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Blogging about things that matter to me. Photographing things I love - Instagram @debcyork. Writing about both. Only wine and chocolate can save us… You can also find me on Twitter (@debcyork) and Facebook. If you like four-legged views, try @missbonniedog on Twitter

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Copperplate or maybe not

Apologies for the lack of blogging - should you be avidly awaiting new installments (!).  Girls weekend away plus mad puppy to look after.  Puppy is sleeping less, most annoyingly.

Anyway, today I thought I would ponder about the enumerators who conducted the UK censuses.  During the web chat for my course, someone asked a question about when women were allowed to start working as enumerators [we were talking about how difficult the handwriting was to read sometimes!] and it turned out that it was not until 1891.  To be honest, I had not given the process of conducting a census a great deal of thought but this question made me Google the how's and whereby's.  So I present a short guide to how they managed to conduct a census in the days before we were all presented with a fair sized book to fill in and expected to sort it out mostly by ourselves!

The first thing to make clear is that although it is exciting to see the "original images" when you log onto an online census provider, the censuses are actually secondary sources for information, not primary.  This is because what you see may be (mostly beautifully) handwritten but it has generally been compiled onto that collective form for the street or area after the event.  I have to admit that I didn't know this.  I had visions of a kind of door to door survey, I suppose. 
In a way, it still was  door to door survey because the 33,000 specially recruited enumerators were each given an "Enumeration District" of about two hundred households.  In theory, this amount was about a day's work.  However, as can be imagined, the variation between locations made the allocation of these districts quite unfair sometimes.  Imagine if you were given two hundred households in the Yorkshire Dales, with  miles in between?  Or 200 "households" in the East End of London only to discover three families living at each tenement address in the slums?
Each household was given a form on the enumerator's first visit.  The next day, the enumerators returned to collect the forms, give help filling them in where required and to chase any uncooperative householders.  (Here I will resist the temptation to talk about the Wikipedia article I found about the number of people who now put Jedi Knight as their religion on modern census forms.  Click on the link!)
The information from the forms was then transcribed into a Census Enumeration Book (CEB) for each district.  It was these which were then sent on to the Census Office in London.  Some original forms still exist but not all.  Later censuses are more likely to have the forms online and you may see your ancestor's signature in that case.
Some of the articles which I read in looking into the census process detailed the recruitment process for the enumerators.  In 1871, the ad in The Times stated that the individuals must be
"intelligent, trustworthy, active, be able to write well, have some knowledge of arithmetic"
and be
"temperate, orderly, and respectable, conduct himself in strict propriety and civility in the discharge of his duties" [1]
The first census to attempt to survey every household was in 1841.  It was held on Sunday 6 June.  Thereafter, the census was always March/April as in 1841, it was realised too late that lots of people were working away for the harvest season!  And there you were wondering why that is the census time every ten years.  Nothing to do with April Fools Day, don't worry.
So it can be seen that human error has a lot to answer for in terms of information that can be gleaned from a census return for our ancestors.  Spelling of names, calculation of ages and so on were all dependent on the character and abilities of the enumerator dealing with their forms.  In the modern age, there is also the problem of transcription of the original CEBs for online search use.  The original images are examined and then the assumed contents typed into online forms.  Another hurdle for human error!
Still, a census return for your ancestors is a fascinating thing, snapshot of life though it is (see my earlier post Ten Years of Life!).  It is just a pity that the hundred year rule was introduced because the next time we will see new data will be 2021.  At least that gives the family tree websites time to gird their loins and their systems to cope with the onslaught of people wanting to see the next part of their ancestors' stories, even if they will have to have that pinch of salt ready in terms of the "trustworthy"...!
[1] The Times newspaper, 8 February 1871

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