Paper trail to the past

Almost the entire 1911 census goes online for public access on Tuesday. Rob Liddle looks at what we can hope to find out from it and how organisers hope to avoid a repeat of the deluge that shut the 1901 census website last time.

The answers to thousands of questions lurk within the two kilometres of shelving space taken up by the 1911 census documents at the National Archives in London.

Among the eight million returns are family secrets that have lain undiscovered for generations and pages inhabited by the previously unknown relatives of those alive today.

The 1911 census is not covered by The Census Act 1920, which required the closure of subsequent censuses for 100 years

A challenge was made under the Freedom of Information Act to have access to the 1911 census earlier than the customary 100 years

Following referral, the Information Commissioner ruled that access should be given

Personally sensitive information such as "details of infirmity or other health-related information" will not be released until 2012

These families - as yet untouched by the horrors of a new kind of war - seem to exist in a different world from ours, yet, 98 years on, the existence of some of the people that helped shape our lives is marked.

For many of us, grandparents and great-grandparents are among the 36 million people listed, appearing in their home environments, their names, ages and relationships written on the page in the hand of our ancestors.

People power has seen the 1911 census details being released earlier than the scheduled 2012 date, following a successful challenge under the Freedom of Information Act [see factbox above]. Details for Scotland will not be published until 2011 due to privacy laws.

This has meant that, for the past two years, an average of one census image per second has been scanned in preparation for the online launch. Some documents are still being copied, but most details are available online from the start.

The last census to become publicly available was that of 1901, which went online in 2002. Then, the website was overwhelmed by demand - 1.2 million requests an hour - and had to be withdrawn five days after its launch, reopening seven months later.

Since then, interest in family history has continued to grow, with many more useful records becoming available online and TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? helping to raise awareness., which is hosting the details on a pay-per-view basis, carried out some testing of the service over the festive period, which was deemed to have gone well. It is confident its offering is "pretty robust", although it is bracing itself for huge demand. Even so, some users might balk at having to pay about £3 a pop to download a record.

"It's impossible to predict how great the demand will be," says Debra Chatfield, Findmypast's marketing manager. "However, the site is able to withstand three times the traffic that the 1901 site got at its peak."

'No vote - no census'

The 1911 census brings us closer to our ancestors than previous censuses have. It is the first time that the original householders' schedules were preserved and used as working documents, giving us access to our relatives' handwriting.

Also, householders were asked for the first time to state how long they had been married, and how many children had been born to that union, including those that had died - all priceless details for family historians.

But such demands were seen as an unnecessary intrusion by some at the time. One householder completed his form with the words: "Would you like to know what our income is, what each had for breakfast and how long we expect to live on anything else?"

An entry in the 1911 census

An archivist handles material from the eagerly-awaited 1911 census

Others were equally scathing. Suffragette organisation the Women's Freedom League arranged a boycott of the form-filling and one apparent sympathiser wrote: "No vote - no census.

Another woman declared: "If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper."

Elsewhere, the humour of the British public is apparent. A mother of five children lists her occupation as "slave to family", and a man claims his is "anything, nothing special". In another household the family cat is listed as a servant whose nationality is "Persian".

Family fortunes

For me, finding my grandmother listed as a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Paddington, London, on the 1911 census helped solve a mystery further back in time that I had been unable to crack using the available records.

I had long been keen to establish a link with a rather disreputable customs officer who lived in Cardigan in the 1850 and 60s.

I felt I knew David Morgan well - how he had been an "efficient and steady" middle-ranking official and father-of-four until the death of his wife Anne Mathias at the age of just 37, and how his life then spiralled out of control.

First he was demoted when officials back in London found his staff's wages had not been paid and later sacked when he was found on Bristol dockside "near a public house" and "intoxicated and incapable of performing his duty".

His claims, detailed in tribunal evidence among documents at the National Archives, that his apparent state had been caused by an accidental trip on a dockside rope, were discounted.

But was the two-year-old Thomas Morgan living with his comfortably-off parents in Cardigan in 1861 the same person who features as a night watchman and head of my grandmother's family in distinctly working-class Paddington in 1911?

I believed so, but family history research in Wales is notoriously difficult - the naming systems and relatively small number of surnames means it is difficult to tell one Morgan from another through the mists of time.

However, a single word on the household schedule provided the key - a great-uncle Robert I never knew I had carried the middle name "Mathias", in memory of his grandmother, and that was enough for me to be sure I had the right family.

For many people, the 1911 census will help to resolve issues that exist at the periphery of our collective living memory.

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