Senseless Census

Over 85% of Londoners are happy with the health services they regularly receive and only 57% of Londoners would leave their front door key with a neighbour.  Do you know what this means? This means that statistically there are more of us willing to trust a stranger who has enough medical power to know how to kill us more than the people who we wave to over the garden hedge twice a year whilst preparing for a family barbecue.  This means that doctors, with their bizarre ejaculations of  “No, of course this steroid won’t make you fat and burn away your stomach lining, Mrs Smith” and “Yes, this contraceptive pill is not a pile of hormonal man-made cack that will make you sprout a beard when you’re 28, dear” are more trusted than the people we share common walls with.  I say we share common walls with as I am semi-detached, don’t you know, in mind and in spirit.

The reason is the class implications that come with professional standing I suppose.  That’s why the twats at the commercial bank I deal with day to day at The Job need a “professional” person to sign the back of my slightly ill looking passport photo to prove who I am.  That is because only a professional knows  who I am.  The people I see every day – the bus driver, the secretary, the waiter, the cleaner – are so mentally retarded that they do not know what the difference is between me and Rod Hull or Terry Wogan.  They are not professionally educated to know the difference.  But I’d trust half of them with my front door key and, most probably, with a kidney or two if the mood takes me.   But the labels we have chosen to apply to ourselves, solely for the purpose of earning money, are the labels we take to the grave.  And beyond.

I say beyond, because I’ve been looking at the 1881 and 1871 censuses.  How little we know of people who lived before us, beyond age, marital status, children dead, children living and profession.  Unlike birth certificates, the census forms tells us the profession of mothers all over the country.  And yet, so many of the jobs seem so remarkably archaic to us that we don’t know what class implications they imply.  “WATERMAN” – is this someone who worked on the canal, or a commission RA watercolourist painter?  “MANGLER”  Is this someone who cleans clothes, or owns a small business that does so?  Is a “NEEDLEWOMAN” her own business?  or a poverty-stricken freelancer?  Who pays her and how?  These are all professions, because the people who carry them out carry them out for money.  Yet, the people who carry them out may not be professionals.  I think to be a professional you have to be either in a 1970s cop show or someone who’s been educated : accountant, lawyer, doctor, teacher.   In these professions it helps, so I am told to be really, really bent.

I was floating about the 1881 census only to discover that the man who was employed as a Coachman in the house I was brought up was in fact a blind coachman.  Despite sounding like a rural pub, the blind coachman must have had a nerve-wracking time of it at the A41 / M25 interchange.  Who employs a blind coachman?  What is going on?  And also, what is the point of asking this professional to sign the back of your passport photo?  He can’t see it.  This blind coachman is from a long line of cottage dwellers whose sole income comes from serving the people in the big house, and the people in the big house seem like a peculiar bunch as well.  One of them made his money from shares in the Great Western Railway, so I know to write to him when complaining about the refreshment carriage.  Another was an 80 year old local woman made rich by a mill who appears to be living in the house with several random ladies.  AKA Victorian Old Age Care Home, and another family appear to be incapable of counting how many rooms the house has.  In some dwellings, you can smell the poverty.  Criteria for this is generally more children then you have habitable rooms and still more dead children than you have live ones.

There are three difficulties with the census : the first is that no one can read any of the writing on any of them before 1891, the second is that no one writes down the full address of anything until 1891 and the third is I am sure people told porkies.  How many secret sons and daughters were passed off as brothers and sisters?  And how many people who said they were indeed a professional man with a living actually had done nothing but sit in the pub and drink bitter for the last twelve years?  How many people pretended to be married whilst they lived in sin?  And how many people had accidentally mixed up their diary dates and forgot the census was being done on a particular evening and instead had arranged to shag the neighbour’s gardener, who they then had to hide in an upstairs towel cupboard when the census called and, a century later, created the reason the gardener’s grandchildren are unable to locate him on the census.  Too many truths get missed out.   The 1921 census won’t get released in 2022 and the 1931 census got burnt down in a fire in Hayes so there isn’t one.  There was no census in the war, so that’s 1941 out.  After we get the next census released to us in 2022 (1921 census) we have a 30 year gap until the next one.  That will be the 1951 census and I shall be 76 when it is released , which gives me something to look forward to.  But it will be set in the 1950s – it’ll have space age cartoons and bottles of Coca Cola to deal with and will be covered with graffiti celebrating the end of rationing and the people taking part will be boggle eyed children and older DA-hair-styled brothers, all  filled with medicine and cod liver oil looking adoringly at their new television sets and not giving the Census Man his due.

Census schmensus. It took them about 100 years to get the hang of how to do a census.  When we filled out our census forms in 2011 we had a seven or eight page document.  It asked us what we had for breakfast, whether our favourite colour for a bathroom was green or cream, whether we considered ourselves Jedi, how we worshipped, what we worshipped, how do you spell the word “worship” and what we consider to be the correct steps for a traditional foxtrot.  It’s mind-numbingly English in its dedication to the ponderous, pedantic detail.  But in 1851 a census entry looks like this:


Location  hedge at ende of streete

Name  sdfkjehrt dfikj.  (Could be James Smith.  Could be Bob Dylan.  Could be Lord Mendelson  Could  be anything).

In household   Head of house

Age   5

No of children living   12

No of children dead  25

Profession  Nursemaid and baiter of dogs employ. 5 men.

Blind / Idiot / Lunatic / Dumb / Deaf    Yes

I’m not joking you know.  I have reason to believe, beyond doubt, that the Head of Household in the house where I was raised in 1851 was a 5 year old male wet nurse with a professional sideline in dog cruelty who had given birth to 37 children.  The amazing thing is – this is evidence.  This may be the only historical remnants of Sdfkjehrt Dfikj’s life.   He may not exist anywhere else.   This is all I have of the house’s history at that point.   He may be a fragment of the census’s imagination.  Frankly, I’m just worried about the dogs.

Dare I go back further?  The house does, but the census does not.  What could I find out about 1745?  About 1692?  What about the massive knees up they would have had after the success of The Battle of Waterloo in 1815?  How many hogs did they roast?  How many people died of happiness the day they invented jam?  There was a secret altar in the cellar.  I’m really really not making this up.   There was, you know.  There was a  neat shelf for iconography.  There was an altar for kneeling upon and communing with the Almighty.   It must have been some Glorious Revolution nonsense when it was illegal to be a Catholic when there was an “r” in the month and a few years later illegal to be a Protestant if you’d been out and watered your garden on a Tuesday during a waning moon.  I reckon they were secret Sikhs.  History prior to 1800 in English villages is a hotch potch of hearsay, fable and faith.   Aside from the parish hatch, match and dispatch registers, all is a murky, mud-sodden, non-double glazed madhouse of Medievalness.

The census is only the surface of what goes on.  It makes life no less mysterious than what went on before it.  The census certainly doesn’t provide us with intimate knowledge.  But maybe I shouldn’t monkey with the past – and shouldn’t dig back any further.  Because before I know it I’ll discover that the inhabitant in 1712 was something awful – like a doctor.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every two weeks, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday July 26th!  Thank you 


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