purposes. Militia lists were annually updated, and covered males between 18 and 45 years of age. They were liable to be called up if they were needed to fight battles. The lists included each person’s age, occupation, relationships, and where they lived. These lists can be a useful census substitute.

His advice included looking a little wider than your own family to get a flavour of the area. Don’t mistake schedule numbers for house numbers (though sometimes they are). “Lliving on own means” is often taken for being wealthy, but it doesn’t mean that: rather, it denotes someone not relying on parish support (but who is possibly supported by family and friends).

          Census forms have a right-hand column for anyone in the family who is an “idiot”, “imbecile” or “lunatic”. These are similar but different conditions; an “idiot” has had the condition since birth, as for example Downs Syndrome; an “imbecile” has only become so in later life, eg Alzheimer’s; and a “lunatic” has a condition which comes and goes, perhaps with the moon or, as he suggested towards the end of his talk, residents of a drying-out clinic.

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