Ysenda Maxtone Graham is riveted by the facts and figures revealed in this engaging history of the Census
Social history The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick-maker Roger Hutchinson (Little, Brown; £20)
With his eye for telling detail and his palpable fascination for the social history of the British isles, Roger hutchinson has made this history of the Census a highly readable delight. it’s the kind of general-knowledge-broadening book that will make you (if you read it) both more amusing at dinner parties and better on University Challenge.
Did you know, for example, that the Census was begun by a clergyman’s son called John Rickman, whose 1800 article for The Commercial, Agricultural and Manufacturer’s Magazine entitled ‘thoughts on the Utility and Facility of ascertaining the Population of England’, started the whole thing off? the first British census was in 1801 (unless you count the Domesday Book, which excluded most of Wales, all of Scotland and the tax-exempt cities of london and Winchester) and, since that date, all censuses have been in the year something-one, 1941 being the sole gap in the chain.
Rickman decided to go against Caesar augustus’s ‘each to his own city’ census method (the decree that caused Jesus to be born in a manger) and suggested counting citizens where they lived.
no one had any idea how large or small the population was. the napoleonic Wars made it a matter of urgency to know how many people needed to be fed and how many could be raised to arms if necessary. the fear in 1801 was that the population was diminishing (imagine that). the first census was filled in by schoolmasters and overseers of the poor in every parish. many didn’t complete it, so it’s ‘a hazy snapshot’, but the estimated population turned out to be 11 million—far higher than the four million some had feared. and so the census went on, once every 10 years, each one asking for slightly more details, ranging from occupation to ethnicity.
mr hutchinson takes us on a journey through the undulating populations of Scotland and ireland during the years of emigration and Clearances. We see the astonishing trends of burgeoning cities during the industrial Revolution. Sometimes, he homes in on a single human story to bring something into focus: through census details, he tells the story of a Victorian couple called the Chapmans, who moved into the same street, met, entered into a bigamous marriage, emigrated to the USA and then came home again a year or so later. (i hadn’t realised how many returning immigrants there were: a fifth of them came back.)
he also evokes a lost patchwork of British towns and villages—‘the wapentake of morley’, ‘the hundred of Blackheath’, the ‘lathe of Sutton-at-hone’ and ‘the Rape of Chichester’, ‘rape’ deriving from ‘rope’ to divide land.
i loved the names of occupations—the cap-makers, bonnet- makers, parasol-makers, staymakers, washerwomen, bladeforgers, sword-cutters, scissormakers, French-polishers and glovers—and i relished the ones whose meaning i didn’t know— the blabbers, crutters, flukers, learnmen, spraggers and whitsters. (What do we have these days? ‘nanotechnologist’ and ‘wind-turbine technician’.)
i was horrified to read that, when Charlotte Brontë filled in her census return in 1851, even though she had been revealed as the author of Jane Eyre, she gave her ‘Rank, Profession or Occupation’ as ‘none’. i didn’t know that ‘seamstress’ was often used as a euphemism for ‘prostitute’, or that, in 1911, at the height of Suffragette campaigning, a few hundred women gave their profession as ‘domestic slave’.
Reading this book felt like flying above your own country when returning from a holiday abroad and looking down at the intricate patchwork of fields, farms, villages and towns, which you suddenly feel a great love for. long live the Census, recorder of essential details of who we have been and are! and there will definitely be another one in 2021.
‘Rank, profession or occupation’ is one of the questions asked by the Census, which has been recording the population since 1841