Saturday 31 March 2012

Something for the Weekend 4

Most weekends BI-Gen will take a break from the world of family history news and wander into other areas. This new ‘Something for the Weekend’ feature will give myself and others the chance to vent their spleens with an opinion-piece, to recommend a product or research technique, or to simply show-off their expertise! Who knows what will find its way onto the blog?

If you’ve an idea, run it past me - I'd really like to hear from you. There is no need to be an expert, a published author, or qualified in any way. If you've got something interesting to say, get in touch with me at .

This week we take a look at the future (or otherwise) of the Census...

Is the Census History?

The ten-yearly count of the UK population that is the National Census - last taken one year ago this week - will almost certainly be discontinued when the Office for National Statistics concludes its long-running Beyond 2011 Programme in a couple of years time. It appears that plans are afoot to scrap the system with which genealogists are so familiar in favour of cheaper, more accurate ways of collecting information on the populace.

The Census has been with us, as I'm sure you all know, for over 200 years. Taken every ten years since its inception in 1801 (missing only 1941 due to the nation being otherwise engaged), its only official aim was to provide statistical information for the government of the day – with a view to influencing policy decisions. A handy side effect for those of us interested in history – especially family history, of course – is that it helps us pinpoint the whereabouts of our ancestors at ten-yearly gaps (well, at least since 1841, when individuals were first named in the returns). In fact, it is so handy that one may be forgiven for thinking that the Census was introduced all those years ago for the sole benefit of family historians.

Anyway, in this day and age (so say the politicians), the old-fashioned survey of the population is just not cost effective – especially when one considers that there are so many other much cheaper and more efficient ways of collecting the relevant data (it cost around £450-£500m to conduct the 2011 Census). By using existing public and private databases is will be possible, we are told, to take local or nation surveys almost at will, for whatever purposes future governments may need the information. Nothing is yet set in stone, but it does seem likely that last year's Census was the last data-collecting exercise of its kind.

One’s initial response – well, as a genealogist, anyway – is that this is a great shame. First of all, of course, it will surely deny future generations of family historians of a primary source of data – one that is absolutely central to our current research methods. Secondly, Census Day seemed to me to be just about the only time that we, as weirdo genealogists, seem to be at one with the rest of the ‘normal’ population. Suddenly everybody is interested in learning about ‘this Census thing’, and we’re in a neat and somewhat lofty position of superiority. “You’re into this family history lark, Mick – what’s this Census business about, anyway?” It’s about the only time that anyone ‘on the outside’ shows a genuine interest in our hobby.

But is it really such a disaster? Well, it really all depends on one crucial aspect of the forthcoming ‘new regime’. And that is: will the many and varied alternative sources of information to which the government refer ever be made fully ‘public’? In other words, will the Census alternatives be open to scrutiny to future researchers so that they may successfully compile family trees and histories in the way we can of our ancestors today? I would say that, yes, subject to an appropriate period of closure, they probably will.  Probably.  In fact, there will, hopefully, be a good deal more in the way of source material for future genealogists to consult judging by the amount of information that is currently out there about us all!  It wouldn't surprise me if my great-great-grandchild, spinning through the archives by whatever means in 100 years time, may be able to turn to their fellow researcher and say, “Oh, I see my great-great-grandfather had an account at Argos in 2008 … oooh, and look at what he ordered for his new house on 27th September.  Very retro.” Or whatever.

One thing’s for sure. Our generation will leave far more behind for posterity than our ancestors ever did. What, with all the various forms of media which are flooding our lives, it will be almost impossible for our great-great-grandchildren to not know what we all looked like, how we all moved, what we all did, and maybe even what we all thought back in the early 21st century … Census or no Census.

But it’d still be kinda nice to have the quaint, old-fashioned Census Returns for them to look at, wouldn’t it? As we all know, it was possible (as an option) to lodge the 2011 Census information online. Maybe the answer is to keep the Census, but make this ‘online option’ compulsory in future years, therefore slashing costs … and keeping us family history freaks happy.

Mick Southwick.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mick

    Very interesting article about the census. It does seem a shame if it we are seeing its demise - I love the little snapshot it gives us of a family or individual's life - but everything changes, and as you say, I am fairly sure there will be ways in which future generations will be able to see many details about us. The amount of information may even be rather overwhelming...!