Following the ruling on case FS50101391 by the Information Commissioner it is now possible to obtain copies of 1911 census returns from the National Archives under the Freedom of Information Act. You can even make your request on-line but it will cost you £45. So, what does it tell us and is it worth it?
The return is a two sided sheet which if you order a paper copy will arrive as two colour A3 sheets. The first is mostly filled with instrctions but also has written on it the name of the head of household, the address of the dwelling, the numbers of the regisration district, the registration sub-district and the enumeration district. The second side gives the schedule number and then has sixteen columns, name and suname, relationship, age, particulars of any marriage, the person's occupation, birthplace, nationality and any infirmity. The contents of this last column is redacted by the National Archives when they make copies so that you can't see if any of your relatives had some infirmity, in case it should invade their privacy. I suspect that in the same way that it is not thought to be invading these people's privacy to know where they lived in 1911 on the grounds that it would be known in the local area, the kind of infirmity listed would also be just as well known locally. Actually the fact that relatives of mine were deaf is better known than where they lived at any given time.The first page has a table like this on it
|This space to be filled by the Enumerator.|
|Number of Registration District 29
Number of Registration Sub-Distric 3
Number of Enumeration District 22
|Name of Head of Family or Separate Occupier Mr Elderson|
|Postal Address 31 Braxfield Road Brockley|
|Name and Surname||Relationship to Head of Family||Age||Partculars of marriage||Profession or Occupation||Birthplace||Nationality||Infirmity|
|Arthur Charles Elderson||Head||47||Married||Assistant Schoolmaster under L.C.C.||Worker||St. Georges. Hanover Sq. London||British Subject by parentage|
|Alice Elderson||Wife||38||Married||18||4||4||0||Epping - Essex||British Subject by parentage|
|Cyril Oliver Elderson||Son||13||Lewisham - London||British Subject by parentage|
|Elsie Elderson||Daughter||12||Lewisham - London||British Subject by parentage|
|Ronald Elderson||Son||10||Lewisham - London||British Subject by parentage|
|Charles Elderson||Son||3||Lewisham - London||British Subject by parentage|
|Constantine Borowich||Boarder||32||Single||Russian Correspondent in import timber trade with Archangel - Russia||Worker||Archangel (Resident)
What does it tell me that I didn't already know?
If I were looking at the history of the address it would tell me just as much as previous censuses but it doesn't give nearly as much information about the occupants. As I am looking for the people I need to know where to look. The absence of a name index means that I need to be fairly certain of who I might find at the address and for £45 I need to have a good idea of what it will tell me whoever I find on the schedule. I had birth certficates for three of the children. They were all born at 31 Braxfield Road so I knew the had been there for ten years and in 1907 they wee still there. Kelly's directory for the local area told me that A.C.Elderson had remained there intil about 1917. Effectively I used this as my name index. So if i knew where they lived, why did I need the return? I didn't know they were all still living. It was always said that Elsie had two brothers, but there were clearly three births. Had one of them died? Perhaps Cyril had died before Charles was born. Had he been missing from the schedule it wouldn't have told me that he had died, he might have been absent on the night of the census. It might still have been worth scanning the death indexes for him. One of the brothers was known as Jim and it was possible that he had aquired that name while still young, if so the schedule could have indicated that. What I have is a clear indication that all four children were living in 1911. Had I not known their dates and places of birth the schedule could have given me a good indication.
Should all censuses be released early, perhaps after 70 years?
The real question is whether I would mind someone knowing some information I had provided in confidence only 70 years on. I might well still be living. Some people will be quite interested to see something about themselves from eighty years before, a bit like looking at a photograph, but only if that were the deal at the time. We are living longer, and so the assurance given since 1981 to keep the information hidden for a hundred years is quite a reasonable way of preventing the publication of the information given until long after it matters. Perhaps we could keep just the sensitive information secret for 100 years and release the rest after 80. The problems are ensuring that you get honest returns and then deciding what must be kept from public view 80 yers on.
On the face of it there is nothing much in the information above which one would want to keep secret, however it is certain that at least one of the above named would not have wanted even her children to know what it reveals. Elsie Elderson only ever mentioned having two brothers. It was usual when asked about her family to mention them but little more. They were rarely seen and she probably didn't know much about their lives but she clearly didn't want anyone who knew her to know anything much about them. The erasure of the third brother from her family may have been easy for her, but she clearly didn't want his existence known about. Above her parents claim to be married. Her father was, but not to her mother. Had her parents been more honest she would certainly have been keen to keep that quiet. Elsie lived to be 96, a census release ten years early would have made information she was sensitive about public soon after she died, twenty years early would have made it available well within her lifetime and rightly or wrongly she would have been mortified.
Could other censuses be released
Paragraph 39 of case FS50101391 lists examples of information which the Information Commissioner regarded personal. It is interesting that while confidentiality survives death, no information other than infirmity has been removed from the schedule, perhaps because the chance of someone taking action for breach or confidence is low. Paragraphs 52-54 go on to say that the Information Commissioner's decision is specific to the circumstances of the case and not one which means that the whole census must be released. He also says that great care should be taken over releasing information about an individual who might actually be living. The last sentence of paragraph 53 is one which, in the context, would appear to only relate to later censuses, perhaps indicating that the Commissioner could see that requests for the release of information from later censuses was likley, "Although this may be even more difficult to establish, the National Archives should take similar care before making a disclosure of information which could constitute personal information about a living individual born after 1911.". The issues are clearly those of confidentiality not of time. Indeed the 1920 Census Act prohibits release of census data without lawful authority not within a specified time. The problem for the custodian of any later census is surely that of keeping the confidence of those who might be still living (or have affected relatives who might act on their behalf) while releasing information where there is no reason to hide it. The National Archives have taken a practical approach to the problem of sensitive personal data following the ruling by removing it from copies it releases. In any later census the amount of data which is sensitive may well be greater and extend to other fields. If information were only removed when it existed it would tell you there were something to find, this might be considered a breach of confidence or lead to one. Finding all the people who are not infirm would of course be the way to find all the infirm people. The consideration on an address by address basis of whether or not to release schedules would be a time consuming process and so expensive. For the family historian there may be better ways of getting the information they desire.
Alternatives to census release.
Censuses and BMD records are regarded as the basic data sets which people use to find out about their families, and many will use little else, but it is only since the creation of indexes that we have been able to find out so much so quickly. A hundred years ago a relative investigated his family tree, going back several hundred years. His sources were parish records, wills, and deeds for the sale of land and most people will only appear in parish records. It is interesting that there is currently so much interest in finding out about what is reqally very recent history. The social changes of the last hundred years in part caused by two world wars have changed the country significantly and some of us have little idea of how our grandparents lived.
For a mobile population we need at least a name index to find our ancestors. There are three 20th century indexes to help us. The GRO indexes give a pointer to an area to look in for relatives, but later in the century fewer children were born at home, fewer married in their parish church, and you can never tell if someone will die suddenly away from home. If you actually want details you must buy a certificate. I have used addresses where children were born to give me a residence for their parents over a number of years but if they move around you may want to now where they were in between. There are better and less expensive methods. Kelly's Directories (and others) were published regularly up to the Second World War and in addition to county directories some localities had their own which listed almost every householder rather than only those who were significant in the area because of money or position. Some local libraries have excellent sets of local directories which can help you find where someone was living over a period of forty years or so, unfortunately some areas have kept so few directories that finding an individual will be a surprise. The Historical Directories project at Leicester shows how useful these directories can be as a name index. With an address you can find out who else was living there and what the area was like. If the person was of standing in the local community you might even find out a bit more about them from the directory and its description of the area. Given that we've found our head of household and his or her address we'd like to know who else lived there. The Register of Electors is our next tool. Unfortunately the Register of Electors is not a name index and is organised by wards and streets, some long streets being in several wards in urban areas so we cannot jump directly to this stage wihout a fairly accurate idea of where someone lived. People under 21 will not be listed until 1969 (30 for women until 1928) so its back to the birth index for children, and they tend to be quite mobile in their late teens anyway so they are easily lost. It does give a good idea though of where adults were living, whether they owned or rented their residence and how may grown up children were living with them. As with the censuses, absence can indicate that they have moved or that a death record should be located. Looking through registers for people at an address is more time conduming than a name index, this is surely an area which could benefit from some computerisation. Going back to directories, the telephone directory starts to be a useful name index post war, probably up to the 1990s when telemarketing forced people to go ex-directory. Here again only one person is listed and it is also less certain that the person in the directory is the "head" of the household.
If the name is only moderately common we need a little more to distinguish between people. All indexes are flawed. The census indexes suffer the problem of reading unfamiliar handwriting and names, the BMD indexes suffer well documented errors, and phone books suffer the same kind of misreading or mishearing problems in their creation along with any disparity with customer databases which crept in. I found it was quite possible to be in the directory twice under slicghtly different names, at different addresses, and to be at a third with a different number. Ancestry have started putting phone directories on-line but there is a long way to go, my own opinion is that early 20th century postal directories would be more useful than late 20th century telephone directories. If the indexes were reliable the task of differentiating between two people would be difficult enough but how are we going to do it with them as they are? As we have always done we start with something we know, and the thing we usually know best is about the family unit, that is until there is a marriage. We know the age that someone will appear on the electoral roll, and we may know who they should appea on the electoral roll with. If we want to use age as our check, perhaps because we are unsure about the spouse's name, we must either work backwards until they become to yound to be on the Register or either way until we can find a life event (BMD record) which gives an address. There are still problems, the family who moved every few years, and the family who were rarely or never in a directory. If they moved you need to have a good idea of where they may have gone to, if they are in a directory then you can find them on the Register of Electors again until their next move. If directories or the Register of Electors could be computerised for the first half of the 20th century it could be made significantly easier to trace our ancestors. Maybe we are going the wrong way though. It may be better to index all the UK parish registers that genealogists of 100 years ago would have had to. The on-line data for Scotland pre civil registration is very helpful, but complete church registers for the UK would make a significant difference to the task of finding our ancestors in the eighteenth century and before.
Are there any other sources?
The census provides a snapshot of the whole country at a point in time. No other data source does this. The ONS produced a paper for the 2001 Census which covers some the history. There are two other snapshots which I think interesting but about which I know nothing.