Lost Lives: individuals in the census of Sunday April 3rd, 1881


An Epidemical Distemper

This is how it happened.

In the week before Sunday, April 3rd, 1881, after many newspaper announcements, a census enumerator delivered a form to every house in his allocated patch ("district"). The instructions had to be clear. One person in every house (and palace, and institution, and inn, and even lean-to) was to designate themselves the "Head" of the household. To that person fell the task of entering the names of everyone who spent the night at the house on the Sunday. He or she was asked to fill in the names, the ages, the gender, the marital status ("condition as to marriage"), the "rank, profession or occupation", and the place of birth of each person. There was a column to indicate the relation of each person to the head of the household. For good measure, the head of the household was also obliged to specify, where relevant, what, if any, disability any one of them suffered. Were they (a) Deaf-And-Dumb, (b) Blind, (c) Imbecile or Idiot, or (d) Lunatic?

On Monday, the enumerator came to call. He - for no woman was permitted to collect this information in 1881; another decade would elapse before that privilege was granted - would then collect the completed form, and take it away for closer scrutiny. Well, that was the theory. How many incomplete forms have you in your house as you read this? Did you return your tax details on time? Could you find the MOT certificate when you wanted it? Where did you put that docket? You put it there. Or was it there?

There is no reason to suppose that the Victorians were any more particular with official pieces of paper than we are. And besides, literacy levels themselves were only about 80% - an average figure weighted towards southern, urban districts. In northern, agricultural areas, some enumerators would certainly have had to help the householders out. It was still only five years since education from the age of five to thirteen had been made compulsory, and it would be some years before this compulsion had a full effect on attendance.

In many cases, the enumerator filled in the form on the doorstep. Some of those who gave the information might well have mumbled; many might have foxed the listener with a regional accent, or a heavily foreign inflection. Some of the Monday informants may not have known some of the precise details about the people in the house, flat, tenement, room, lodging. On several occasions, it will have come down to intelligent (or, of course, unintelligent) guesswork: about the name, about the age, about the relationship. And of course in some cases, the informants would have been neighbours, not the householders themselves. Do your neighbours know your exact age?

The enumerators would not have idled on the doorstep; the work was prolonged, taxing, and poorly paid. The hapless individuals who either took grateful hold of the forms, having checked that they were complete, or who filled them in themselves, would have been in a hurry to get on. Not all of them were handwriting wizards, either, although there were certainly several with serviceable copperplate. All we can say of them is that, if they filled the job specification, they were between 21 and 65, "temperate, orderly and respectable," and each could "conduct himself with strict propriety."

Their task had only just begun. Armed with the sheaves of paper, they were then required to transcribe the details on to single sheets which usually held about twenty-five names. After the trudging, the drudging. The opportunity for clerical errors multiplied at each stage. The head of the household might have written in impenetrable scribble; some enumerators were also faced with the task of deciphering their own hasty handwriting. Now, in transcribing the names, and all the details, their eyes increasingly tired, they would have been in the mood on occasion for some optimistic guesswork. A name like Catcheside might be transcribed as Caldwell; the name of one famously illegible writer, in the last years of his life, could only be deciphered as Karl Wass. The joint author of The Communist Manifesto duly makes a confusing appearance in the 1881 lists. In the case of the 1881 census, one of the only three to have been completely indexed, the fault of the head of the household and the enumerator has been compounded by more recent transcription, for the benefit of computer databases. There will be cases when a name has been wrongly written down, wrongly transcribed, and then wrongly transferred.

Pity the poor enumerator, then, as he hurries through his schedules, and attempts the rudimentary arithmetic. His head swims, his fingers ache, his pen-nib is twisted, he is tetchy, and his feet are still recovering from the slog - which could in some districts have amounted to thirty miles.

The 1881 census was by no means the first. There had been four taken in the years 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831, but these had been quite literally head-counts, and no attempt was intended to record the names of those living in the country. The first census in Victoria's reign, however, in 1841, listed names, and also gave a limited amount of extra information. There was space to give the occupation of the individuals, their age (to the nearest five or ten years), their sex, and whether or not they had been born in the county in which they were resident on the night in question. 1841 was the first and last of the censuses to specify "of independent means" as a potentially likely occupation, which says a little about the mind-set of those who devised the form.

From 1851 onwards, the information requested was more detailed; the birth-place, and the question about whether the resident was deaf, dumb, or blind was added in 1851; the 1861 form is largely the same, apart from columns which assist the enumerator. In 1871, the disability column gave the four curious choices given above, as if to be deaf was to be dumb. 1881's census adds a new question about the number of rooms inhabited, where these are fewer than five (in Scotland, this question had been asked since 1861). In 1891, in Wales (and in the disputed county of Monmouthshire), there was an additional question about whether the occupants spoke English, Welsh, or both: ten years earlier, the question about language had been tried in Scotland. The 1891 census also tried to distinguish between whether or not the respondents were employer or employed; there was an attempt to clarify this in 1901. Were you Employer, Worker or Own Account (that is, self-employed)? 1901 also helpfully added the phrase "feeble-minded" to the word "Lunatic"; and it enquired whether the people on the list were working at home or not.

The early, statistical censuses were destroyed after the information they contained had been charted and distilled into parliamentary reports. The decision to hold on to the 1841 information, with its long lists of names, must at the least have appealed to the spirit of the preservationist. After all, here was the first public record of the still largely disenfranchised multitude of people. They did not appear on electoral rolls. And even births, marriages and deaths had only been formally registered since late in 1837 (although it was not until 1875 that it became illegal not to register such an event). It was also effectively the first national database, and it may well have given some of the more imaginative members in the civil service ideas, just as it certainly engendered some suspicion in the population it was counting so diligently. Many people may have been nervous in particular about giving their birthplace, since the Poor Law rules required paupers to be housed in the "home" workhouse. But doubtless there were fears of even more sinister government action.

This is certainly what people in Newcastle thought as long ago as 1753, or at least it was what their MP, Matthew Ridley, thought when the first parliamentary proposal about censuses was made. This actually suggested an annual census. Mr. Ridley announced that his constituents thought the idea "ominous", and, the words slithering from his tongue in mounting grandiloquence, he added that they feared "an epidemical distemper should follow their numbering." His counterpart in York suggested that a census was a "most effectual engine of rapacity and repression." In the House Of Lords, one vociferous peer asked "To what end should our number be known, except that we are to be pressed into the fleet and the army? And what purpose will it answer to know where the kingdom is crowded and where it is thin, except we are to be driven from place to place as graziers do their cattle?" In 1753, at least, these arguments were enough to prevent the census taking place.

Ridley may have been right, however, about the suspicious nature of the North-Easterners. The 1821 census showed a significant increase in Newcastle and Gateshead, far in excess in the growth in numbers registered in towns of similar size. The Times , reporting on this in its edition of June 12th 1821, and citing the Newcastle Chronicle, noted of the North-East, that

"there would appear to be a very considerable increase of inhabitants as compared with the census of 1811. Part of this increase is probably owing to the very opposite circumstances in which the two censuses were taken... the year 1811 was a time of war: when, beside other causes of inaccuracies, many people either misunderstood the measure, or from groundless alarms of taxation and military service, were not reconciled to being numbered. The public have now manifested in every instance the utmost readiness to afford the information required. It is singular enough that in all the low and most thickly-populated parts of Gateshead, not a single individual was confined to bed...."

Gateshead had grown from 8,782 people in 1811 to about 13,000 in 1821. And this, it should be remembered, was before any names were required by the enumerators.

The enumerators themselves had their suspicions. The Daily News of April 21, 1851, reported an angry meeting of Hackney enumerators in the wake of the 1851 census. At a crowded meeting at the Old Mermaid Tavern in Church Street, a Mr. Handy, unanimously voted chairman, declared

"his conviction that the mere purpose of ascertaining the extent of the population was not the only one contemplated by the government; some other and more important object, and one perhaps hereafter to affect the interests of the community, was no doubt their principal intention."

Hacked-off Mr. Handy of Hackney received cheers at this point, before the main business got under way - viz. "the miserable spirit of parsimony which prevailed in the census department." Here they were, said a Mr. Andrews, respectable enumerators, about to receive "a pittance... which would barely compensate a street labourer." He detailed his workload which had led him to the "excessively heavy" work of dealing with 1,180 names.

"First, there was the counting of houses, inhabited and uninhabited, and the return thereof; then the delivery of 230 schedules at 180 houses, accompanied by incessant explanations; next the collection, in which was involved the duty of partially or wholly perfecting the schedules, besides combating no ordinary amount of ignorance, insolence, and studied annoyance; further, the correction and filling in, first of 920 lines of indorsement, and afterwards the copying in a book of upwards of 10,000 lines of column matter... and lastly, there was the casting, perfecting the columns, and completing the summary. For this labour, trying the temper, and patience, requiring much physical effort and a vigilant watchfulness, he was about to receive the very munificent sum of £1. 11s. - he was going to say and 4d, but it appeared... that this was the perquisite of the Census Office. (Laughter)."

Mr. Andrews had just found out from a previous speaker that "the fractional numbers above every 60 non-completed names, and other information required, would not be paid for." The Weekly Despatch , a fortnight later, reported another outbreak of census rage, this time at the Equestrian Tavern, Blackfriars Road. A Mr. Hallam repeated the complaint about odd numbers under (they mean "up to") 60 not being paid. He calculated that enumerators were being "mulcted by the Government to the amount of £375". Mr. Hallam had a good line about a registrar he knew "who had stated that if he lived till the next census, and wished to revenge himself upon an enemy, he would endeavour to appoint him an enumerator." In late May, an accountant called Cohen in Whitechapel took out a summons against the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, in respect of the underpayment. One hundred and fifty years later, in 2001, an enumerator from Harlow, Mr. Gordon Wardman, was still making the same point. He wrote to The Guardian . "We are not even provided with pens," he complained. "The fee for all this is £318... probably below the hourly national minimum wage."

Partly because of the subliminal paranoia about the census, some people avoided it. Some of them doubtless gave false names. The most likely lie was about age. It is true that many people were rather more vague about age in the nineteenth century, especially if they had been born at its start, and if they were from agricultural communities. But even Christian, the foolish boy in Hardy's The Return Of The Native , which is set in the 1840s, is able to say that he was "thirty-one last tatie-digging". An analysis of successive censuses found - as if to prove a stereotype - that women were far more likely to alter their ages than men. In 1951, the Office For National Statistics noted that

"Women... adjusted their ages upwards if they married young and down if they married later. Problem pages in newspapers and magazines were flooded with queries from distraught women, fearful that their true age would become public knowledge."

The Registrar General had been unwise enough to advise women to be more honest, provoking many letters to magazine agony columns. There was nothing new, however, in this. A column in The Times in 1891 feared that "ladies will exercise their usual prerogative." It had also been argued in the late nineteenth century that, whilst older women tended to knock years off their age, so younger women, particularly domestic servants (no reason was provided as to why, and the suspicion must be that the ignorance of the employers was to blame) had a tendency to increase theirs, thus "evening" things out, which of course it wouldn't have done.

It is certainly as easy to find discrepancies in the nineteenth century as in the early twentieth century. Margaret Johnstone, of Cleadon Village, near Sunderland, was 28 in 1881, 34 in 1891, and 42 in 1901. She was born in 1852; by 1901, she had stealthily lost six years. She was herself the head of the household in 1901; she was defiantly unmarried, with two illegitimate children. It is not clear who she was trying to impress. Perhaps she knew the enumerator. Not far away, in a small village on the edge of South Shields, White Leas, her sister Jane Johnstone declared herself widowed, although she too had never been married. She was seven months pregnant at the time, and she had a seventeen-year-old daughter called Ethel. Jane was limbering up for the fib on the impending birth certificate, on which she claimed that the father of her new son, coincidentally sharing her original surname, was a "George Johnstone", unhappily deceased. In fact, it was my great-great-grandfather...

The census has usually been suspected of being intrusive. The painter J.M.W. Turner allegedly hid on a boat on the Thames, rather than be entered in the 1841 census; it is not clear what he wished to conceal. A number of "middle class intellectuals" were apparently attempting to catch the boat train to France from Southampton, in order to avoid the 1851 census, when they were stopped at the railway station, and enumerated along with the station staff. There have been other, more voluble, and sometimes eccentric protests. The novelist Alan Sillitoe put his age down as 101 in the 1991 census, and refused to give more than his name and address. "It would assist," he said, "disgusting repatriation exercises any time anybody saw fit." In the same year, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts was one of 342 refuseniks who were prosecuted for not filling in the form. He was fined £350. "Those who fill in the forms are sheep," he remarked. In 1961, writer Derek Sampson, later the author of Grump Strikes Back , also declined to be rounded up. "On principle, I refuse to fill in the form," he fulminated. "I just resent government bureaucracy. They send round people asking private citizens to answer all sorts of questions without ever bothering to explain why they need the information." He was fined a fiver, and £7.14s.6d costs. "If it costs me a tenner, that will be all right with me," he said. It was all right by Brian Brushette from Leigh-on-Sea to accept a two-month prison sentence in 1966 (when there was, uniquely, a sample census), rather than pay a tenner. "The census," he insisted, kissing his wife Freda and four young children goodbye, "is an intrusion on my private life." Montague Mostyn of Shoreham had the same allergic reaction to the 1966 sample. "It was worth it to me," he said, not to fill in the form. An Englishman's home is still his castle." Mr. Mostyn took particular exception to the question about whether or not he had an inside lavatory.

In Merthyr Tydfil, poet Horace Jones got away with a fine of two quid in 1966, although he announced that he wouldn't pay. "There is already waiting in the wings the next act of this grim charade," he declaimed, "the fingerprint takers. After that, who knows what will happen?" Five years earlier, Lady Barbara Beaumont refused to give any information to the owner of the guest-house in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, where she was staying. She shut her bedroom door, and told the owner's wife, Mrs. Doris Clark, to tell the enumerator to go to hell. The Burnham magistrates were unsympathetic. Lowestoft magistrates were more sensitive to a haulage contractor called Peter Beamish, when doling out the mandatory fine. "If more did like me," he told the court, "I should not be standing here now, because they would not want the whole country in the box." The chairman of the magistrates confessed that "we admire your principles... I may say we feel a little bit sympathetic towards you."

In 1951, Sir Ernest Benn, the founder and ex-president of the Society Of Individualists, wrote the following across his form:

In view of the critical state of the national economy, I must refuse to take any part in this unnecessary waste of man-power, money, paper and print... I must be prepared to take the consequences. It is simply a question of national economy. We must cut something down.

Sir Ernest (later fined £5 and two guineas costs by Dorking magistrates) then handed his census form in, thereby presumably setting a bureaucratic paper-trail in motion. After receiving his fine, he complained of "a growth of snooping into general matters." In 2001, eighty-year-old John Papworth, a Witshire vicar who had once achieved notoriety by sheltering George Blake, the double-agent who made a successful jail-break, also demurred. He claimed that the census information would undermine the sovereignty of Great Britain, presumably in contrast to Blake's passing of secrets to Russia (he accused the government of "mischief, sedition and treason", too). He was fined £120, perhaps including a surcharge for irony by-pass.

Sometimes there were religious protests. In 1901, a Blackburn man named Ferris, whose Brotherhood Church followed the teachings of Count Tolstoi, refused to complete his schedule, on the grounds that he was coerced, and that it was against his religion. This cost him a twenty-shilling fine, plus costs. Ten years earlier, Lord James Douglas was in the dock. Against his wife's occupation he had written "cross sweep", and he had also noted that she was a lunatic (she wasn't). His schedule also claimed that his son was a shoeblack "born in darkest Africa". In 1971, two Grenadier guards were arrested by their adjutant, having written that their employer was The Queen, that their work was "tourist attraction", and that their occupation was "target practice for the IRA". (Actually, one wonders how the adjutant knew, and quite why he wasn't prosecuted!)

In 1901, a Miss E. Kirby, of Victoria Street, South West London, was had up for refusing to fill in her form. Her solicitor painstakingly suggested - to no avail - that she had thought it was probably a hoax, since the papers were delivered on April 1st. Arthur Dooley, the Liverpool sculptor, told the registrar Michael Reed, in 1971, that Reed was "doing P.R. work or market research for big business and insurance companies," and bluntly insisted, "I am not going to fill it in; I would rather go to jail." (Dooley later proved predictably unco-operative when cornered for This Is Your Life by Eamonn Andrews, at whom he threw some choice expletives). In the same year, Mr. Albert Buckman of Rainham in Essex stood outside his house with a pick-axe and a protest banner, awaiting his hapless enumerator. In 1921, Mr. Francis Gordon Pratt of Bayswater filled in the form with his own details, but declined absolutely to provide any information about his servants. He had no more time to ask them than to play the piano, he declared - in a four-page letter to the government, which he presumably dashed off very quickly indeed. In 1981, in Dulwich, a trainee social worker who had volunteered as an enumerator was chased down the street by a man who refused to answer his impertinent questions. In 1971, an enumerator called Spencer Eyles reported a hospital gardener, Bertram Bateman, for tearing up his census form. Mr. Bateman was then summarily dismissed by the Northampton hospital trust which employed him, losing his home, a tied cottage, in the process (Spencer Eyles, the enumerator, subsequently resigned his job). One enumerator in Birmingham in 1961 had a different problem to contend with. Announcing that "I'm the man from the census", he had fend off the riposte "No need to bother with us. We get all our stuff from the Co-op." A meeker approach was adopted in 1891 by a "deeply-veiled" lady, who took £5.2s.6d to the authorities, and let it be known through The Scotsman that she had falsified her age. This is thought to be the only instance of such a guilty confession. Mrs. Bernice Smith of Weymouth took a different stance in 1981. She billed Patrick Jenkin, then Secretary of State for Social Services for a fiver, to pay for the hour and ten minutes she had spent filling in her form. In doing so, she was following the example of an unnamed Devonian, who sent the Registrar-General an invoice as follows in 1961:

To labour involved in completing one census form. Ten minutes at 8s per hour 1s 4d
To materials used, i.e, ball-point pen, ink, and wear and tear of pen 1d
To inconvenience caused by census enumerator calling at a late hour, 8.35 p.m., and thereby disturbing my two small children from their sleep 1s 0d
Total 2s 5d

From time to time, the census has been politicised. The Sunday Mirror attacked the 1971 census with the headline "MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS", reflecting a suggested campaign of civil disobedience by the Liberal Party, then at a very low ebb, with only six parliamentary seats, although Les Huckfield, Labour's Nuneaton M.P., supported the campaign. People were "fools and simpletons", he protested, if they thought their information would remain private. Two women protestors stripped off, supposedly thereby revealing how the census would lay their very beings naked to the world. Onlookers and photographers were predictably less impressed by the message, and more by the medium (no-one bothered much to publicise St. Albans engineer, Terry Hill, who also stripped to the waist). Rumours spread amongst students that the computer, first used in earnest in 1971, after a 1961 experiment, would be unable to read the forms if they were rubbed with candle-wax. The leader of the Liberals, Jeremy Thorpe, made a much-reported speech in Barnstaple, in which he voiced his "great suspicion" of the computer's potential intrusions. "This is the first time a full census will be computerised, and the last chance we have to question a data-bank society before that society overwhelms us," he told the crowd. (He later admitted to providing information on his census form, but refusing to answer for his visitors).

The Young Liberal conference in Plymouth took its cue from Mr. Thorpe. Four hundred delegates marched on to The Hoe, chanting "Burn your census", and delegate Sue Rogers ripped off her top, to reveal a flesh-coloured bra, her census number (6174), and the word SOUL. She claimed she would take everything off, if it would stop the census, thus showing some canny political insight. Some Bristol Young Liberals subsequently staged a ritual bonfire of census forms in the city's open-air market, and asked passing women if they had illegitimate children (the census that year asked women about the number of their marriages and the status of their children). Somehow this seems unlikely to have been an endearing or effective tactic. At least the British census has never matched the 1997 census in Turkey for impertinence. This census asked women over twelve years of age how many miscarriages they had had (this exercise was a particular mess, since enumerators were paid on a piece-rate basis, and many reportedly counted gravestones to boost their figures).

The 1991 census was seen by many as a covert operation to root out poll tax defaulters, and the number of respondents was alleged to have fallen by between one and two million. There were 80,000, mostly skeptical calls to a special census hotline, expressing anxiety about anonymity. Questionnaires were frequently torn up in front of enumerators - in London especially, but for some reason also in Bath and Scunthorpe in particular. The biggest drop was in the London borough of Brent, where as many as 20,000 people apparently vanished. It was estimated - since census figures were (and are) used by the government to help estimate the grant to the local authority - that Brent had lost as much as £200 million - enough, its council claimed, to pay 500 nurses, 323 teachers, or 286 police officers. Upon the 1991 census has been blamed a general apathy amongst younger voters, although most political parties have surely given eighteen-year-olds plenty of other reasons to stay at home on polling day.

The poll tax abstentions from the census in 1991 mirrored the abstentions in 1911, when women campaigning for the right to vote refused to have their names entered on the census. It was a nicely symbolic act. One of the main arguments deployed against giving married women the vote was that their husbands already represented them (successive governments had conceded the case for spinsters and widows with a property qualification). No vote, no identity, no contribution to the census. The suffragists held a special musical concert at Queen's Hall, in which a musical programme of compositions by Dr. Ethel Smyth was conducted by Dr. Smyth herself, Thomas Beecham having failed to turn up. Anti-suffragist journalists took pleasure in reporting that the music was not much to the activists' taste. Mrs. Pankhurst's W.S.P.U. attempted to hire the Scala Theatre, but were turned down by the manager once he realised the purpose of the event. Nothing daunted, they hired the Aldwych Skating Rink. Here too there was a short musical performance. The police, alerted to their aim, enumerated the women at the rink. Three waggons were driven on to Wimbledon Common, where a number of women saw out the Sunday night (the weather was wet and cold), either sheltering inside the vehicles, or standing about. Their slogan was "If we don't count, we shall not be counted." One woman hid in the crypt of the House of Commons, but was discovered. She was taken to a police-station for an hour, but not arrested. She was, to her chagrin, enumerated instead.

Sinn Fein instructed its supporters to boycott the 1921 census. Indeed, it instructed all Irish people living in England not to co-operate. Non-co-operation in the census was usually advocated by Sinn Fein. In 1971, three hundred republicans burned their census forms in Belfast, and twenty-five Catholic priests refused to fill in their forms as a protest against "partial judiciary". More shockingly, an enumerator called Joanne Mathers was shot dead in Derry in Northern Ireland in 1981. She was only 25. She had taken a part-time job as an enumerator, after giving up a full-time job to look after her two-year-old son. Since she was a Presbyterian, she had arranged, and been granted safe passage by Sinn Fein (the census took place during the hunger strikes at the Maze prison, and just four days before the election of Bobby Sands to the Westminster parliament). Gripping her clipboard, she was just beginning to help a man complete his form; it was in Anderson Crescent. What happened next was brief and bloody. A masked gunman seized her clipboard with one hand, and fired straight into her head with the other. Joanne Mathers cried out, and seemed to propel herself past the householder, who tried in vain to slam the door. The murderer - an IRA man - vanished, snatching the census forms on his way. Joanne was dead within a minute. No reason was ever offered for her casual killing; that she was an enumerator was enough. Ten years later, Sinn Fein urged compliance with the census for the first time.

Racial tension has also led to objections to the census. The Welsh were incensed in 2001 when "Welsh" was not given as an option on the list of ethnic origins (these bizarrely included both 'Chinese' and 'Asian', a contradiction picked out and commented on in a Westminster debate). In 1981, in the wake of a speech by Enoch Powell (by then an Ulster Unionist M.P.), fears were expressed about answers falling into the hands of extremists. These fears had been equally strong ten years earlier, during the 1971 controversies. The Pakistani Workers' Union not only encouraged its members not to fill in the form, but offered to support its members financially if they were fined. Michael Reed, the superintendent registrar in charge of the census, had his work cut out persuading people to participate. He scheduled two visits, one to Liverpool, one to Birmingham, to "meet the people". In Liverpool, two men abused Don Henry, a Trinidad-born worker who had been living in England for a dozen years, while he was talking to Reed. Henry was a member of the Liverpool Community Relations Council. Reed lost his temper, and called them "bastards". He called off the Birmingham visit amidst the attendant publicity. His candour, however, probably worked in his favour. In fact, the benighted 1971 census generated so much publicity that it was as successful as its 1961 predecessor (when there were only 64 prosecutions for non-compliance).

There have been plenty of other complaints. Help the Aged complained in 1981 about the font-size, and the number of questions being asked. In 1911, a bizarre distinction was introduced on the census form between "blind" and "totally blind". An organisation with a less than snappy name - the Union of Institutions, Societies and Agencies for the Blind in the Metropolitan and Adjacent Counties - pointed out that this odd distinction would almost certainly lead to an under-estimate of those who were, to all intents and purposes, totally blind, but were too proud to say so. In 1971 - that troublesome year again - a blind writer in Hook, near Southampton, Alan Holmes, pointed out that no provision had been made to ensure that the enumerator's credentials could be proved to someone without sight. The census office admitted its failure in this case. Perhaps the most tragically useless demonstration against the census was made in 1951. It involved the British Housewives League. Four women members, including the vice-chairman, Mrs. Winifred Sykes, gathered outside the Houses of Parliament, to protest against the continuation of rationing. They soaked their ration books, ID cards and census forms in paraffin, placed them on a tin plate, and attempted to burn them. There was a high wind. Only Mrs. Sykes' census form succeeded in catching light.

Winifred Sykes' protest in 1951


In 1901, the intention had been to include a question about religious affiliation. This was not included in the main census questions, after a debate about the use to which the information might be put. It was not until 2001 that the question - by then one of 40 questions - was included, arguably at a time when it was a more redundant question than ever before. The question was the only non-compulsory one. However, it had a curious side-effect. Word spread that, if enough people entered the words "Jedi Knight" as a religious persuasion, the government would be obliged to recognise the followers of Obi-Wan Kenobi as belonging to a church in its own right. Television news programmes mentioned (and therefore publicised) the wheeze - although not the fact that it was an internet myth. Nearly 400,000 people - rather fewer than one in a hundred, but still an impressive achievement - claimed that The Force was with them. In Brighton, about one in forty claimed to be Jedi. The skeptics, as in 1811, were primarily in the North-East, where very few people indeed claimed to worship with a light sabre. The curious side-effect was that, at least in the opinion of the Office for National Statistics, the Jedi claim probably helped push the numbers up - since the very people who wrote in "Jedi" were those least likely, ordinarily, to fill in a census.

The authorities have defended the importance of a census in a variety of ways over the two hundred years in which they have taken place (the 1920 Census Act established once and for all that they would be at least a regular decennial event, with only the Second World War causing the count to be cancelled. It has only once been delayed - from April to June in 1921, after a protracted miners' strike more or less shut the country down. The foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001 nearly caused a postponement - as a matter of fact, there was a smaller outbreak in 1981, confined to three counties, which caused some disruption). However, some of the grander claims ring a little hollow. In 1911, it was declared that "an unnumbered people is a people walking in darkness"; in 1921, The Times declared that "Population is strength. The only disease of which a nation can die is lack of efficient men." (This was a most peculiar pronouncement, given that, in the aftermath of the war and the influenza pandemic, the 1921 form for the first time contained questions about whether one, both or neither parent was still living). A civil servant at Somerset House, plainly just a little out of touch with the people he was helping to count, offered this pearl: "A country without a census is like a hostess who does not know how many are coming to dinner." In 1881, our year in question, the Bishop of Lincoln lent a hand. He listed a number of biblical texts which would be useful to use in readings or as the texts for sermons on Sunday, April 3rd (he also wrote a special Collect). From Revelation, he offered the vision of

twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel (Ch.21)

and, a little less plausibly from the same source

lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands (Ch. 7).

Or you could have the gnomic line from Deuteronomy, Ch. 7,

The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people,

the straightforward extract from Psalm 148

Both young men, and maidens; old men, and children.

Or you could puzzle over this sublime choice, from St. Matthew's gospel:

before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.

Somehow this just isn't quite entering into the spirit of things.

A census is often described as a "snapshot", which it is. It is also, because a census is closed for a hundred years (the period was extended by order of the Lord Chancellor's department, in 1966, the order being of dubious legality), a window, an opaque one at that. Through it we can see the figures standing, almost as if alive. As Kellow Chesney wrote in his book The Victorian Underworld (1970): "It is astonishing how unremote these people seem... We are separated by a profound gulf, so narrow we seem to be able to touch hands." But the census, with its endless pages of scrawl or, sometimes, trusty pen, is also a great leveller. It is populated by silent, secretive names, but they are all equals. William Riley of Clynemouth Common, Oystermouth, Glamorgan, a gypsy ("gipsey") originally born in Poole, Dorset, takes up as much space on the page as Robert Browning, although Riley is ahead on one count. He gives his age as 105, making him the oldest man in the 1881 census, and one of the few who were about the same age as the United States of America. Browning can trump this only by the elegance of his description of his employment. "Poet, no occupation," he insists.

The 1881 census is the most pivotal. It captures a collection of individuals who live in a time before moving pictures, before sound recording. This is not to say, of course, that these individuals will never be seen or heard. Some, like the Earl of Beaconsfield (Disraeli), and Mary Seacole, and Karl Marx, are on the brink of extinction, and their voices and gestures will only ever be describable in words. Others, having just been born, prepare to change the world in which they are born into somewhere new and strange - perhaps no-one more than Marie Stopes, who was six months old at the time of the census, and had been brought as a baby from Edinburgh to London. It is a curious irony that the birth-rate began to slow in Scotland, England and Wales just as the new addition to the Stopes household put in her first appearance. Some thirty years later, she was to bring about even more changes to the patterns of birth and begetting. But the future author of Radiant Motherhood was at this stage the baby, not the materfamilias of the country.

1881 is where the collective memory starts to drift into unconsciousness - it marks the point at which our image of the world is somewhere between sepia and blurred. If we are middle-aged, it is most probably before the birth of our grandparents, a time when even reminiscences are necessarily second-hand. There are no survivors from 1881; the era is four or five generations away. It is out of reach, or feels it. Yet here is the census, a great screed of names, each one a marker for someone who was once swallowing air like we do, bursting with words and images. Their names are on the verge of vanishing.

And yet, paradoxically, the census marks, in many cases, a kind of desire for obscurity. The figures in this collection of short biographies are very often those whose private lives were constructed to keep the world away. Many of them destroyed their papers, or left instructions that this should happen. Many of them hid their identities behind pseudonyms or aliases, or concealed themselves from the public. This could be easily done in 1881: it was a time when you could obliterate yourself, to all intents and purposes, from the public map. There were no telephone directories; there were no electoral rolls, unless you were particularly well-off, and male. It was only months since Dr. Henry Faulds had published an article on the potential of fingerprinting for identification:

Already I have had experience in two such cases, and found useful evidence from these marks. In one case greasy finger-marks revealed who had been drinking some rectified spirit. The pattern was unique, and fortunately I had previously obtained a copy of it. They agreed with microscopic fidelity. In another case sooty finger-marks of a person climbing a white wall were of great use a negative evidence. Other cases might occur in medico-legal investigations, as when the hands only of some mutilated victim were found. If previously known they would be much more precise in value than the standard mole of penny novelists. If unknown previously, heredity might enable an expert to determine the relatives with considerable probability in many cases, and with absolute precision in some.

Such a case as that of the Claimant even might not be beyond the range of this principle. There might be a recognisable Tichborne type, and there might be an Orton type, to be one or other of which experts might relate the case. Absolute identity would prove descent in some circumstances. ( Nature , 1880)

The Tichborne Claimant case was a classic example of the potential invisibility of human beings. Arthur Orton, the Wapping-born butcher, who chanced his arm at conning himself a rich inheritance, by impersonating a dead man, was in jail. He had been doing hard labour since 1870, and he had four more years to go before he was released. But the really telling thing about the Tichborne case is that Orton nearly got away with it - indeed, he had got away with it in the years before the death of his suggestible dowager "mother". Indeed, it was Orton's camp which forced the issue by launching a legal case to evict the tenant of Tichborne House, a Colonel Lushington. He had assumed the identity of someone totally unlike him, and had convinced a surprising number of experts, medical experts included, that he was really the heir to a fortune. His trial for perjury took 188 days.

You could slip (or be slipped) away from the crowd with comparative ease. If you were a woman, the process was obligingly done for you by the state, which, in 1881, had hardly begun to recognise you as an independent being. For women especially, invisibility was normal. Although they were able to publish under their own names, there were many who continued to operate undercover. Virginia Woolf (who was born within a year of the census, in which her sister Vanessa appears) pinpoints this in a celebrated passage from A Room Of One's Own (1928), writing of the anonymity [of] women even... late in the nineteenth century.

Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand, all the victims of inner strife as their writing proves, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man. Thus they did homage to the convention, which if not implanted by the other sex was liberally encouraged by them,... that publicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them. They are not even now as concerned about the health of their fame as men are, and, speaking generally, will pass a tombstone or a signpost without feeling an irresistible desire to cut their names on it...

These biographical sketches are an attempt to cut some names on tombstones, male as well as female. Some of the names may be familiar. One of them was even declared one of the Great Britons of the millennium; but her life itself seems singularly obscured by the murk of our memories. They were not violets; neither did they shrink, exactly. But their lives are gradually fading, like print on ageing paper. The census of 1881 inks in their outline, tells their truths and half-truths. It gives us, a century and a quarter later, a tiny glimpse of them. The aim here is to stave off, for a little while at least, their disappearance from shadow into darkness. Their lives were extraordinary, in contrast to their census entries, which were clerical, cold, and quick. The fascination with the census is in what it does not tell. It is a tease.