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Saturday, 7 January 2012

This week's census release

RG14/4135 SN194 'Delicate health'
This week is much less exciting than I thought it would be, and that's a good thing. If you had asked me, or many other British genealogists, about five years ago, we would have said that we were eagerly looking forward to the once-in-a-decade release of a new census in January 2012.

The first working day in January in the year ending in 2 has for many decades been census release day for England and Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, with a bigger fanfare every time. This week we have seen the unveiling on Findmypast.co.uk of the details in the 'Infirmities' column in the 1911 census for England, Wales, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, the British Army overseas and some shipping. And that's it. This is because the 1911 census for England etc was released early following a request under the Freedom of Information act. The infirmities column was redacted until now, in accordance with the Information Commissioner's ruling at the time. The Scottish 1911 census not included in this release, since Scotland has its own Freedom of Information Act which would not allow its early release. However, instead of waiting for the customary January opening, the census was opened on the anniversary of the census itself, in April. 2011.

OK, the earlier than usual release dates mean a correspondingly longer wait for the release of the 1921 census - the 1920 Census Act which governed all future censuses is, apparently, much less open to interpretation than its predecessors, so there is much less chance that it will be released early. But there are so many exciting developments in the world of genealogy, and so many more to come in the next few years that I don't mind too much. The availability of online records on a massive scale means that we're not going to run out of new toys to play with anytime soon.

I have been researching my family history since the 1980s, so 1911 was the third census release I have witnessed, and they have all been very different. Some time before the release of the 1891 census the Public Record Office (PRO) had relocated the Census Reading Room from the abomination that was the Land Registry building in nearby Portugal Street to the newly refurbished basement of its Chancery Lane building. This was much more spacious and pleasant to work in than the old location, but there were still long queues every day in those early weeks of 1992. The census room staff (or at least some of them) dressed in period costume on the actual release day, which was quite a sight. Back in those days a new census release meant that you could view it on microfilm or microfiche. Place indexes, and street indexes for large towns, had been prepared in advance, but there were no name indexes until family history societies and other groups had time to compile them after the public release. In the meantime, we had to do all our searching the hard way, by location or address, and hoping that your people were there.

The next census release was very different. By January 2002 the PRO had vacated the Chancery Lane building and the census rooms were now part of the Family Records Centre in Islington. The census was released there as before, but on microfiche only, not film. Of course, what most people remember about that particular census is the all-singing, all-dancing digitised and indexed online version that, er, didn't quite work perfectly to start with. I had already tested the site, as a member of the advisory panel, under conditions of absolute confidentiality. It was the first time that any name-indexing had been done before a census release. The embargo on disclosing information before the official release date was taken very seriously by all concerned, I can assure you. When the 1901 site was finally up and working a few months later it was the first step on the path to a completely new way of searching the census that we now take for granted. We've come a long way in ten years.

Been there, done that, got the T-shirts
By the time of the early release of the 1911 census, the Family Records Centre was no more, and the Public Record Office had joined with the Historical Manuscripts Commission to become The National Archives with all its operations based at Kew. I had also joined the staff of the Family Records Centre in late 2002. Unlike a normal census release, 1911 did not arrive fully-formed, but was issued in phases, county by county. Because of the anticipated heavy demand, a special area was set aside in our reading rooms, and readers had to book one-hour time slots on the terminals there so that everyone could get their fair share. The reading rooms were transformed overnight, including smart new signage. My favourite part was the trail of stick-on footprints leading people to the 1911 area; you'd be amazed how many people tried to follow them step for step, like King Wenceslas' page! There were a few hiccups, but on the whole the system worked well, and after a few months when the initial rush had subsided the fledgling 1911 could be released into the wild and made available on all the public terminals.

I haven't forgotten Scotland - how could I! When I began researching in the 1980s Scotland was a decade ahead of England, because the 1891 census was already open there, although I had to travel a few hundred miles to Edinburgh to see it. So the first Scottish census I saw released was 1901 (my maternal grandparents were in that one, but I had to wait until last year for the paternal set, a pair of 20th century babes).

The so-called 'hundred year rule' doesn't really apply to Ireland, because so much of the 19th century Irish census was destroyed that 1901 and 1911 were opened way ahead of time, as a kind of consolation prize - at least in the Republic of Ireland. For a long time you could access the 1911 census for the six counties of Northern Ireland in Dublin, but not in Belfast. How wonderfully Irish.

Looking ahead, 1921 is next, except for Ireland, where no census was taken that year, although there are moves in the Republic to open the 1926 census early. After 1921 there is a long wait for the next England and Wales census, because the 1931 returns were destroyed by fire during the Second World War and no census was taken in 1941 because of the war. The Scottish returns for 1931 survived intact so, if spared, I look forward to seeing my father and a few aunts and uncles in it in 2031 or 2032.

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