If you think reading the census is dull, think again. It can reveal some unexpected gems. I thought I’d share a few I’ve viewed over the years – ones I’ve found, and some located by others. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
As March is designated Women’s History Month I’m starting out with some 1911 census entries. The suffrage movement advocated boycotting this census. Some women deliberately absented themselves on census night, 2 April. Other census forms have information and notations which indicate they are clearly linked to people actively involved, or sympathising, with the suffrage movement.
Suffragist, and a founder member of the Women’s Freedom League, Dr Octavia Lewin of 25 Wimpole Street, Marylebone wrote ‘No vote. No census. I absolutely refuse to give any information’. She does then go on to list her impressive array of qualifications, ending with ‘assistant physician, London Homeopathic Hospital’. That, though, was the limit of the household information she supplied, with the Registrar annotating the form to the effect that the rest of information was estimated. 
Over in Ingatestone, Essex, Dorothea Rock, of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was similarly forthright with her protest. She wrote:
I, Dorothea Rock, in the absence of the male occupier, refuse to fill up this Census paper as, in the eyes of the Law, women do not count, neither shall they be counted. 
Louisa Garrett Anderson, daughter of Elizabeth, a qualified surgeon and another prominent WSPU member, withheld any household information for her Harley Street home. Yet again the details, including for four anonymous people, were estimated. 
Other ‘No vote. No census’ protestors included Dorothy Bowker (WSPU). Lodging at Marylebone she wrote across her return:
I am Dumb politically. Blind to the census. Deaf to enumerators. Being classed with criminals lunatics and paupers I prefer to give no further particulars. 
The enumerator and registrar added further comments to the effect that Dorothy had returned temporarily to her lodgings to remove her luggage, then left.
Also in Marylebone, the occupational entry for Georgiana Alexandra Mott, a pioneer of education for women, simply read ‘Desires a parliamentary Vote’ . This sentiment was shared by another Marylebone resident, Ann Halliburton, who wrote ‘I desire the vote’. 
But the protest extended beyond Marylebone. The occupation given by 41-year-old married woman Ada Twells of South Kyme, Lincolnshire was ‘At present agitating for votes for Women’ . The occupation of fish merchants’ wife Clara Annie Braithwaite of Cleethorpes was ‘Suffragette’ . Clara Callander, 60, living at Wavertree went one further. Besides the occupation of suffragette, she gave her employer as UWSPU and under the infirmity column she put ‘disability to vote’ . In similar vein Christine S Bremner, a visitor at the Morgan-Browne household in Wimbledon, refused to giver her age or birthplace, but gave her occupation as ‘Suffragette’ and infirmity ‘unenfranchised’ .
Another suffragette with an infirmity was 23-year-old Marion Louise Kitchin, daughter of Doncaster-born veterinary surgeon James Edward Kitchin. The family lived at Woodford Green in 1911, and this is a information-packed return. His wife Elizabeth’s occupation is ‘Lady’. His 16-year-old son, William Norman, is a ‘gentleman at large’. Marion is a suffragette ‘looking for a job’, with ‘absent mindedness’ recorded as her infirmity. Sister Kathleen is afflicted with ‘unpunctuality’. Son Geoffrey was ‘argumentative’, I guess that’s teenagers for you. But not quite the infirmity information being sought! 
Then there’s the Folkestone household of Mrs Smart. She, and three anonymous occupants, were listed as suffragettes. There’s a supplementary note that Mrs Smart ‘refused to fill up a schedule and the others refused information for the reason that they state women have no vote’ .
Other indications of suffrage sympathies included the use of slave as an occupation. Examples here include 52-year-old widow Lucy Gilbert of Bermondsey . Variations on this theme included ‘Domestic Slave’, which was used amongst others by 48-year-old married woman Elizabeth Bond of Cherry Hinton, Cambridgeshire . ‘Family Slave’ also pops up, including Eleanor Snowden (35), a married woman from Harewood near Leeds .
As seen from the above, women campaigning for the vote deliberately withheld their names. But the censuses are full of unknown men and women, occasionally with extra information such as Italian man, German woman. One example which Jane Hough found in the 1901 census at Little Weldon, Northamptonshire, listed Poacher 1, 2 and 3, with an indication that the particulars could not be ascertained .
My favourite personal find though is from the 1871 census at Kirthwaite, Dent, where included in the Thompson household is a man ‘supposed out of work’ on the tramp. If you have a 40-year-old Stockport-born ancestor you can’t trace in this census, could it be this individual, described as ‘a man with a big nose’? .
Occupations provide a rich seam of hilarity to mine. How about William Neale in Shottesbrook, Berkshire whose occupation, as described in 1881, was ‘None (to idle)’ ? And perhaps an indication in 1851 Barnstone, Nottinghamshire, of the esteem in which Mary Carlisle held her daughter-in-law Maria: ‘too idle for anything’ . Skip forward to 1881, where George Huyton, a visitor to Parr, St Helens, was described as ‘too lazy to work’ .
But the prize for idleness must surely go to Matilda Sharpe, ‘81 tomorrow’. The sister of the head of a household in Islington, in 1911 she completed the form signing herself off as ‘Deputy Head’. Something many an under-valued author can appreciate, she described her occupation as ‘Alas too Idle yet writing a Book’. Then she duly put her creative skills to good use, ensuring an enduring written legacy. She described the Rev. Rose as having his ‘Heart in his Work. Alas Over-Worked’. His wife, Mrs Rose, was a ‘lovely Self Devoting Wife’. Caroline Chipperfield earned high praise as a ‘Cook – & a very Nice One’. Whilst Alice Percy had similar plaudits, being a ‘House Maid – all we could Wish’ .
In particular, some of the census entries relating to children are priceless. As you read them you can sympathise with the mixed emotions of desperation, frustration, love and humour felt by their parents.
The 1851 census entry for Edith, under two months, the daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Higgin in Liverpoool read ‘(Occupation) Suckling & Sleeping’ .
In the same census, over in Bradford, Hannah, the four-month-old daughter of Robert and Hannah Kennedy was ‘constantly crying at home’ .
Another early example appeared in the 1881 census when West Derby (near Liverpool) barrister George Zavier Segar described his wife’s occupation as ‘Looking after me and the Family’. His three-year-old daughter Mary G was occupied ‘Eating Sleeping Talking’; whilst her one-year-old brother Robert S included the additional string to his bow of ‘getting into mischief’ .
Across in Chadderton, in the same census, James Lever’s infirmity was being ‘without money’. Perhaps his two-year-old daughter Mary’s occupation caused this financial hardship, because her occupation is described as ‘crying for halfpennys’ .
Whilst in 1881 Atherstone, Adelaide Forbes, two-year-old daughter of Stuart Forbes was ‘Eating, Drinking, Sleeping etc’. He recognised his wife Isabel’s role of ‘Keeping House & nursing children’. And sister-in-law Grace Churchill was worthily described as ‘Feeding the Hungry & Clothing the Naked’ .
There are scores of 1911 census examples featuring children. I’ve listed some of these below:
- Elsie Irene Axtell, age nine months, the daughter of Archibald and Ada Axtell from Bristol was described as ‘Eating Drinking Sleeping’ .
- Florence Brown, nine months, of Limehouse, London, daughter of Frederick and Florence was occupied ‘Crying’, with the indication that she undertook this job ‘at home’. The family also included ‘Perfect’ for all members in the Infirmity column .
- The youngest two members of the Herrington family in West Rounton, North Yorkshire, had occupations befitting their ages. Alfred, three, was occupied ‘Crying Eating & Sleeping’; and sister Mary, under one month, worked at ‘Crying Sucking & Sleeping’ .
- Across in Scarborough, Robert and Elizabeth Knaggs wrote of their three-year-old daughter, Marjorie, ‘Play mostly Crying occasionally’ .
- Edna Lee, age three, living with her grandparents and parents in Bradford was described as ‘Eating Drinking Playing’ with ‘Sleeping’ added later in brackets . Was this by an enumerator with a sense of humour?
- The occupation of Stanley William Pawley, one-year-old son of William and Flora Pawley of Fakenham was occupied ‘Crying & Breaking Feeding Bottles’ .
- Harold Urquhart Roberts, age one, living at Farnborough was ‘Eating Drinking & Shouting’ in the ‘Baby’ industry or service .
- In Willesden, Gerald Stollery, three, was engaged in ‘mostly destroying toys’, whereas sister Eileen, one, had the sole job of ‘crying’ .
It is, however, sobering to consider not all these children survived to adulthood. But they live on, and stand out, through their wonderful census descriptions.
I’ll end the example of children in the censuses section with an 1871 entry. This is yet another classic, on a par with idle book-writer Matilda Sharpe who inspired this post. This one is for the Parsons family living in Basford, Nottinghamshire. Susannah Parsons, wife of William, was described as ‘Her husband’s devoted nurse’; granddaughter Florence, nine, whose condition was ‘Tall & thin’ rather than single was ‘a student of rudimentary accomplish[men]t’. Sussannnah H, eight, was ‘a still younger student of above’; grandson William, one, ‘very fat’, had his rank, profession or occupation column proudly annotated ‘His rank is most upright for he can walk and is very independent’; six-year-old granddaughter Emily G, ‘very thin’, was engaged in ‘innocent mischief’; and not forgetting Caroline Jones, a ‘most excellent serv[an]t as nurse’ .
The elderly could also have unusual occupational annotations. Samantha Willis highlighted a 1911 entry from Hastings linked to her family. Household head Arthur Edward Callis, ‘Waiter. Boots. Chamber Maid. God knows what’ wrote of his 90-year-old mother-in-law Jane Sargent ‘Does nothing sleeps’ . Maybe this is simply an accurate reflection of the impact of advanced years, or ill health, rather than any form of sarcasm.
And do watch out for other unsolicited snippets of information. For example in Bognor in 1911 George Henry Harrington, 37, has no work. The explanation is given: ‘Had neurasthenia several years now. Because very deaf at 34…’ .
There’s also a 26-year-old unmarried naval officer, Thomas Wallace Young, a visitor in 1911 Harting, Sussex. The dashing image is, well, dashed when his afflictions are listed: bald and toothless .
And John Underwood of Hastings wasn’t wrong in describing his affliction as ‘bad temper’ in 1911. He was sufficiently annoyed to identify all his family’s individual afflictions starting with his wife, occupied in cooking and washing, but the possessor of a ‘long tongue’. His children were quarrelsome, stubborn, greedy, vain and noisy .
Finally Britain is often labelled a nation of animal lovers. We often think of our pets as family members. And thankfully some census entries supporting this have sneaked through too.
In 1911 Heanor, church worker Frances Catherine Stone, 46, listed her two other household members: Timothy the Cat, age seven; and Jack the Dog, eight .
Meanwhile, in Doncaster that year, the Cooke household hosted a rather unusual boarder. Single, age one, his name was Jim the Cat. And naturally enough his occupation was ‘mouse catcher’ .
And the 1911 census Rigby household in Birkenhead have a tom cat named Tobit C[r]ackitt. His age is obscured (the enumerator is unamused by the family’s sense of humour), but you can still read that he’s married with 16 children, all living. He works as a ‘Mouse Catcher Soloist Thief’. Nationality is ‘Cheshire Cat’ and he does sadly have an infirmity: He is speechless. William Rigby, the household head, perhaps thinks too much information is being sought and writes:
All the Above Mentioned Have Breakfast Dinner Tea & Supper. Eat Standard Bread Drink Sterilized milk. Sleep with the Windows open. Wash our feet once a week. “Etc” God Save the King. R.S.V.P. Rest in Peace .
The enumerator has crossed this piece of insubordination out too.
But I’ll leave journalist James Ange Little with the last word though. It could well be that he too was getting a dig in at the perceived intrusiveness of the census questions, but his final entry is pure census gold. He wrote:
Incidentally, we have an Airedale Terrier. I do not know whether particulars are required, but in case you want them here they are….
He then went on to give details for Keighley-born Roger, age five. Information generally about his marriage were unknown, other than his children probably numbered something over 100. He worked as a watchdog on his own account. The industry/service was ‘looking after house’ and this was undertaken ‘at home & outside’ .
As you can see from the above, most examples are from the 1911 census simply because of the survival of the original householder schedules, as opposed to the sanitised enumerator books from the earlier censuses. But, as I’ve identified, there are stray examples which slipped through from earlier censuses too.
If you can add to the list of quirky England and Wales census examples do feel free to add a comment, or email me. If you could provide the census reference too, that would be appreciated. I’ll update this post to reflect any received.
Update 1 – 10 March 2020: After Siblings and Niblings informed me in the comments section about a relationship status of paramour in the 1911 census, I investigated further. And yes, there are lots of other examples. One I located in 1891 Stepney had a household head, Arthur Newstead, a 24-year-old widower. The household also included Charlotte Linch (married) whose relationship status was ‘paramour’. Not only that, there was a five-year-old girl, ‘paramour’s child’; a baby whose relationship was ‘putative daughter’ and a 27-year-old man whose connection to the head was ‘paramour’s brother’ .
And I am still seeking out the quirky. One particularly astonishing one is from Chesterfield in 1851. Thomas Cooke, a 61-year-old married man is the head of the household. Also listed is his wife, Jane, age 44. There are four other members. These comprise Harriett Cooke, 30-year-old unmarried niece, described in the occupation column as ‘concubine of her uncle!’ But that’s not all. There are three children ranging from six years old to two months and in the occupation column they are described thus:
Son of do. [concubine]……………)
Dau[ghte]r of do. [concubine]..) by her uncle!!!
Son of do. [concubine]……………) 
And yes, the exclamation marks were inserted by a shocked enumerator. Perhaps it equated to an exclamation for Harriett and each of her three children?
-  1911 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG14/525
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/10034
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/518
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/548
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/551
-  Ibid
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/19604
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/19987
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/22674
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/3463
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/9755
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/4634
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/1898
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/9081
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/25953
-  1901 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG13/1450/115/26
-  1871 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG10/4250/47/5
-  1881 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG11/1315/65/7
-  1851 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference HO107/2139/28516
-  1881 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG11/3738/75/51
-  1911 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG14/984
-  1851 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference HO107/2182/323/26
-  Ibid, Reference HO107/2307/72/18
-  1881 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG11/3713/113/4
-  Ibid, Reference RG11/4085/52/14
-  Ibid, Reference RG11/3058/78/19
-  1911 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG14/14919
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/1555
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/29357
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/28955
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/26788
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/11555
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/6251
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/7004
-  1871 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG10/3488/14/22
-  1911 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG14/4748
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/5376
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/5440
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/4741
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/20398
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/28198
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/21991
-  Ibid, Reference RG14/2457
-  1891 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference RG12/292/153/27
-  1851 Census of England and Wales, TNA Reference, TNA Reference HO107/2147/273/16