Census 2021: and those of old

Census 2021: and those of old

Census 2021 is upon us! By now, every household in the UK is likely to have received a letter addressed to The Householder, asking them to complete the details.

These days, you can just go to www.census.gov.uk and (using the unique code in the letter) fill it all in online.

But of course, previous returns were all done by hand. And that involved an ‘army’ of enumerators, often going to great lengths to track down every person in their schedule area.

But first:

Census 2021: why bother?

Like many keen family historians, I can’t wait for 1921 census to made available, through genealogy sites (this is likely to happen early in 2022). I’m sure those who filled in the 1921 forms did so without much thought for posterity, but I’m sure they’d be happy if they knew they were leaving an exciting record for their descendants. 

Your great-grandchildren may likewise, come 2121, eagerly anticipate the public release of Census 2021, to learn more about you. This will survive when your digital photos and social media accounts have long vanished!

Great lengths

Some bygone enumerators really did go the extra mile to include everyone. Sadly, I haven’t got a note of the details. But I do recall seeing one entry for two men whose address was something like: “under a hedge, in a field”! I guess census 2021 compilers also have to find ways to track those with no fixed address.

Local history

When I was researching for my book Port Carlisle, a history built on hope, 

I pulled a lot of statistics from the census returns. For instance, in 1841, the population was 225 people. From a ‘standing start,’ as it were, as prior to the canal opening in 1823, there had been no village, only scattered farms and pubs. As the canal failed and the railway failed in its turn, the population dropped again: by 1911, it was down to 123 people.

The occupations reflect this: in 1841, there were 12 mariners, three customs officers/excise officers/tide waiters and a harbourmaster, two lock-keepers, and a warehouseman.

By 1911, there were no mariners. There was a man called Henry Harrop, who at 36 was living in the old Bath House (main picture) and filled in his occupation as ‘retired pensioner’!

Family history

Taking the example of Henry Harrop and the puzzling ‘early retirement’… A check on the 1939 returns (done instead of a 1941 census) shows he had served in the Army. So at 36, he was an Army pensioner. By 1939, he’d taken up poultry farming. His address was Solway View (which is just outside Port Carlisle village). His birth date was July 4, 1874, and with him were his wife Jane A M Harrop, and some people with the surname Hope. 

From this starting point, and using other records, we can learn that Henry served in the Border Regiment, before being discharged as medically unfit in 1903.

This was as a result of a shoulder injury, sustained in action during the Boer War in South Africa, in 1900. 

This didn’t stop him re-enlisting in 1915, aged 42, to ‘do his bit’ in the First World War.

According to the 1911 census, Henry’s wife was Jane Ann Mark, born Carlisle, and they’d been married seven years. The marriage index has her as Jane Ann Mark-Bell. (And him as Harry Harrop).

Henry was born in Handley, Staffordshire. The 1901 census shows him boarding in Kirkby Lonsdale, occupation – looks like ‘sergeant pisti—-‘ Which leads me to….

Some advice on census searches

It used to be the only way to find someone on census return was to visit an archives centre in person, load up a reel of microfilm, and scroll through every single entry in the hope of finding the right person. No mean task if your ancestor lived in a large town. And you had to know where they were for sure in the first place.

These days, on genealogy sites, you key in search terms and up pop a list of results. But there are two reasons you can draw a blank:

  • transcriber error
  • enumerator error

The people who transcribed the census returns to index them faced the task of deciphering the original handwriting. As a personal example: I recall guessing desperately the the squiggles on one census sheet said ‘Church’. Turned out they said: ‘Elswick’!

And the enumerators also made mistakes, or wrote what they heard. I once saw, as ‘place of birth’ the word ‘Deutschland’. Presumably the resident’s English was limited, and the enumerator had no idea they were born in Germany!

At least when you fill in Census 2021, you will be leaving your descendants clearer answers!