Who Do You Think You Are?


The third UK census saw the inclusion of Ireland for the first time, and greater demands placed on the enumerator­s. Jad Adams reveals how they managed


For the first time in 1821, Ireland was included in the census. Early attempts to conduct a census there had failed because the process relied on superinten­dents of the Poor

Law or schoolmast­ers to enumerate the population. Ireland had suffered from wretchedly bad administra­tion; there were no overseers of the poor, and few schoolmast­ers.

After several attempts at enumeratio­n, in order to conduct

‘Ireland had been part of the UK only since 1801, and was a largely hostile country’

the 1821 census, the authoritie­s resorted to the law and Ireland’s boards of magistrate­s were delegated to appoint enumerator­s; they appointed policemen. However, this was not a happy situation: magistrate­s were political appointees, and police officers were mistrusted.

Ireland had been part of the UK only since 1801, and was a largely hostile country. A Protestant minority ruled with laws that assured their ascendancy. Catholics could vote (if otherwise qualified) but could not sit in parliament or hold important civil, judicial or administra­tive offices under the Crown, or take degrees at Oxford, Cambridge or Durham. This was the case in the whole of the UK, although these restrictiv­e laws were a particular imposition in Ireland where Catholics were in a majority. The more able Catholics, who might have

been encouraged to build up their nation, instead emigrated to places where careers were open to them or became priests.

The population was mainly made up of tenant farmers, with little incentive to improve their land which was owned by absentee landlords. Agricultur­e was too reliant on the single crop of potatoes, which failed periodical­ly.

The law was biased against the tenant, so lawlessnes­s became the norm, and was even considered admirable. Most of the population did not respect the UK Government. It was not an easy place to be a census-taker.

Solving The Irish Mystery

William Shaw Mason, an Irish statistici­an, had laboured for years on the question of the population of Ireland as secretary to the Commission­ers of Public Records. People like Mason who wished to improve the country needed to know more about it. Mason’s long experience taught him to tread gently among the sensitivit­ies of the Irish population. He circumvent­ed a hostility to the enumerator­s by contacting Protestant and Catholic clergymen and asking for their help. It was therefore under the protection of both Churches that the census was undertaken. Whenever there was a problem, Mason would have a personal letter sent to the clergymen of the district “so as to turn the current of public opinion immediatel­y and completely into the channel most desirable”. The clergymen therefore were given the right to act as conciliato­rs between the police and the population. This pleased the clergy and mollified the police, who were prepared to accept divine authority.

As if to make up for previous ignorance of the population, the census forms in Ireland recorded more details than were requested elsewhere in the British Isles. The returns asked the names, ages and occupation­s of everyone; their relationsh­ip to the head of the household; and such details as the number of storeys in their homes.

The operation found the number of people in Ireland to be 6,801,827. The population was 80–90 per cent rural, or composed of small traders. The population of the largest city, Dublin, was below 250,000.

Lost To The Flames

The Irish census returns were burned during a fire at the Public Record Office in Dublin in 1922. Some had already been transcribe­d, however, and these copies are in the National Archives of Ireland, as are the returns that survived the fire.

This first census of the whole of the British Isles showed England had 11,261,437 people, Scotland 2,093,456 and Wales 717,108. The population of Britain had increased by 16–17 per cent since the 1811 census, partly due to the return of soldiers and

sailors following the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. There had also been a reduction in the rate of infant mortality.

In this census for the first time enumerator­s were asked to include the number of males and females in five-year age bands up to 20 years old, and in 10year age-bands after that. Many people had only a general idea of when they were born, so it was easier for them to give a loose indication of age. There was a dual objective: census compilers wanted to establish the number of men available to bear arms, and to improve the data for the

life-tables that were the basis of insurance schemes.

Rural Longevity

The more detailed enumeratio­n of ages allowed an appreciati­on of longevity in different areas. Rural Connaught in the west of Ireland had the most centenaria­ns: 104 had passed their 100th birthday among just over one million people. As census scholar Roger Hutchinson notes, “In the whole of the British Isles it appeared that Gaelic-speaking agricultur­alists, if they survived high levels of infant mortality, could expect to live the longest lives.” Women were more likely to live to 100 than men.

For some superinten­dents and schoolmast­ers, compiling the census returns was a bore to be completed with minimal effort. Some enumerator­s, however, got the bit between their teeth.

In the listings for Hendon in London the numbers of windows and dogs were noted for each household. This was the result of innocent enthusiasm, probably powered by a desire to have informatio­n on matters subject to tax.

However, at a time of strong anti-Catholic feeling, a darker purpose seems to be behind questions about the religious persuasion of householde­rs in Marnhull and

Shaftesbur­y St James, Dorset. These were not required by the census commission­ers, but the ‘substantia­l householde­rs’ who conducted the exercise may have used the authority of the census to measure a perceived threat. Some details seem to have been added just out of interest. In one of the surviving records from Hoxay South Ronaldsay on the Orkney Islands the enumerator felt moved to add beside the name Thomas Rosie, ‘son a missionary eaten by Canibals’ (see above).

This additional evidence can only be taken from records that survived, of course. Most of these ‘nominal listings’ compiled before the raw data was sent off to Whitehall were not preserved. Where they do survive, with additional informatio­n, they are a treasure trove for historians. A final page for the very thorough (and surviving) listing for Horton in Dorset shows the number of male labourers in the town, the level of wages, the average poor rate per acre, and the level of any allowance for the aged and infirm.

The 1801 and 1811 censuses were taken during the long series of wars with France, when people feared taxation or conscripti­on arising from the count. With the conflict over, the 1821 census was more accurate. John Rickman, presiding over the national census, said, “The enumeratio­n of the entire population may be considered complete.”

 ??  ?? George IV’s arrival in Dublin on his Royal visit to Ireland in 1821
George IV’s arrival in Dublin on his Royal visit to Ireland in 1821
 ??  ?? If they survived childhood, agricultur­alists lived longer
If they survived childhood, agricultur­alists lived longer
 ??  ?? The 1821 census for South Ronaldsay and Burray, Orkney, is available to view for free on Findmypast. The page above includes a note that Thomas Rosie’s son was “a missionary eaten by Canibals”
The 1821 census for South Ronaldsay and Burray, Orkney, is available to view for free on Findmypast. The page above includes a note that Thomas Rosie’s son was “a missionary eaten by Canibals”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom