Last century’s census

Details of information gathered a century ago in the 1911 census has been released by the Registrar General for Scotland under the hundred year rule (the census we’ve all been legaly obliged to fill in recently will remain private for a hundred years too). The census has changed somewhat since the early 20th century – for instance we’re no longer asked to fill in a question asking if we are imbeciles, but that may be simply because the government assumes most of the population are idiots and so to save time leaves the question out and takes it for granted. Similarly the head of the household is not assumed to be male today, unlike 1911 and the adjoining question about how often the male head of the household is required to beat the women to keep them in their place has been removed from later census forms.

Doors Open Day 2010 - Register House 01
(the Registrar General giving a great talk inside Register House during Doors Open Day last autumn, pic from my Flickr)

The newly released census offers not only the chance of new information on family trees for some, it also affords a fascinating snapshot into life in Scotland a century ago, revealing some of the concerns our ancestors at the time had. A great number, it transpires, were extremely worried about having their highly bred racing horses disturbed by rampant sufragettes; it was a boom in sales of insurance policies to cover against those pesky militant women demanding votes throwing themselves under your expensive horse. Some were concerned about Prussian militarism and the possibility of a new European war against Germany, but others pooh-poohed this (pooh-poohing being a popular pastime in that era) pointing out the German Kaiser was the nephew of the late Queen Victoria so there was no chance of the British Empire going to war with them and even if by some odd chance we did then most were reassured it would be a swift campaign and over by Christmas.

It wasn’t all worries in 1911 though, as the census reveals what our ancestors a hundred years ago did for fun and what their aspirations were. Guessing which of your children might live to pass the age of ten was a popular hobby for the large, urban working classes, for instance, while ‘TB Bingo’ was a favoured pastime of the upper classes, where, coughing genteely into their hankies, they would pick out sanitoriums on their score card. The 1911 census also reveals that the most desirable thing to most of the population then was to win a chance to sail on the remarkable gigantic new luxury cruise liner, the Titanic, for the holiday to end them all.

Seriously though, there is a rather poignant aspect to the 1911 census; as UK census take place every decade this would be the last one taken before the unbelievable carnage of the Great War shattered the ordered society of that period, breaking social barriers as much as it broke human bodies. By the time the 1921 census came to be taken a vast amount of the men recorded on the 1911 census would be buried in a Flanders field, a huge chunk of an entire generation was simply missing, and among those who did survive the scars would last a lifetime, some physical (legions of men blinded, or bodies shattered), others mental, nerves broken by the horror and relentless stress of endless trench warfare, while on the home front a whole sector of the female population who had worked so hard to support the war effort had finally been granted the right to vote in the country they had worked so hard for (and more than a few of the women who did that essential work saw their health ruined from dreadful, dangerous working conditions in munitions factories and elswhere, not a few of them were killed doing that work).