The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

In my last post I said I would review this excellent book by Roger Hutchinson.  It was published in 2017 and has sat on my own bookshelves for two years after being recommended to me by a colleague, but now that I’ve finally got round to reading it I’m very glad I did.

First of all I want to say something about the title: The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker: The story of Britain through its census since 1801.  Chances are, since you’re reading my blog, that you’re a genealogist…  Am I right?  I may also be right, then, in thinking you probably have a different book in mind from the one I’m going to describe to you.  In fact, when I asked my husband (eyes glaze over if any utterance about genealogy lasts longer than thirty seconds) what he thought this book would be about, he also had the same ideas as me.  So we need to clear this up.  This is not a book about the kinds of occupations you find in the censuses.  It doesn’t, as you and I do, start with the people and then expand from there about the kind of life they might have had, or the kind of town they might have lived in.  Is that something along the lines you were thinking…?  No.  It actually starts from the top, with the policy decisions, the types of questions asked, why they were asked, the ongoing concern in the nineteenth century to grow the population and overcome public health problems.  It includes numbers – quite a lot of them – about how many people fell into different types of occupation, how many people left the country or came to the country.  It is, in short, a book that focuses on the real reasons why the census was taken in the first place – the reasons upon which we, as genealogists, piggy-back to get the raw data about our ancestors.  So my first point is that while the title of the book may be snappy, it’s a bit misleading.  That is my only criticism.  Apart from that, it’s a great book.

The history of the census, it turns out, might almost have gone back to 1590, when Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, William Cecil, proposed an annual, centralised collection of certain data, to be provided to the government and to the Archbishop of Canterbury to assist in national planning.  The Archbishop wasn’t interested, and the idea came to nothing.  The matter was raised again in 1753 by Thomas Potter, MP.  The aim at this time was largely military-related: it would be useful for Britain to keep tabs on the size of her male population should there be a need to raise a large army.  On the other hand, should the size of the male population be smaller than anticipated, and should this information fall into enemy hands, this could backfire.  Other objections related to the cost of such an activity and the affront on British liberty, whose population had every right not to be ‘molested and perplexed’ and ‘divested of the last remains of our birthright’ by having someone come knocking to demand information about their households.  The matter did not go away, though, and it was a young polymath named John Rickman whose arguments finally tipped the balance.  His ‘Thoughts on the Utility and Facility of Ascertaining the Population of England’, published in the June 1800 issue of The Commercial and Agricultural Magazine, came to the attention of George Rose, MP for Christchurch, and on the last day of that year, An Act for taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain, and of the Increase or Diminution thereof received Royal Assent.  John Rickman was charged with organising it, and continued to do so until his death.

The chapter covering the first four Censuses, 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831, bears the title A Hazy Snapshot from the Air – a reference to the fact that it collected no in-depth information about each household.  Instead, every parish was required to return numbers of inhabited/ uninhabited houses, numbers of families occupying them, numbers of people (male/female) with a very basic breakdown of their occupations, and information about numbers of baptisms, marriages and burials.  The precise questions varied over the four censuses, but the general thrust remained the same.  Initially there were gaps in the data collected, as some parishes declined to participate, but over this period support grew, and understanding developed of the benefits to the nation of the data included and the conclusions drawn by John Rickman in his decennial reports.  So much so that by 1841 the census, which took place a few months after John Rickman’s death, moved up a gear.  Henceforth, names, ages and occupations of individual household members would be collected, along with information about birthplace (‘this county’ or not; Scotland; Ireland; or ‘foreign parts’), and with every passing census additional information would be required.  From 1842 the organisation of the census in England and Wales would fall to a highly successful double-act: George Graham as Registrar General, and William Farr.  As an epidemiologist, Farr’s interest was in the living conditions of the people in the various locations, and particularly in the expanding towns and cities.  Regarded as one of the founders of medical statistics, his demographic reports focused on public health.  There is no doubt that his work was instrumental in developing the understanding and application of these fields in the United Kingdom.  As an example, his introduction of questions about infirmities in the 1851 census led directly to the implementation of the compulsory smallpox vaccination in 1853.

Having established the history of the census, the reasons for it and the undoubted benefits, from this point Hutchinson uses each census as a starting point for discussing events and societal issues.  While the general trend of the discussion is chronological, moving from decade to decade, his highlighting of salient issues from each census is used as a springboard for broader discussion of those and related topics.  Hence, a breakdown of occupations in the 1851 census leads on to discussion of unusual job titles, some localised and specific, many long-since fallen into disuse, and some of them almost certainly false.  This leads to a discussion of prostitution, and from there to women’s place in society, their hardships when a (higher-earning) male is not present, and from there to the women’s suffrage movement, even though that movement fully came to the fore in the twentieth century.  The Irish famine of 1845-1850, which was the topic of my last post, is dealt with in two chapters: the first about languages of the United Kingdom (of which Ireland was part in the nineteenth century) and the second about migration.  This weaving together of topics is masterful, and brings what might otherwise be a dry discussion of census information to life.

Mention has already been made of the fact that this is not a book about people and occupations to be found in the censuses.  That said, named people do appear.  They are brought in to illustrate the points being made.  Some of the individuals included are famous, like Charlotte Brontë and Harold Macmillan; others are randomly selected and their histories to the point at which they have been located in the census researched by the author.  Yet more are the author’s own ancestors. 

How can this book be useful to us as genealogists and family historians?  Well, if you’re still at the nuts and bolts beginner stage of names, dates, locations and events, it won’t be.  However, as we progress as genealogists we need to have broader knowledge.  Where is my GGG grandfather?  He’s supposed to be a blacksmith in Darlington?  Now he seems to be in Leeds.  What’s happening that might have caused him to move?  This is the sort of book that will help you to understand the underlying changes in our country, the massive shifts that resulted by 1911 in 78% of the population living in urban areas and only 22% remaining in rural locations. Compare this to only 1861, when the census showed that for the first time in history, more citizens in the UK lived in towns and cities than in the countryside.

As previously stated, this book was published in 2017 – before the release of the 1921 census.  However, this is not an issue.  While the enumeration sheets are subject to the hundred-year rule, the statistics and reports are not.  Hence, although the book was written prior to the taking of the 2021 census, the discussion continues right up to the reports published after 2011.  Similarly, although the 1931 census papers were lost in a fire in 1942, the reports were not, meaning we do have the figures showing unemployment and migration during the Depression, just as we have evidence of an economic boom in the Shetlands and Aberdeen since the 1970s, and statistics following the arrival of almost five hundred passengers on board the Windrush in 1948.

All in all, for the intermediate and advanced genealogist, this is a very useful book. It has already helped me to understand the enormous changes in the City of London (“square mile”), which at the beginning of the census era actually included farmland, and might conceivably have been the birthplace of a humble weaver. Definitely a case of ‘the past being a very different place’!

If you’d like to look for yourself at some of the historical abstracts and data (without the enumerators’ lists) a good place to start is Histpop – The Online Historical Population Reports Website.