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The 1991 census: A modern census enumerator's rounds and experiences (or round and round and visit after visit)

I became interested in finding my roots and learning what I could about my ancestors in 1988. Tools that were of great help to me were the census enumerator books.

Beginning in 1801, and excepting 1941, a census has been held in Britain every ten years. The first four censuses were little more than simple head counts of the population. In 1841 the first modern census was held. Each householder was required to complete a census schedule giving the address of the household, the names, ages, sexes, occupations and places of birth of each individual residing in his or her accommodation. In 1851 householders were asked to give more precise details of the places of birth of each resident, to state their relationships to him or her, marital status and the nature of any disabilities from which they may have suffered. Apart from a few minor changes the basic structure of the census schedule did not change until 1891. Householders were then asked how many rooms (if less then five) their family occupied. Additional occupational data was collected and, in Wales, people were asked to say if they spoke the Welsh language. Over time, the forms have got longer and the questions more complex as governments have sought to use the information gleaned, to advise on policy decisions.

After being collected by enumerators, the census schedules were copied into census enumerators' books (CEBs). The CEBs were then sent to London where census clerks used them to compute various local and national statistics. Although the original census schedules have long since been destroyed, the CEBs were kept. After being locked away for a hundred years, the CEBs are made public. The following provide fruitful areas of investigation for census studies: Demography, Migration Patterns, Spatial Distribution of Populations, Social Structure, Family and Household Structure, The Life Cycle and Fertility. There are many spin-offs from these basic building blocks, for example the Aspects of Interdependence in Rural Areas, etc, etc plus, of course, the one we are all familiar with from the television programmes, the researching of family history.

Because I had learned so much from the CEBs, I decided that at the next census, 1991, I would offer my services as one of these foot soldiers, known as a Census Enumerator, in an attempt to put back into the system that which I had taken out. Who knows, it may even help someone in 2091 when the results will be made public. In the Autumn of 1990, I first saw mention of the impending census and rang the Home Office to see how one became involved. "Keep an eye on the local press early next year," I was informed. It must have been in January 1991 that the advert for the part-time job of census enumerator was advertised in The Journal, and in no time at all my application was winging its way to the address in the paper. On Saturday 2nd February I received a letter offering me an interview for the post, the interview to be conducted at Evesham Library on Thursday evening, 14th February. A Mr Franklin was carrying out the interviews and he said that he was looking for about 45 people for his area of responsibility, he added that we should know "in the middle of next week" the result of our interviews. It was a foul evening to be going out for an interview, snow was still lying around and rapidly froze whilst we were in the Library.

The following Thursday a letter arrived informing me that I had been successful at the interview and that I should report for my first training session on 21st March at an address in Stratford. It added that the census was to be held on Sunday 21st April.

Training night involved being given our letter of appointment, our individual census areas, and many instruction manuals, which, we were informed, we would have to study, and be assessed on what we had learned from them, by our deputy area census officer (Tony Callaghan).....on the telephone, a list of the expenses we could claim and a mock census form which we had to go through and check and identify the many errors that it contained during the session. The fictitious family on this mock exercise was the Walker family. The Census district was given the code CD KA05, and I was given two areas, ED FA01 and ED FA02, which comprised the following. All of Aldington; Horsebridge; Birmingham Road Blackminster, from what seems to have been an the old pump or, workshop, just past the brook on the west of the road, to the railway crossing Blackminster, including the properties on the east of that road; The Parks in Offenham Road, including Upper Dene on the other side of the road, and the Riverside Hotel; the old 'Toll Gate House in Siding Lane; Briar Lea Residential Home on Badsey Road Evesham, and any and all the caravans that may be found in the fields in my district, according to the trainers about 170 houses. A time table was given, which included the 'advance round' when the forms explaining what was to happen were to be delivered, which was due to commence on Friday the 12th of April, which meant that my wife and I would have to break off our Easter Holiday a day earlier than anticipated. There was a bit of a discrepancy about a boundary of mine which was soon resolved.

We had a nice Holiday over the Easter in the Lake District, but we had to leave at about 1100 hours on the Friday to drive the 184 miles home so that I could deliver the forms to at least one of my two areas on that first day. We arrived home about 1415 hours, a quick cup of tea and my wife and I were off delivering the notification forms. We covered one of the areas, being FA02, just making a delivery and noting the address, in all found a total of 102 households and we distributed a census form at every habitable building. The area FA02 covered Horsebridge, Birmingham Road and Station Road, Blackminster, if memory serves there was just one mobile home or caravan in this area. It took us about 2 hours to carry out this task, with one of us on either circle of Horsebridge, and then passing or crossing each other in the row of houses commencing with the first bungalow after the Brook in Birmingham road, station road, a mobile home and a bungalow in the fields.

The following day, Saturday the 6th of April, we did the other area, FA01, this consisted of Aldington, The Parks, Briar Lea Upper Dene and the Gypsy encampments at Aldington. It took much longer than the Friday, due to the houses being more widely distributed and longer walks one to another. I found some 101 households which included some 15 to 30 Caravans, in Aldington. However I ran out of census forms and on arriving back home I rang Tony Callaghan to get some more, I was invited over to Cleeve Prior by his wife to collect some, but she found that Tony, who was not at home, had them with him in his car. He did ring later and we made arrangements for me to get extra forms. One bit of luck that day was the fact that we got the delivery finished before the heavens opened.

On Monday the 8th of April Tony Callaghan rang me to inquire "where were the 27 extra households" that I had found. It seems that an enumerator whose boundary area was contiguous to me had "lost 30 households" and he wondered if I had picked them up. I explained to him that I had not strayed off my territory, but that 8 of my extra ones were the eight houses in The Squires, (newly built?) and including at least eight caravans in Station Road Aldington, and two caravans in the fields, one off Birmingham road, and one in a field in Aldington ( I think off Chapel Lane), I could not account for the others that he thought I had found. [The real problem here was that the census organisers were using 'old' maps not upto date ones]

On the evening of the following day, the 9th of April, it was 'Delivery Round Training' for the census. We met at Evesham College and spent four hours going through the routine. It seemed like organised chaos to me, the video of 'how to do it' should have been a video of how not to do it. However, if one ignored the acting then it was trying to make a point, but it was lost on me. I did think that if we were so disorganised in the twentieth century, it gives understanding to all of the errors, poor descriptions, the plain spelling errors geographic and phonetic spelling of names and places made by the enumerators in the nineteenth century. Many of the enumerators seemed to have a lot of problems and were very unsure of this next stage, but it was understandable, as I said it was organised chaos. To cap it all I still had not received my extra census forms, for my 'extra households.' I finally received them and delivered them on the 10th, including the Gypsy Caravans in Aldington.

Before the next part of the operation, the delivery of the census forms proper, I spent time addressing the forms and doing the other bits of admin, and commenced to deliver the pale green forms with their dark green headings, at One o'clock on Thursday April the 11th. It was a nice spring day when I started, dry and mild. I did Horse bridge, the outer ring first, commencing at the first detached house on the left, right the way round then crossed over to the inner ring and went back on my self. This time we had to gain entrance to an adult householder and fill part in part of the form with information which they furnished us with, if we could not see such a person, we were to call back when one was in, I seem to remember that we had to try on three separate occasions, before finally popping the form through the letter box.

The following day, the 12th, was a Friday and after finishing work I went on my rounds again, I was out from about 1630 hours to about 2015 hours. I called in at those houses in Horsebridge that I could not gain access to then went down and picked up the properties in Blackminster Road and Station Road, and the bungalow in the middle of the field, plus of course the one caravan. I did have one small problem with a householder. Who advised to seek his name off the Electoral Register, in the event though I did persuade him to give me his name for the form, and at least to accept the form and have a look at it, and to consider, was a refusal to fill it in worth a fine of £400! But he did have the last word, which was "you can take pot luck to find me in when you come next time" I thought, oh dear, its not me that's going to pay the £400. There was provision on our forms to make notes of any problems which we met with, and ultimately a report would be made out to the Assistant Census officer of the District. I was frozen when I arrived home that night.

On Saturday the 13th of April, a cold day with a north easterly blowing, I delivered more forms, and included the Gypsy Mobil and Static homes. I served about eighty five percent of them, the others had either moved on or were out when I called. Two of the vans that were housed in a field on their own, were just as they were when I first visited, absolutely no sign of live and I concluded that they had been abandoned long ago, but decided that I would go through the due process of delivery.

Sunday the 14th was a better day, warmer but still windy, and I was delivering my forms from 1330 hours until 1830 hours and consider that I am about 85 percent through the delivery process. I was in Aldington that day and started work on the West side of the road as I entered the hamlet, then returned down the east side. At one house a lady answered my knock, I explained that I was the Census Enumerator and was delivering the forms and asked her would she give me the required details before I gave her the form. She excused herself a moment and disappeared into the house, she reappeared and said "no thanks we are not having any of this, we are careful people and do not want to be involved". I explained that it was an offence to refuse to fill in the form and that failure to complete and return a form can be punished by a fine of up to £400, and that I would have to notify my superior officer of our conversation and that her husband could be pursued by the courts. I added that if she at least give me the basic detail of their names and numbers in the house, she could then have the form to look at their leisure, and we could further discuss their difficulties when I called to collect the form. (Despite an estimated 1 million undercount in 1991, only 342 people were prosecuted). This the lady decided to do. I also gained access to the last remaining Gypsy Mobile Home.

On Monday evening, the 15 of April I was out again making deliveries, mainly picking up those whom I had missed the first time round. I met a great grandson of JR Tolkien, the writer of Lord of The Rings, and other stories.

On the evening of Tuesday the 16th of April I completed my deliveries, other than the Riverside Hotel and Briar Lee. These I delivered the following morning, the 17th. On my two enumeration districts I had 186 private households, there were 6 vacant houses and 4 absent households, as per instructions a letter, a census return form and a stamped addressed envelope had been left in these properties for when the people returned. A combined total of 196. Take this total away from the original total of 203 found when we took the notification forms out, leaves 7 missing. These I accounted for by virtue of :

  • One house, Upper Dean, being enumerated by another area.
  • A Gypsy Family having three caravans instead of one.
  • A Gypsy family having two caravans instead of one.
  • Three Gypsy Families having 'moved on.

The evening of Thursday the 18th of April was 'Collection day' training, though I do not recollect it I have noted that there were "a lot of daft questions asked"

Sunday the 21st of April was Census Day, and Tony Callaghan my immediate supervisor asked me to collect the completed form from Upper Dene after all.

On Collecting the forms we had to go over them with the householder, check the details and help them where necessary to fill in the forms. Individual families who were known by an enumerator had to be given a 'confidential' envelope in which they could put their form, which would be checked over by the assistant Census Officer, and if it was deemed necessary he would contact that householder. I did issue a number of these envelopes, at a guess about 9. If a house appeared to have been empty, or a family was absent on census night, then they were left a form with a letter asking them to complete the form on their return home, and post it off in the pre paid envelope.

I commenced to collect the completed forms at 0900 hours on Monday the 22nd of April and worked through to 1300 hours, I also did a 30 minute stint after 2000 hours. I collected 57 completed forms, all quickly checked at the doorstep to see if they were done correctly, but made the proviso that if there was a problem then I would be back again. At the house where the chap had invited me to check the electoral register for his name, his wife came to the door, she went back in for the form, I commenced to check it and many of the questions had been scrawled through with no entries made, other questions had been answered. I pointed out to the lady that her husband had not filled in all of the answers, and I asked her would she give me the answers and I would complete it for them. This she did, quite willingly. Non the less because of the scribble and the fact that her husband was being difficult I filled in the necessary report on the matter. There was another chap who gave me the form in an ordinary envelope, which I began to tear open to check with him that it was correct, he asked "what happened to confidentiality then" I explained that I had to check the contents with him, to which he said "we would like it to be confidential" I further explained that I could put it into an official 'confidence' envelope but that my supervisor would open it, check it out and if he thought fit he would be in touch with him. This seemed to satisfy him. It was only later, when I got home and was doing the admin, that I recollected that his wife/spouse/partner and I had met on occasions.

On Tuesday the 23 of April I did a five hour collection stint and collected, by coincidence, another 57 Completed forms.

Wednesday the 24th of April, I was again out collecting for five or so hours, and collected 66 forms, including the one who 'did not want to be involved. This was the second time that I had called but this time the man of the house came to the door and said "I think that I have filled it in correctly, perhaps you would like to check". All was correct. At one house I saw the lady of the house who said that she had not yet filled it in, and asked would I call back, I said not to worry I would call back within the hour. When I called back, everywhere was locked up no sign of life and I did not gain entry. It was all very hectic, I have made a note at the time that I was exhausted and that I would not be doing it in 2001, I also noted that I had met some very nice people and had little problems other than the two outlined, and our Gypsy community have been fine throughout. I also met one chap whose ancestor in the 1840's had married a brother of my three times great grandfather, but then I already knew him, and had given him a confidential envelope for returning his form.

On Thursday the 25th I collected another 8 forms, including those from Briar Lea and the Riverside Hotel. I ended the day only needing three forms. However, one of these three was the one that I had seen the day before before she disappeared, and I called again today at 1230 hours; 1600 hours and 2010 hours. No sign of life. I started the admin side of completing the census including putting the forms in their road/ street number sequence etc.

By the 26th I had obtained two of the three that were outstanding, I was only missing the one, whose owner I did see before she then vanished. I called again on this day at 1740 hours and again at 1530 hours but no one came to the door. I therefore had a word with the assistant census officer who said to treat it as an absent one, and drop the letter envelope and a new form in the letterbox. I went round again at 1830 hours and failing to get anyone to answer I popped the package through the letter box. The letter explained that I had tried to gain access on at least three separate occasions [more like six or seven] and requested that the householder should fill in the enclosed form and post it back using the enclosed envelope. I never did find out if they did this.

All the forms that I have been able to collect were safely gathered in and I am at the final admin stage, and I spent 3 hours on it this day. I had a total of 572 persons in my two enumeration districts, living in 198 households, plus a residential home which holds 19 of the persons in my districts, and the Riverside Hotel which had three people there on census night. Ignoring these last 22 people, the household size for my area was 2.077. The forms are all boxed up ready, and in the order that they appear on the ground. The 'confidential' envelopes were all sealed and waiting, all my instruction manuals, identity badges and little shoulder bags neatly parcelled ready for me to deliver to Tony Callaghan the assistant census officer.

On Sunday the 27th of April, a week after the census I delivered my completed forms and all of the other baggage that went with the office, along with my claim for expenses sheet, to the Assistant Census Officer.

On Saturday the 4th of May I received a communication form John Franklin the census Officer for the district thanking me for carrying out the function of census enumerator, and seeking to arrange a skittles evening. A nice idea, but the date of the evening was for a time that I was to be away from home, catching up on some of my family history which had suffered somewhat over the previous month.

During the three distinct operations of the census, the delivery of the notification letter; the delivery of the census form and the collection of the form, as one walked the round and could not gain access, it necessitated a second or third visit. As a consequence, leaving alone the delivery of the notification letter, one would expect to deliver/collect forms in an ad hoc manner in no particular order, so there was no census route as such. It was very much a case of deliver/collect as and when you catch some one in, so that even if you wished to walk a particular route, it was a very wavering route. Many people were out when a call was made, and one would have to call back on two occasions at least [usually till one did make contact, certainly at the collection stage]. But all of this was overcome by the filing of the forms according to their place on the grounds, so that they do follow one from another. On the other hand, it cannot be said that it signifies a particular route that an individual enumerator took.

Trevor Hockenhull, January 2007