The 1911 census

I’ve been waiting for the 1911 census for a while, because I am still very unsure what my great-great-grandfather was up to – at that stage, at the age of 69, he had a nine-year-old son by a second marriage (conceived during his first), although it was one year after his second wife had died. Where was he? And there are plenty of other little mysteries to be solved, irritating little details about various bits and pieces of my various forebears and their families. Technically and legally speaking, the 1911 census shoudn’t have been kept closed so long – the 100-year-old closure is the result of a later law – but it’s too late to fuss about it any more.

But the bad news is that the National Archive, in every other way an eminent institution, has sold the right to digitise it to an organisation, www.1911census.co.uk, which is separate and different from ancestry.com, which is the company possessed of most of the really important lists (it’s no good, I do like looking up and down lists, and it’s useless to say otherwise), and which lost out in the bidding war. And the new company is charging a much heftier fee to have a look at it (some of it is already available, but not the North-East, so I can’t exactly gnash my teeth just yet) – and must already have made a colossal amount from the millions who can’t wait. One of the problems is that it is not (in my case, will not be) searchable in quite the same way, as far as I can make out.

Family history is not just about family, or history. It’s about trying to crack codes. The original transcribers (the enumerators) were often guessing what they could from the dodgy handwriting with which they were presented, and the indexers of the digital versions have also had to make a guess at the dodgy handwriting of some of the subscribers. So you have to use a bit of intuition, which is half the fun. In the 1901 census, for instance – and this gives you a fair idea of how my obsessions run – my father’s mother didn’t seem to be anywhere. Her surname was Catcheside. I knew that she had a sister and a brother, and that all three were born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, so I searched for all the Mabels (my grandmother), all the Thomases (her brother) and all the Dorothys (her sister) in Newcastle, looking for any surname which recurred and which had some semblance of Catcheside about it. It took a while, but I found it eventually as Caththsid. This isn’t something I am going to be able to do with the new outfit, without being charged an arm and a leg. (There was a nice detail in the earlier 1891 census entry. Her father had given his occupation as ‘shipbroker’, and his one-year-old son’s occupation as ‘will be shipbroker’. The enumerator had solemnly copied this down. Perhaps I should add that his son did become a shipbroker…)

1911 gives you a great deal more detail, and also, for the first time, it gives you the original writer’s handwriting as well. Suffragettes famously refused to fill the census in, on the grounds that, if they weren’t allowed to count, why should they be counted? But I’m afraid my family was a bit light on suffragists (or possibly, I am delighted, for selfish reasons, to say that there won’t be any gaps).

Ah well, that’s my retirement fund shot. I know I won’t be able to resist.

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