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Ysenda Max­tone Graham is riv­eted by the facts and fig­ures re­vealed in this en­gag­ing his­tory of the Cen­sus

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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