Sunday, 13 March 2011

Census Working Over Time

Victorian Family Scene (BBC History)

On 27th March this year, the UK has another census. It has brought me to think about the role past census returns play in my line of work. Although the 1911 census has been technically available to view for the last two years, census returns usually take 100 years to be made available to the general public. They tell us not only who lived in a particular house on census night, but their ages, what their occupations were, where were they born, some even state what disabilities an individual had. When you are researching your family tree, such information is extremely useful and eye-opening. But if the census is primarily to record the people, how on earth could it help someone research a building?

Although the census has been with us in the UK since 1801, it is only widely available from 1841 and certainly 1851-1911, in ten year intervals, are the crucial years. If I am researching a building, I will find out not only who lived there, but how many were under one roof (did they live in cramped conditions, how were the rooms designated/configured?). The returns will also tell me what the building was used for (private home, boarding house, workshop?) which might help explain certain features still existing in the house (for instance hanging hooks, cellar access, ceiling heights, blocked up doorways and changes in the architrave). Changes in occupants can also indicate alterations to the building as the new owners refurbished and redecorated their “new” home. I always use changes in ownership to give me an indication of structural changes.

Census Return
If I am trying to confirm the year a building was built, I refer to the census. It can tell me if a building was occupied or not or whether it was still under construction. A good example of a past research assignment is a row of townhouses in Kensington. Other findings told me that the houses were completed in the early 1870s but the developers had had great difficulty selling the leases. As a result many of their construction craftsmen occupied the houses instead. The 1871 census confirmed this with carpenters, joiners, bricklayers and labourers recorded as resident in these grand, stuccoed houses, built for the gentry.

Victorian Builders (English Heritage NMR)
It can be quite frustrating sometimes if the return shows only the servants were in on the night of the census. I wish of course, that such information was available more frequently - 10 years is a huge gap when researching the evolution of a building. But archive records by  their nature are sporadic and incomplete. There's always been a degree of luck involved. There is no absolute rule about what information should be kept or not … but at lease I can rely on the census, every 10 years.