Sunday, 22 February 2009

Filling in the Form

Our ancestors understood what a census was much more than they understood how to fill in a census form.

When it came to the statistical columns they were prone to give totals rather than a tick for each individual member. Most of them gave the names of the household, usually—but not always--starting with the family arranged in descending order of age from the head. The family was followed by other household members: possibly aged parents, the wife’s sister, lodgers, live-in employees and/or servants. Relationships were not requested, but can often be assumed. For each “inmate”, as the census form described them, the occupation, birthplace, religion and age was listed. Quite often the only occupation given was that of the head of the household; servants, particularly young ones, were seldom indicated as such.

The fun begins with the columns headed Male and Female. Suddenly the head of the house tires of all this writing and tells us there were, say, 5 males and 4 females. Not very helpful when he had used initials in place of names when listing the family in the first place. Who is to know whether the family included John and Mary, or Matthew and Jane? Sometimes the male and female columns for school attendance can narrow down the problem, but that depended on the age of the family.

The column titled Married or Single also caused problems. Answers were quite often omitted, perhaps because the title was set sideways on on the form, and not easily readable by those with little education. It was also confusing to them whether they should answer with ‘m’ or ‘s’ or with a tick for married. Two further columns for Widowers and Widows were more likely to be filled in where necessary, particularly if it was the head of the household so described.

The next set of columns dealt with Family Members and Non Family Members. This was a difficult concept for many. Many a lodger or servant was included as a family member. In St Lawrence’s Ward no one was considered non-family, in St John’s they were much more selective. Another peculiarity to be blamed on the individual enumerator?

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