The Origins of the Census in 1801
The Census was first taken in 1801 but the returns were made by the local vicar, or some other prominent person. People did not fill in their own returns. Many could not have done so as they could not read or write. In any case the Government was not much interested in individuals. It just wanted how many men there were in four different groups. These were:-
Britain had recently lost the American Colonies and America had declared her Independence in 1776. Now, less than thirty years later, there was a threat that America would develop into a great manufacturing nation, as indeed she did, and Britain wanted to prevent engineers from emigrating to America. Whitney, the founder of the great American agricultural machinery firm and eventually Pratt and Whitney engine manufacturers, was one of the thousands who emigrated. To do so he had to dress up in an agricultural smock and left England carrying a shepherd's crook.
The local vicar sent in his census returns to London in the four categories. They were compiled as a set of statistics and the originals were thrown away. Therefore we have no details about individuals in the early days. In 1841 the first Census Returns showing individual households and their members, with ages and other details was taken. These are the first people we can research as individuals. Slowly extra questions were asked so that later returns tell us more and the census returns opened a new source of study.
Using the Census
Today the Census Returns are readily available on the internet, so schools can study the histories of their local streets easily. They may offer surprises because no two areas are quite the same and some offer windows into very different lives.
The Coppetts Road Estate, in Muswell Hill for example, started in Coppetts Road and gradually spread back into what had been the old Middlesex Forest, untouched for centuries. Building started in 1924. soon after the end of the First World War, as part of Lloyd George’s campaign for ‘Homes for Heroes’. Thousands of families were in desperate need of houses and this estate was designed to take some of them.
In ‘The Growth of Muswell Hill’ I said that it was like the resettling of a Roman legion. Sometimes a legion took over an old established valley, driving away the inhabitants and taking their farms. Ovid and his neighbours were faced with this, but as a famous poet he had enough influence in Rome to fend them off. Where the legion went I do not know.
Alternatively, a legion might be planted on virgin fields, the borders of the Empire. This is what happened in Muwell Hill, which was then near the edge of London. House after house held returned servicemen. It was a camp of returnees and the one subject never mentioned was the First World War. The reality had been so different from what the civilian population had been told that it was ripped from history for a decade.
What will the Census Returns tell when they are made public? Any house over about a hundred years old will have a Census Return and the first return shows the people who first moved into the street. They are the pioneers who moved into the new houses. Census returns stay secret for a hundred years, so the details of Coppetts Road Estate will not be opened to the public until January 2032. They are not available at present.
However, there are older houses on the edge of the new estate. The Census returns of say Wilton Road, or Coldfall Avenue, could be very revealing. Who were these people who were moving into what was then a remote corner of London ? The two examples quoted below, one from Paddington and the other from Islington, are examples of the surprising patterns which may be revealed by this population movement.
The Oakington Road Houses in the1881 Census
These maps and comments describe the 1881 Census which was taken a few years after these houses were first occupied.
The country was divided into Enumeration (counting) Districts and each had an Enumerator who was responsible for distributing the census forms and helping the householders to fill them in where necessary. Then he collected the forms and added up the number of households, number in the family, ages, where they were born, etc.
These statistics were collected centrally so that the Local Government and Central Government could plan ahead. From our point of view today, the figures show how many people lived in these houses, their ages and where they came from.
Where did Everyone Come From?
|"My ancestors were men of no particular eminence even in local history, farmers nearly all of them until the collapse of local communities all over England in the early nineteenth century drove them off the land and into the towns and across the water to the Atlantic continent. But these were the sort of people who formed the foundations of any stable society.'|
These quotations from Hoskins seem relevant:-
‘Of the outward migrants in 1851, who amounted to thirteen per cent of those born in Devon, exactly half went to London.'
'Between 1861 and 1901 it has been calculated that 208 small parishes fell in numbers by anything up to sixty per cent.'
'Of those who left the county, most went to London, but in the eighteen seventies and eighties there developed a steady trickle overseas to the colonies and to the United States, helped to some extent by the cut-rates of the Atlantic shipping companies and by the railway rate-war on the other side.'
He describes the flight from the country during the nineteenth century. That was the destruction of a country way of life which had lasted for centuries. Here, in Islington, is a town community being uprooted. What is their story? The 18 census returns can help in this.
One family in Oakington Road started by going to Canada where one child was born, to the United States for the birth of the second, and to Paddington for the birth of the third.
A scatter map showing where the first people in Oakington Road came from. People did not come only from the west. In Elgin Avenue there are people from France, perhaps refugees from the 1870 France Prussian War. If so, they were not the first to flee from France. Isambard Brunel fled from the French Revolution to New York where he became the Chief Engineer. Later he came to Britain and set up the block making machinery for the Navy, the first mass production line in the World. He introduced orthographic projection to Britain from France where it had been a state secret for thirty years. (++ See Graphic Communication, by Jack Whitehead, 1985).
In "The Growth of Marylebone & Paddington" I described the building of Oakington Road, Maida Vale, in 1868 and discovered details of the people who first moved into that newly built terrace.
The census also shows railwaymen, as one would expect so near Paddington Station.
Another Census Story, taken this time from Islington
Here, in Islington, is a town community being uprooted. What is their story? The 1881 census returns can help in this. When Queen's Head Street School was being built in 1884, it was difficult to find a site in a busy, built up area and eventually it was decided to demolish a row of old houses as the site or the new school.
21-27 St Peter’s Street, Islington, built 1840
We have no picture of Queen's Head Street but this one of nearby St Thomas 's Street must have been similar.
The 1881 Census reveals that 133 people of all ages lived in the 18 houses in Queen's Head Street. We do not know the numbers of the two houses in St Thomas 's Street so they have been ignored. In one house there were two old people in their seventies. Nearby was a rooming house with ten people in five separate households. Another house had two families with eight children between them, all of school age. No two houses were alike. Of the 133 people in the terrace, 36 were adult males, 44 adult females and 16 adolescents below the age of 21 and working. There were 25 school children and19 below school age.
Where did they come from? Three quarters of the people, had been born in London. Some Heads of Households had come from outside. Some had married London girls and had families. In contrast to the Paddington census, of the 33 who had been born outside London, only twelve had come from the West Country. Others had come from Birmingham, Kent and the Eastern Counties. This seems to have been a London community. Some may have already been driven out of the City of London by the intensive rebuilding between 1860 and 1880. If so, they were being moved on again.
The variety of their skills illustrates the wealth of small factories in the area. Clerkenwell and Islington, which were just outside the restricting powers of the City of London and their powerful guilds, gave shelter to a huge variety of small trades, some of them highly skilled. In this one short terrace were a locksmith with two apprentices, a cotton spinner, a ring case maker, cardboard box makers, a telegraph engineer, a gold chain maker employing his son and a boy, a watch jeweller, some carpenters, a wire twister, a steel spectacle maker, cabinet makers, an ivory turner and other unusual trades. Some, like the watch jeweller, will have done only one small part in the making of the final objects. Many may have worked at home, in a separate room or even on the kitchen table. The area was full of people who each did their part and passed on the batch each day, or each week, to the next specialist. It was a conveyor belt system dotted round neighbouring streets. Besides these craftsmen, there were laundresses, nurse maids, clerks and a bookmaker.
There were also three teachers, two of whom called themselves Board School Teachers, as if to stress that they were trained teachers and not just people who had drifted into Dame School work. This was eleven years since the School Boards were set up and began training teachers. Clearly the London Board was getting a reputation.
This can be a n interesting class activity.
If these categories are printed on a standard grid and each child has a copy, the ananysis of a complete row of houses can be completed in a double period and a picture of the pioneers in the street emerges and perhaps tells an interesting story of population movement at a particular period of time.