Census 2021 – 220 years of number crunching

How do we know agricultural labourers formed the biggest employment group in 1841? Or that 1,038,791 people earned their living as servants in1851? Or if there are more women than men?  Why, a census of course. And 2021, is census year.

From the late eighteenth century, the industrial revolution was gobbling up the countryside and it felt like there were more people than ever – but unless you perform some sort of exercise to prove it, some type of head count, there’s no evidence to back up perception.

England and Wales have ‘counted’ their population every decade since 1801. For the three censuses between 1801-1831 only 791 listings (at parish level) have survived usually naming only the householder.

I love looking at old censuses. The 1841 is quirky. No relationships are recorded for the household so anyone in the same house could be related – or not. Ages are given; but for those over 15, they’re rounded to the nearest 5 years and, although the rule was to round down, the enumerator didn’t always follow instructions. Enumerators had to be literate but, of course, the majority of the working class in 1841 weren’t and, because the main householder was supposed to complete their own form, you can imagine issues resulting from illiteracy. Handwriting was appalling and numbers badly formed. Once the schedules were completed, they were collected by the enumerator and copied into handbooks. These are the documents we find online. Now consider the enumerator who couldn’t read the writing or the numbers. He did as accurate a job as he could but there are often mistakes. I’ve seen ‘Emm’ transcribed all number of things like Evans, Emms, Im or Emin and no, I’m not related to artist Tracey.

People were often recorded with a pet name so baby of the family could be ‘Billy’ not William and it was common to name children after their parents. A hypothetical example: let’s call both mum and daughter Elizabeth Jane. In the census, mum  might be ‘Betty’ and daughter ‘Jenny!’ This confuses an awful lot of family historians until they realise shouting ‘Bert’ in a household with Albert senior and Albert junior and another son called Herbert put everyone in a tizzy.

Census day was usually held in March or April (it’s Sunday 21st March in 2021) and the census counted everyone staying overnight at an address. This is why you find ‘visitor’ in some households;  often relatives – mum staying with son and daughter-in-law, or grandma visiting a new grandchild. 

Desperately poor families might rent out a room, cellar or attic to another family for extra income. These might be recorded as lodgers or enumerated in the same building as a separate household. What did this tell statisticians? The area was poor with a high density of population.

Where people originated from was another statistic extracted from the census. Twenty five per cent of Lancashire’s population in 1861 was from outside the county. Economic migration in process… The Irish were crossing the sea to Liverpool for employment. The railway network was expanding and people followed the railways from the south to the north or north to the south. Not only could agricultural workers leave the countryside to seek more profitable work elsewhere but they might even (often did) work for the railway companies.  As technology progressed, machinery replaced manual labour and the workforce deviated towards a different industry.  A 20th century example is the replacement of male clerks with female secretaries and huge typing pools full of women. Computerisation in the 21st century resulted in a proliferation of people working in IT. Where are those secretaries now?  Remember carbon paper?

The paper census of yesterday is largely digitised in 2021 but the trend of where we live, how we earn a crust and how long we live is as important as ever.

Of course, for family historians out there, we use the census for a completely different reason. Snooping on the progress of our family; how they loved, where they lived and how they improved their economic standing  – or not. The ups and downs throughout the centuries.

Can you remember what you were doing and where you were living in 2011 and 2001? Next year, 2022, the 1921 census will be released initially on FindMyPast (subscription). The 2021 census will be released to nosey parkers like you and me in 2121 so if anyone recently born reaches their centenary, they can see themselves in the palimpsest of history. 

For more information on the history of the census and what information was gathered over the years, see The National Archives and Family Search. And, if you are in England and the UK, relish in completing that form!