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In defence of the census


The UK’s national statistician has suggested that next year’s census could be our last. After 200 years of officially documenting Britain’s households, it may be scrapped in favour of cheaper and easier ways of collecting the data. But for historians and social scientists this precious document provides a treasure trove of information about lives of ordinary people through the ages. Professor Sarah Richardson from Warwick’s Department of History explains why we should mourn the loss of the decennial census.

For anyone interested in the lives of ordinary people in the past, the lack of source material is extremely frustrating. Before 1841, we get only glimpses in records such as tax returns or court cases. All this changed with the introduction of the population census taking at ten yearly intervals from 1801 (the only exception was 1941 due to World War II). The first three census registers only returned a figure for the population of each district but from 1841, the name and details of every person and their address on a particular night (6 June in 1841) was listed by census enumerators.

This rich archive of material opens a window on the lives of ordinary people in the past providing systematic information on their names, ages, family size and relationships, occupations and birth places. Using this information historians have been able to trace key demographic and economic shifts in nineteenth-century Britain, for example the rise of white collar occupations or improving rates of infant mortality. Those interested in family histories are able to uncover lost details from their own past: the previous marriage(s) of great great grandparents or routes of migration from the rural south to the industrial north.

The hidden lives of significant figures

If you want to find out more information about significant figures, then turn to the census. For example, in her twenties, Charlotte Bronte spent nine months working as a governess for the White family of Upperwood House, Guiseley in 1841. On the night of the census, she appears to be the responsible adult for Sarah (aged 8), Jasper (6) and Arthur (1) both parents being absent. In 1851, Charles Dickens having separated from his wife is living in Hannover Square, London with his daughter, two sons and four servants. His wife’s sister, Georgina Hogarth, is listed as his ‘servant housekeeper’ providing a glimpse into the impact of the separation. Georgina sided with Charles rather than her sister Catherine and remained with him until his death in 1870. Queen Victoria’s entry in 1861 shows her residing at Osborne Palace with the Prince Consort, who died shortly after census night. Details of the household take up five pages and include over 80 servants including table deckers, lamplighters and silver pantry staff.

Until 1901 the census registers were completed by enumerators who went from house to house collecting the information. But in 1911, we have the written returns from householders themselves. The 1911 census is also known as the fertility census, as due to concerns about the health of the nation, married women were instructed to detail the number of years they had been married, the number of children born alive and the number that had died.

Voices of protest

The 1911 record is also famous as being a target for protest by women’s suffrage campaigners who sought to frustrate the aims of a government that they had not elected and had no voice in. Many militant suffragettes boycotted the census entirely, for example by camping out on Wimbledon Common, taking a horse-drawn caravan across Salisbury Plain or even, in the case of Emily Wilding Davison, hiding in a cupboard in the House of Commons.

But women were prepared to protest in other ways. Ada Florence Wightwick, of Clarendon Square in Leamington, a member of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, scrawled 'Votes for Women!!' around the border of her return. Ada, who is described as having ‘private means’ also added to her signatures that she was a 'non-militant suffragist (at present)'. Such protests caused immense frustration to the civil servants processing the information. Many tried to frustrate the boycotts by filling in returns for the activists themselves. In Ada’s case, although she would never know, the enumerator who received her return pencilled in ‘No’ in front of each of the Votes for Women slogans.

The census registers have provided and continue to provide researchers with unprecedented access to information on the famous and the unsung giving intriguing insights into their daily lives. Researchers of the future will surely mourn its demise.

For more information on suffrage activists and the 1911 census, visit the Mapping Women's Suffrage project page. Led by Professor Sarah Richardson, the project is seeking to map all known women’s suffrage activists in England.


27 February 2020


Prof Sarah RichardsonProfessor Sarah Richardson is a research historian at the University of Warwick. She is an expert in women and political culture in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century.

Professor Richardson is currently leading the Mapping Women's Suffrage project, seeking to map all known women’s suffrage activists in England.

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