Sunday, 2 October 2011

Celebrating the Census - report

Yesterday (Saturday 1st October) I attended the Celebrating the Census conference at the National Archives at Kew. I arrived early, having taken the overnight bus from Glasgow, so sat for an hour outside the building in what the English refer to as "warmth" and "sunlight", which I have to say is a highly recommended experience - it'll be great if it ever catches on here in Scotland! ("Sure we'd have a lovely little country, if they'd only move it!")

The conference started at 10am, but coffee and nibbles from 9am set the mood - bumped into quite a few familiar faces, such as Audrey Collins, Rosemary Morgan and Sheena Tait, and met a few others that I converse with on Twitter, as well as a couple of past Pharos students, so a good start! An introduction was given by Jeff James, TNA's Director of Operations and Services, to the day's activities, though I was amused in this to learn that the Scottish census apparently started in 1841, but you live and learn! (Sorry Jeff, big *FAIL* on that one!!!). Then the real meat of the day began.

There were several talks running in parallel, two at a time, so I started off listening to an interesting talk by Humphrey Southall of the University of Portsmouth entitled Making Geographical Sense of the Census: an Introduction to A Vision of Britain Through Time. The first half of the talk described the university's efforts in trying to plot the boundaries of the various administrative units identified in the censuses, which is a phenomenal task, and how the development of different district types developed in parallel with the development of initiatives such as the Ordnance Survey and Boundary Commission maps.

A Vision of Britain Through Time ( is an immensely important website that can be used in genealogical research to identify how areas have changed across Britain, through maps, gazetteers and more, and in the second part of the talk Humphrey concentrated on demonstrating the site. To do so he chose a place name suggested by the audience, in this case Ashby de la Zouch. At this point Vietnam style flashbacks flew before my eyes, for I was once shot in Ashby, about fifteen years ago. The culprit was a member of the Sealed Knot - a director I was working with on War Walks suggested we put the camera in front of a few Sealed Knot re-enactors as they fired a volley towards us with matchlock muskets. Thankfully the muskets had no shot in them. They did, however, have gunpowder and plenty of grass packed in as wadding, and nobody told us that the grass would be shot out at about Mach 10 and scorch any item of clothing it hit! So having spent years in Northern Ireland and not seeing so much as a firework go off, I moved to England and got shot by a mad musketeer from the Sealed Knot... The grass didn't kill me, but the irony nearly did. It hurt like a bugger and it was in Ashby de la Zouch - but I digress! :)

From the humble genie's point of view a key bit of news is that the website is going to change slightly in the next month, with more clarification on what is available through it, as well as a download option for some of the maps - though I believe that is for academic purposes, so may just be through academic subscription.

There then followed an enjoyable talk by Sharon Hintze of the London based LDS Family History Centre, which is temporarily operating out of TNA for a few months. The talk was entitled Worldwide Census Returns, and did what it said on the tin, describing different census resources from around the world. The earliest census was apparently in Egypt in 3340BC, and the original name of the Domesday Book was the Book of the Treasury, so all sorts of interesting bits and bobs! The talk actually clarified something I had been unsure of with Belgian censuses. My Scottish great grandfather had spent thirty years in Brussels prior to the First World War, and my grandfather had been born there. A few years ago I went to the Brussels Archives and was given information which I was told by my translator was census information, but it was not in a decennial format, but rather a 'rolling return', with additions every time my family came and went from Belgium to Scotland or moved address between communes in Brussels. Apparently this is the form of census return in several European countries, and based on an old Japanese system, so particularly useful to establish. Sharon is currently on the hunt for an old 6th century census that was said to have been taken of the old kingdom of Dalriada (straddling eastern Ulster and western Scotland) - not one I've heard of before, but certainly one I'd be interested to know more about!

After lunch, Richard Deswarte of the University of Essex's UK Data Archive then gave a talk entitled Histpop - the online historical populations report website and other census resources from the HDS. This focussed on the Histpop website (, again another important site for genies, which lists population data reports and relevant government legislation. The site currently covers the period from 1801-1937 for the UK, including the south of Ireland prior to partition, but not after, so nothing on the 1926 census of the Irish Free State, for example. The team would like to extend coverage up to 1961, but it seems a distant prospect as the team itself was recently shrunk from six or seven members to just one full time member and Richard, who jointly manages it with other projects. One ambitious project that was raised as being under consideration is a thing called the Integrated Census Microdata (I-Cem) project, which I think it is fair to say drew quite a mixed reaction from the audience. The aims of the project, from what I can gather, is to try to connect households between all of the censuses across Britain. A few genies in the room thought this seemed a bit fantastical, with the amount of errors in the censuses, spelling variants, common names (John Smith) etc. It is apparently under consideration for academical purposes, but with a commercial partner also being mooted. From my own point of view, my initial reaction was that there's not a hope in hell of getting that to work without a heck of a lot of genealogical expertise thrown in, though developing it as a crowd sourcing project was suggested (i.e. use the public) - but to be honest, I didn't quite see the point, other than for academic use. Sharon Hintze mentioned in her talk that England and Wales are the only countries in the world with four or five ways to access the censuses. We are already quite well covered on the census front, and I would have thought that the commercial firms would think of using their money and resources to try and target something else instead of playing further with the censuses.

An Irish genealogist called Helen Kelly then gave a talk on Irish census returns, a subject I am fairly well versed in, so the only real key development I got from this was news that John Grenham is currently pulling together a fourth edition of his Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, which should be out early next year according to Helen. The book is considered by most genies to be the bible of Irish genealogy, as John certainly knows his stuff, so that will be an important addition to the library when released. Helen did mention some Roman Catholic 19th Century censuses, I think she cited one from 1845 that I had not come across before, though I wasn't clear if these were national censuses, or something like status animarum records - so one area to perhaps look into further at some stage. I had a chat after with Helen and cited an observation that I had made that all the schedule forms from 1901 and 1911 that I have come across so far seemed to have been distributed by Royal Irish Constabulary officers - apparently that was indeed the case, so useful to know I wasn't going mad on that front!

Finally, I attended a talk by Mark Pearsall from TNA entitled Censuses and Listings before 1841. It almost exclusively dealt with English substitutes and listings, but was a fascinating journey through some amazing resources. He did mention that he believed that there used to be a comprehensive listing of the availability of 1801-1831 census records incorporating names available on the Hispop site (i.e. names did not exclusively start from 1841 onwards, some parishes did so earlier) - Richard promised that if it had disappeared he would make sure it went back online. One of the Jeremy Gibson and Mervyn Medlycott guides deals with the subject, and some transcriptions can be found online on the census Finder website (, though this Histpop list is apparently the most well defined version, so well worth looking for.

Two final pieces of news - the unredacted forms of the 1911 English and Welsh censuses will apparently be going online on January 3rd 2012, but I don't know if these will need to be paid for if an entry has already been viewed, and do not know which platforms this will happen on. The census is currently available on FindmyPast (and, Ancestry and The Genealogist. And keep an eye out in the next few months for the Scottish wills additions on ScotlandsPeople from 1902-1925, which should be out early next year.

All in all a superbly organised and executed day by TNA, and a great turn out. I should add that there were additional talks given by Audrey Collins, Dee Williams, Anna Buelow, Elizabeth Crawford and Dave Annal, which I could not go to as they ran in parallel, but feedback seemed to be great from those also. I believe some of the talks, those held in Conference Room A, will be issued as TNA podcasts at some point, though happy to be corrected on that. Will definitely go back for more at a future occasion - though may book by train well in advance next time and not leave to the bus at the last minute, which might have happened this time...!


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