The future of the census

There has been talk in the media recently about the possibility that the upcoming 2021 census for England and Wales will be the last one.  Rising costs are cited, with an estimate that next year’s census, despite being the first to be taken primarily online, is likely to cost £1 billion.

For us as genealogists and family historians, the census is one of the most important records, providing us with a ten-yearly check-in on each of our ancestral families, and a useful comparison against birth, baptism, marriage and death records.  There is no doubt that the period from 1911 to 1841 is the most straightforward period for genealogical research.

Of course, the current discussion is a reminder that the census never existed for our benefit.  Those benefits to us are just a happy side effect.  Its purpose was, and remains, to help the government and local authorities to plan services with a reasonably up to date snapshot of what the country looks like.  With every passing decade, as our society has developed, become more complex and diverse, and as our attitude towards providing for diverse needs has changed, the questions on the census have become ever more detailed.  Nevertheless, as a genealogist, I was mortified when I first heard the headlines.

Digging around a little deeper, I found that in fact no decision has been taken about the future of the census.  Indeed Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician and head of the Office for National Statistics, has said he would only recommend its termination if he finds a better option.

The issue seems to be centred not just around cost, but also around the effectiveness of a decennial snapshot when the reality is constant and accelerating demographic change.  The possibilities are therefore being explored of collecting the same sort of data but via other existing and constantly updated sources, such as GP registrations, council tax records and driving licences.

Counter to these arguments is the fact that demographers consider the census the ‘gold standard’ of population records.  They point to the inferiority of existing alternative record sources as the means for demographic mapping and planning, voicing concerns about, for example, the administrative difficulties in keeping lists up to date.  Their suggestion is that while their use would be beneficial in supplementing the richness of the decennial census, thereby overcoming the concern about the lengthy gap in updating data in an age of constant change, they are no match for the richness of the census data.  They also point out that as online census return becomes the norm, future costs should reduce.

The review is ongoing and Professor Sir Ian Diamond will give his opinion by 2023.  Ultimately, it will be the government that decides.

What might this mean for the future of family history and genealogy as a hobby?  Well, of course our own research will not be affected, but for future generations, tracing families could be more difficult.  At the very least it would be different, and I draw comfort from the commitment of the demographers to quality and richness of information.  Perhaps for our descendants it will simply be a case of accessing more record sets, each one focusing on a narrower aspect of our lives.  Electoral records, for example, will show all those of voting age living at an address, while GP registers will include children.  Nevertheless, I write this with some trepidation, having checked the online electoral registration record for myself at my current address and noted that a well-known actor of ‘Carry-On’ film fame (now deceased) is listed as having lived here with me!  Although the number of his house was the same as ours, his property was located in a little courtyard leading off the same road but with a different name.  Doesn’t bode well does it!

In fact we may soon find ourselves seeking alternatives to the census.  After the release of the 1921 census (anticipated January 2022), it will be thirty years before the next one.  The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire during World War 2, and the 1941 census was never taken.  Perhaps, in response to our needs, the commercial websites will start to index more of these alternative types of records for our use, and the changes a hundred years hence will be relatively seemless.

Before leaving the topic of the census, although admittedly going off at a complete tangent….
I recently came across an interesting article about a Harvard student who, working with his professor, has cracked the code used by the Incas in their ‘khipu’ textiles: knotted cords used for record keeping.  Gradually, it became clear that these were these were the Inca equivalent of census records. Bearing in mind that the Inca Empire reached its height of power in the 15th- and 16th-centuries, they were centuries ahead of us in this regard.  You can read this fascinating article [here].

When difficult stories emerge

A chance sighting of a World War One military service record set me off on a tangent.

The record belonged to a man who married one of my great aunts.  The two of them had eleven children, nine of whom survived to adulthood, and between them they produced a total of around forty grandchildren.  What follows is a very sad tale of an unhappy life and marriage, but out of respect to his descendants I shall refer to this man as Mr X.

Having joined up for military service in December 1915, Mr X endured three years of the horrors of war.  Today we’re aware that many of the young men who survived were sent home in 1918 with what we now understand as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but back then the long-term impact was not understood.  We do know that when many of them returned home they were ‘changed’, quite ‘different’ from the young men who had gone away to fight for King and Country a few years earlier.  Perhaps this was the reason for Mr X’s anger and the violence that he inflicted on his wife and young family.

However, Mr X’s life was blighted not only by PTSD.  A note on his service record states that on 20th September 1918, while in France, he suffered a ‘severe shell gas wound’.  It’s likely that this involved actual physical injury from the explosion/ shrapnel combined with effects of mustard gas.

I started to research…

It seems Germany commenced large-scale use of gas as a weapon in January 1915.  Initially, the artillery shells they fired contained liquid xylyl bromide tear gas.  Other forms of gas followed, including chlorine and the deadly phosgene.  However, by 1917 the most common chemical agent used was sulfur mustard, known as ‘mustard gas’.

The purpose of the mustard gas was not to kill the enemy: only about 2-3% of victims actually died.  Rather it was used to harass, disable and disorientate, and to pollute the battlefield.  Being heavier than air, mustard gas settled to the ground as an oily liquid where it sank into the soil, remaining active for several days, weeks, or even months, depending on the weather conditions.  Those exposed to it would start to vomit, while their conjunctiva and eyelids swelled until they were forced shut, leaving the victims temporarily blinded.  This is what had happened to the rows of blinded soldiers we see in WW1 photos, walking in long rows each with an arm on the shoulder of the man in front.

Mustard gas didn’t depend on inhalation to be effective: any contact with skin was sufficient.  Moist red patches would appear immediately, erupting into blisters over the following 24 hours.  Higher concentrations could burn flesh to the bone, particularly if it found its way to the eyes, nose, armpits and groin, where it dissolved in the natural moisture of those areas.  Other symptoms included severe headache, increased pulse and fever.  Internal and external bleeding could follow, as the gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane.  Blistering in the lungs could lead to pneumonia.  Without doubt, the effects of mustard gas attack were unspeakably painful; and those who were fatally injured could remain like this for four or five weeks before relief came in the form of death.

For the majority who didn’t actually die, many were nevertheless scarred for life.  Respiratory disease and failing eyesight were common post-war afflictions.  Many, although recorded as fit, were left with scar tissue in their lungs, and this left them susceptible to tuberculosis.  It’s now known that around the time of the Second World War, many of the surviving 1918 casualties did indeed die of tuberculosis.

Mr X died in 1935.  Was this the cause of his death?  It’s clear that the seventeen years back in Blighty were not happy, healthy ones for him.  I spent time looking at online trees, hoping that someone might have uploaded a copy of his death certificate, or at least given the cause of death in their notes, but no one had.  What I did read, both as notes on trees and in written accounts circulated by his grandchildren, was that he was badly affected by WW1, physically disabled, and that he took to drink.  He was a big man, and his wife was tiny.  He was violent, and she was no match for him.

Mr X isn’t part of my direct line.  He isn’t even a blood relative, so I wouldn’t normally buy a certificate for his death, but eventually it seemed like an important part of his story was missing.  Finally, I bought the certificate.  His death was recorded as ‘natural causes’, an acute inflammation of the pancreas: it seems it was the drink that did for him in the end.  I still think, though, there’s a good chance that had the awfulness of his life not driven Mr X to drink, he might have died a year or so later, from TB.

I have so many thoughts about Mr X.  I don’t think many people would have mourned his passing, although his wife, now free of him but widowed and with ten mouths to feed, must have felt she was tossing about somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea.  The 1930s were a hard time for working class people, but in a time when many were suffering, it seems this family really stood out as being poor as church mice.  We can’t discount the possibility that Mr X might just have been a violent, unpleasant bully.  But surely the more likely reason for his behaviour is the horrors of war torturing him for the rest of his days.

Mrs X’s life too was transformed from whatever it might have been to a life of anger, violence, harsh words and little love, and perhaps she too was experiencing a form of PTSD after her treatment at the hands of her husband.  Those who remember her tend to speak of a strange, solitary and unloving person.  I never met her, and indeed our families seem to have parted ways during these inter-war years.  The philosophy of the time was ‘you don’t interfere between man and wife’.  Thankfully this approach has gone out of fashion.  Mrs X needed support.  Mr X had needed support too.

Family research isn’t always about loving families and happy memories.  Sometimes life is terrible, unfair and unbearable.  But even when faced with the most unpleasant of individuals, even though we can’t forgive and shouldn’t excuse their behaviour, we can at least try to look for the person inside and how they got to be who they became.  And we can send them some love.

The road to universal suffrage

Despite all the commemorations in 2018 to mark a century of women having the vote, genuine universal suffrage on equal terms didn’t happen until 1928.  Over a period of about a hundred years, there were huge changes in our ancestors’ rights to representation at Westminster.

When we know who was entitled to vote and on what basis, finding one of our ancestors on an electoral register or in a poll book for a particular year means we have valuable information about them and their status within society.  With that in mind I thought it would be worth taking a look at the progression of reforms that started in 1832 with the Great Reform Act and ended in 1928.

If your ancestor appears on electoral documentation prior to 1832, they almost certainly held freehold property.  However, this restrictive qualification meant that by 1780 only 214,000 people in England and Wales – fewer than 3% of the population – had the right to vote.  Of course, virtually all were men.  It was around this time that reform groups committed to ‘universal’ (male) suffrage began to come together, and pressure for parliamentary reform began to mount.  It wasn’t just the property qualification that made the system unrepresentative: despite the growth of certain industrial towns and cities, and the reduced or even non-existant populations of formerly flourishing Tudor towns, constituency boundaries had not changed for centuries.  Consequently, economically powerful manufacturers and businessmen in places like Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester had no political representation in Westminster, while landowning families in ‘rotten boroughs’ benefitted from almost personal representation by one or even two MPs.

If one of your ancestors was entitled to vote you’ll find him (or before 1832, very occasionally her) on the Electoral Registers and Poll Books for each of the general elections.  These differ in that the former shows who was entitled to vote, while the latter, published after the poll, actually records how each person voted.  The right to a secret ballot was introduced by the 1872 Ballot Act, so it’s only before this date that you’ll find a Poll Book.  You’ll find these documents at local record offices and central libraries, and some are also on Ancestry (Search → Card Catalog → enter search terms ‘Poll’ or ‘Electoral’) and FindMyPast (Search → A-Z of Record Sets → enter search terms ‘Poll’ or ‘Electoral’).

In the days when the right to vote depended on freehold possession of land, you’ll see the location of that land.  If this isn’t where your ancestor was residing you’ll find their place of residence too.  Often, the right to vote of gentlemen in the boroughs depended on their owning land in the wider county.

Beware, though, of jumping to conclusions.  Since the earlier Electoral and Poll Books include only the village or area where the individual lives, not his actual address, sometimes you can’t be absolutely certain that the person listed is your ancestor: you need additional information.  Compare the following two examples:

The 1741 Electoral Register and Poll Book for the county of York shows Lister Symondson, clerk, living at Kirkby Overblow but records that the freehold property entitling him to vote was in nearby Pannall.  I can be sure that this is my 7xG grandfather, because I have his name, his occupation (which I know to be correct), his current residence (where he is vicar, and presumably living in the vicarage) and the location of his freehold, which is where I know he was curate for more than two decades before becoming vicar.  Although I’m able to use my existing knowledge to confirm that this is my Lister, the documents also give me new information: Lister held freehold property; he had the right to vote; and how he voted: Whig.

Compare this to Robert Mann, who is listed in the 1817 Poll Book for the county of Norfolk, living in Norwich but entitled to vote by virtue of freehold property in Great Yarmouth.  This person may be my 4xG grandfather, who had lived in Norwich since at least 1789, but was baptised in Great Yarmouth and had family connections there.  He was a saddler / harness maker, having completed his apprenticeship in Wymondham, for which his family paid the princely sum of £31 10 shillings, suggesting they were financially sound.  But none of this gives me the kind of definite evidence I have with the previous example.  There is more than one Robert Mann living in Norwich at this time.  I have no evidence to suggest my Robert has freehold property in Great Yarmouth, and this Robert may or may not be mine.

Things start to change.

Representation of the People Act 1832
AKA: First Reform Act or Great Reform Act 1832

  • Changes were made to the constituencies, removing ‘rotten boroughs’ and creating 67 new contituencies to provide representation within Westminster for boroughs, including the large industrial towns and cities which had previously had no MP.
  • The vote was extended to all male householders within the boroughs who paid a yearly rent of £10 or more, also to some lodgers.
  • In the counties, the property qualification was broadened, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers

Even in terms of extending the vote to men, then, the Great Reform Act was not so ‘great’.  The property qualification still meant that 6 out of 7 adult males were excluded from the voting process.  In addition, something I hadn’t appreciated until watching the BBC series Gentleman Jack last year: by defining a voter as ‘a male person’, the Great Reform Act in fact removed the franchise from a number of women landowners who had previously had that right.

More information here.

Representation of the People Act 1867
AKA: Second Reform Act 1867

  • In the boroughs, all male householders over the age of 21 were now granted the vote, as well as lodgers paying rent of £10 a year or more.
  • In the counties, the property threshold was reduced, and the vote was extended to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land.

This Act made significant inroads towards universal male suffrage, doubling the electorate in England and Wales from one to two million men.

More information here.

It’s the 1868 General Election, then, where we’re likely to start to see more of our ancestors in the documentation, and by now actual addresses are given. This serves as an extra check-in between the 1861 and 1871 censuses.  A CD ROM of the Leeds Poll Book that I bought some years ago has paid dividends.  You might find something similar for your areas of interest through local family history societies.

Note: Although women were excluded from general elections, from 1869 all women ratepayers aged 21 and over had the right to vote in municipal (local) elections.  So if your female ancestor after that time was a shop or business owner or occupied her own home, you might find her on local authority electoral registers.

Representation of the People Act 1884
AKA: Third Reform Act 1884

  • Established a uniform (male) franchise throughout the country, bringing the counties in line with the 1867 borough householder and lodger franchise qualification.

However, about 40% of men still did not have the vote.  In addition of course, women were still completely excluded from the process.

More information here.

Representation of the People Act 1918

  • Almost all property qualifications for men were removed.
  • The vote was granted to women over 30 who were householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5; and in university constituencies, to women graduates.
  • There were also important administrative changes, including the annual updating of the electoral register and instituting the present system of holding general elections on one day.  (Previously polling had been open for several days – in 1784, actually for 47 days!  Find this and other strange facts here!)

The electorate tripled from 7.7 million to 21.4 million, with women now accounting for 43% of the electorate.

More information here.

Representation of the People (Equal Franchise Act) 1928

  • With the lowering of the qualifying age to 21, women were granted full equality with male voters.

More information here.

If this is an avenue you hadn’t thought to explore before, I hope you make some interesting finds.  It would be lovely to read some of them in the comments.

You’ll find a list of General Elections from 1802 to the present day here.  You might be able to work out when each of your ancestors first voted.  Bear in mind that prior to the formation of the Labour Party (February 1900) there were only two parties: the Whigs (Liberals) and Tories.