Friday, 17 June 2011

How reliable is the census?

You have any amount of information about them; names, ages, occupations, birthplaces, even an exact address on or close to Census night. But despite your best efforts, you can't find your family in the census. Nowadays, your first impulse is to blame the accuracy of the transcription, and sometimes you are exactly right to do that. Then maybe you try another site, then you search by address instead of by name, and still no luck. OK, maybe the page you need has been missed from the microfilm, or from the scanned image taken from the film or from the original. Finally you check to see if that part of the census is known to be missing - there are odd parts of the census that known to have been damaged or lost - but still no reasonable explanation, and no-one to blame, so what now?

For most of the readers of this blog, this year or last year was census year (no, I don't know where you live, but I know what countries you are in), so it's quite a topical issue. When I am on holiday I like to get a flavour of the place by looking at the local newspaper, and last month an item in the Savannah Morning News caught my attention "Tybee says census count wrong". The latest census count shows that Tybee's population dropped from 3,392 in 2000 to 2,990 in 2010. But local residents, including the mayor, are adamant that the population has actually grown during that time. Local resident Linda Cox said that no census workers came to her house, and she only had a census form because she asked at the post office. The mayor, Jason Buelterman, thought the problem may have been due to the fact that most residents do not have mailboxes, and census forms are not sent to post office boxes. Other residents, one of them a city council member, also claimed that there had been no contact of any kind from census workers, and no census forms delivered.

This is a 21st century problem in one small corner of Georgia, but it is unlikely to be an isolated incident. and although the precise details will differ, it is reasonable to suppose that things did not always go smoothly in every place, in every census year. In fact we know that they did not. In the 1861 census of England and Wales, James Childs, the registrar for the sub-district of Landport, part of Portsea Island in Hampshire, was concerned at the lack of diligence on the part of one of his enumerators:

District of Portsea Island
Sub-district of Landport

I hereby certify that not being satisfied with the statement of population and houses returned by the enumerator of No 37 district or with his ability to clear up the discrepancies I with the sanction of my Superintendent took such steps as appeared to me necessary to obtain a correct census of that district. I have succeeded in doing so and the result which appears on page IV may be relied on as authentic - owing however to the enumerator having mis-numbered his houses, kept no connexion between their order and that of the schedules, and on entering the schedules counted each one as a house I have been unable to separate lodgers from householders in the details of each page, but am confident that the total of houses as well as of their particulars is correct.

James L Childs
17 May 1861

A different problem from the present-day one, and a satisfactory resolution, thanks to a conscientious registrar. But a revealing insight into the way things actually happened, and a reminder that instructions were not always followed correctly. And that's before you even get to the problem of householders who didn't understand their instructions, or who gave ambiguous or wrong information in the first place, or who hid in the cellar because they thought it was the rent man...


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