Almost the entire 1911 census goes online for public access on
Tuesday. Rob Liddle looks at what we can hope to find out from it and how
organisers hope to avoid a repeat of the deluge that shut the 1901 census
website last time.
The answers to thousands of questions lurk within the two kilometres
of shelving space taken up by the 1911 census documents at the National Archives
Among the eight million returns are family secrets that have lain
undiscovered for generations and pages inhabited by the previously unknown
relatives of those alive today.
These families - as yet untouched by the horrors of a new kind of war - seem
to exist in a different world from ours, yet, 98 years on, the existence of some
of the people that helped shape our lives is marked.
For many of us, grandparents and great-grandparents are among the 36 million
people listed, appearing in their home environments, their names, ages and
relationships written on the page in the hand of our ancestors.
Lessons from 2002
People power has seen the 1911 census details being released earlier than the
scheduled 2012 date, following a successful challenge under the Freedom of
Information Act [see factbox above]. Details for Scotland will not be published
until 2011 due to privacy laws.
This has meant that, for the past two years, an average of one census image
per second has been scanned in preparation for the online launch. Some documents
are still being copied, but most details are available online from the start.
The last census to become publicly available was that of 1901, which went
online in 2002. Then, the website was overwhelmed by demand - 1.2 million
requests an hour - and had to be withdrawn five days after its launch, reopening
seven months later.
then, interest in family history has continued to grow, with many more useful
records becoming available online and TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?
helping to raise awareness.
Findmypast.com, which is hosting the details on a pay-per-view basis, carried
out some testing of the service over the festive period, which was deemed to
have gone well. It is confident its offering is "pretty robust", although it is
bracing itself for huge demand. Even so, some users might balk at having to pay
about £3 a pop to download a record.
"It's impossible to predict how great the demand will be," says Debra
Chatfield, Findmypast's marketing manager. "However, the site is able to
withstand three times the traffic that the 1901 site got at its peak."
'No vote - no census'
The 1911 census brings us closer to our ancestors than previous censuses
have. It is the first time that the original householders' schedules were
preserved and used as working documents, giving us access to our relatives'
Also, householders were asked for the first time to state how long they had
been married, and how many children had been born to that union, including those
that had died - all priceless details for family historians.
But such demands were seen as an unnecessary intrusion by some at the time.
One householder completed his form with the words: "Would you like to know what
our income is, what each had for breakfast and how long we expect to live on
Others were equally
scathing. Suffragette organisation the Women's Freedom League arranged a boycott
of the form-filling and one apparent sympathiser wrote: "No vote - no census.
An archivist handles material from the eagerly-awaited 1911
Another woman declared: "If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I
am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper."
Elsewhere, the humour of the British public is apparent. A mother of five
children lists her occupation as "slave to family", and a man claims his is
"anything, nothing special". In another household the family cat is listed as a
servant whose nationality is "Persian".
For me, finding my grandmother listed as a 12-year-old schoolgirl in
Paddington, London, on the 1911 census helped solve a mystery further back in
time that I had been unable to crack using the available records.
I had long been keen to establish a link with a rather disreputable customs
officer who lived in Cardigan in the 1850 and 60s.
I felt I knew David Morgan well - how he had been an "efficient and steady"
middle-ranking official and father-of-four until the death of his wife Anne
Mathias at the age of just 37, and how his life then spiralled out of control.
First he was demoted
when officials back in London found his staff's wages had not been paid and
later sacked when he was found on Bristol dockside "near a public house" and
"intoxicated and incapable of performing his duty".
My grandmother Hilda appears as a 12-year-old on the census
His claims, detailed in tribunal evidence among documents at the National
Archives, that his apparent state had been caused by an accidental trip on a
dockside rope, were discounted.
But was the two-year-old Thomas Morgan living with his comfortably-off
parents in Cardigan in 1861 the same person who features as a night watchman and
head of my grandmother's family in distinctly working-class Paddington in 1911?
I believed so, but family history research in Wales is notoriously difficult
- the naming systems and relatively small number of surnames means it is
difficult to tell one Morgan from another through the mists of time.
However, a single word on the household schedule provided the key - a
great-uncle Robert I never knew I had carried the middle name "Mathias", in
memory of his grandmother, and that was enough for me to be sure I had the right
For many people, the 1911 census will help to resolve issues that exist at
the periphery of our collective living memory.
Source: BBC News Tuesday, 13 January 2009