Friday 1 April 2011

A Census April Fools' Day joke?

RG 11/20 fol 126 p 48 (image courtesy of              
This looks much like a lot of other census pages, but if you examine it closely you will see that is is very odd. In fact, it is a fake. I first became aware of it after the 1881 census was indexed, and it was the subject of some discussion at the time. I don't know if anyone had picked it up before then.

The image is not easy to read, because the film from which it was scanned is faint, but you can make out enough to see that it is not a genuine part of the 1881 census. First, look at the address, 16 Acacia Gardens; there is no Acacia Gardens in Paddington in 1881, and this page is the only one that shows this address. If you browse the images around it, you will see that it is almost at the end of the enumeration district, with a blank page after it. The page before is the real end of the enumeration district, with the last four names from 4 Poplar Square. The description of this enumeration districts lists all the streets it contains, and the list does not include Acacia Gardens.

Next, the entry itself. The names themselves are perfectly normal and plausible (although you'll have difficulty finding these people in any other census), but the ages of the family are not implausible, to say the least. Now look at the birthplaces. Timbuctoo is s real place, but it is hard to believe that anyone would have six servants who were born there. And you don't see 'Australia (penal colony)' given as a birthplace very often. But the real giveaway is Pakistan, which didn't exist in 1881.  You might also find it hard to credit the occupations of Robert Goodman snr and jnr, given as 'International playboy' and 'Ponce' respectively.

And finally, the handwriting is not only quite different from the rest of the district where it appears, it also has a very 20th century look about it. So the the only conclusion is that at some point before the 1980s, when this census was filmed, someone vandalized the original document. It was crudely done, and therefore doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, but it does make you wonder if it was an isolated case.

If nothing else, it is a timely reminder that you can't always take the information in a document at face value.

Did I ever mention the documents in The National Archives that we know are forgeries?

Maybe some other time...



  1. This may not be a modern fake - I believe there have been instances in the US census where enumerators "made up" pages at the end of some of their districts.

  2. Thomas, it wouldn't surprise me if that happened here too, given the way that enumerators were paid. In this case, though, there is too much about it that shrieks 'anachronism'. From the look of the handwriting it might even be in ballpoint pen, but I'd need to see the original document for that.

  3. I agree with you about the handwriting. It does look mid-late 20th Century to me and quite possibly in ballpoint pen. Is it possible it was done when the page was microfilmed? I suppose that is a fairly tedious job so perhaps someone was trying to add a bit of interest to their day!