by Patricia Dark, Archivist
It counts everyone, and everyone counts in it – that’s the point of the census. For Southwark’s current communities, an accurate census means accurate population data, which means funding for vital services like schools, transport, and doctors’ surgeries. But for people in the future, the census is a treasure trove of information on individuals, families, households, and communities – one that lets family historians re-trace family connections through the ages and helps explain how the neighbourhood populations of London’s most historic borough have changed through nearly two centuries’ of time.
Every 10 years since 1801, the census has asked questions about the population of England and Wales and compiled information about the make-up of local neighbourhoods; data on individuals survives from 1841 onward. The personal information shared at every census is kept confidential for 100 years. After that, it’s open for the public to explore, and to learn about the life and times of their ancestors and those who lived in their communities in the past.
The census return is a list: of all the buildings in a given street, including unoccupied ones, and all the households within a given building. Separate returns exist for large institutions, like workhouses, hospitals, schools, and prisons. Each household’s return includes the people present there the night the census was taken; these may include visiting friends, lodgers, and even patients in hospital wards and prisoners in jail cells! The information collected about individuals varies with each census, but usually includes their name, birthplace, age on census night, occupation, and how they relate to others household members.
This information can be incredibly valuable for people interested in family, local, and social history. Tracing a person through the census shows them growing up; tracing an address shows how neighbourhoods change through the years. But it also provides unique insights. Answers to census questions on health, birthplace, and immigration shine a light on the diversity of Southwark’s residents – a diversity that often doesn’t show in other record collections. Questions about employment show how common child labour was in the past, and a host of occupations, from brushmaking to toshing, that no longer exist.
On a street or neighbourhood level, census information shows changes in environment and land usage, but questions about housing also show how values and norms have changed; over time, what counts as “overcrowded” or “sub-standard” residences vary a lot. Sometimes what you find is totally unexpected, like the 5 year old homeworker Roger Little of Dulwich – as the return explains, Roger was an Airedale Terrier, and his work was being the Little family’s watchdog.
But more than that, the census gives the future a snapshot of the past that includes everyone. The voices – and the silences – in the census send a message about who we are, where we live, and what we value. It can provide vital evidence of the problems we thought were important and how we sought to fix them. But it does something even more important: it ties all our individual stories together into the story of a place and a time. That gives people – now and in the future – a hook to hang their own stories on, an opportunity to belong somewhere and somewhen.
Taking part in the 2021 census is your chance to help future generations discover their past. By completing your census questionnaire on 21 March 2021 you leave your mark on history. And maybe that’s something your friends, family, and colleagues hadn’t thought about. So we hope you’ll encourage them to do their bit too.
For more information on the 2021 census, visit www.census.gov.uk. If you have a Southwark Presents card, you can access the census free online through Southwark Libraries’ subscription to Ancestry Library Edition and Find My Past.