The Simple Things
STAND UP AND ( DON’T) BE COUNTED
THE CENSUS, TAKEN ON A SPRING NIGHT EVERY DECADE SINCE 1801* IS A RECORD OF BOTH EVERYDAY SEXISM AND THE EMANCIPATION OF WOMEN
When the idea of a national census was first championed in Britain, it was argued that, “the intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy”. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t always so “rational”, especially when it came to the female proportion of the population. Each decade’s census gives us a – sometimes unintentional – glimpse into society’s attitudes towards women. In 1811, the second time the census was taken, households were asked to give only their chief source of income. In most cases, this this overlooked the contribution of women who, while likely not the primary earner, frequently did odd jobs, such as selling handicrafts, that kept the family from the breadline. Twenty years later, it changed so only adult male employment was registered, with the exception of the 670,491 female servants in England, Scotland and Wales, once again completely ignoring the long hours put in by women.
The census itself employed its first female enumerator in London in 1871, noted to be “very efficient”. Ten years later, more women were awarded the task. The event was greeted with a lampooning by the Hull
Packet and East Riding Times – probably indicative of the attitudes of many – who imagined them at ‘work’, swapping pudding recipes and squabbling over manners.
If the variety of work that women undertook wasn’t always fully represented, it was sometimes not the fault of the census itself. The third- or fourth-largest paid occupation of Victorian women – prostitution – was never fully recorded in any census. Estimates reckon that up to 400,000 undertook full- or part-time sex work in the 19th century. Although these women weren’t acting illegally – legislation didn’t exist until 1885 – it was considered improper: instead occupations such as ‘seamstress’ were given. Only a few hundred female prostitutes appear in censuses of 1871 and 1881, including a community of self- declared ‘prostitutes’ in a ramshackle two-storey terrace in Allens Yard, Falmouth. They were likely products of small town life in an age when women had no property rights and few opportunities. Such women disappeared from the census entirely after the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made “further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes”.
Another unexpected profession for women that made its appearance in 1911 was that of ‘slave’. In Chelsea, London, Mrs Alice Maude Marty Ayers registered herself as a “White Slave”. In Cambridge, 48-year-old Mrs Elizabeth Bond described herself as “Domestic Slave” and Watford-based Rosina Elizabeth Pentelow as a “slave for the family”. A couple of hundred variations on the theme were found throughout Britain, ‘domestic slave’ being the most popular. The people behind this apparent slavery explosion were, perhaps surprisingly, the suffragettes.
By 1911, the suffragettes were engaging in both violent and non-violent methods in their campaign to get women a vote. Subverting the census was one of the most imaginative. “Until women count as people for the purpose of representation in the councils of the nation as well as for the purposes of taxation,” wrote Emmeline Pankhurst to The Times, “we shall refuse to be numbered.”
Their approach was three-pronged. First, they could simply refuse to fill the census form in. With the risk of £5 fine or a month’s imprisonment, this required considerable courage. Another option was returning the form, while making a political point. Dorothy Bowker of London, for example, wrote on hers “Dumb Politically, Blind to the Census. Deaf to the Enumerator.” Such responses were nullified and scrapped – Emmeline Pankhurst does not appear in
“Dorothy Bowker wrote on hers: ‘Dumb Politically, Blind to the Census. Deaf to the Enumerator’”
1911 records because she wrote “No vote no census” across her returned form. Meanwhile, those women declaring themselves ‘slaves’ were counted.
The third approach was evasion. On 2 April 1911, women took all sorts of means to avoid being at home when the enumerators called. There were all-night parties, some women rented unoccupied houses for the night while, according to Pankhurst, others “hired gypsy vans and spent the night on the moors”. Emily Wilding Davison – who would later die under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby – hid in a House of Commons cupboard for 48 hours either side of enumeration day. She was discovered and noted on one census form as at “Crypt of Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament, Westminster” (her landlady also added her at her home address). The Government realised the impossibility of punitive action. Pankhurst recounted how they declared the number of evasions “was insignificant. But everyone knew that this was the exact reverse of the facts.” It was the first deliberate mass sabotage of the census – and the last until the poll tax evaders of 1991. By the time of the next census, women over the age of 30 had been granted the right to vote.
Adapted from The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker: The Story of Britain Through its Census, Since 1801 by Roger Hutchinson (Little, Brown)