Oxford History: The Census

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The conduct of the 1891 census in Oxfordshire

Cartoon about the census

Cartoon from “Punch”, nineteenth century


Census night in 1891 was on Sunday 5 April, and below is an extract from an Oxford newspaper issued the previous day describing how the census would be conducted throughout the country: 

THE CENSUS FOR 1891 The enumerators who have been appointed to assist in the work of taking the census throughout the country have been supplied with the schedules which are to be left at each house with the object of being filled up by the head of each family. The schedules have been delivered in the course of this week, and are returnable to the enumerators (who will call for them) on Monday next, April 6. In the papers furnished, the attention of the occupiers is called to the provision in the Act of Parliament, whereby a fine of 5/- can be inflicted upon any person who either refuses to give the required information, or wilfully gives false information in filling up the returns. It will be the duty of the enumerator to open and examine to see that it has been correctly and intelligibly filled in, and he may ask any question which may be necessary to satisfy himself on this point. Errors are to be rectified by him upon the spot, and if, from ignorance, or any other cause the schedule has not been filled up, the enumerator must enter upon it himself all the particulars he can ascertain from the occupier or other competent member of the family. Should the schedule be lost, or mislaid, he will supply a fresh one. The strictest precautions will be taken to preserve as secret and confidential the information given in the schedules.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday April 4 1891, p. 5


Below is an extract from an Oxford newspaper issued a week later, describing how the census had been conducted in the 11 parishes of the City of Oxford, and the 23 parishes of the Headington Union:*

THE CENSUS In accordance with the instructions of the Census Act, the Registrars of births and deaths for the eleven united parishes of this city and the Headington Union, Mr E. Butler and Mr J. Draper, appointed their enumerators, who during last week delivered the schedules at every house in the districts allocated to them, and they were filled up descriptive of all the persons who on midnight on Sunday the 5th, were dwelling therein, or were out at work or travelling, and were to return on Monday morning. Double schedules were provided for large families (eighteen and upwards), schools, hotels, lodging-houses, &c.; and for large institutions, such as barracks, hospitals, prisons, and workhouses, special provision was made by appointing the head of the establishment an enumerator, for which he receives a fee. The issue of every schedule had to be entered in a book in order to check its due return.

The schedules were called for on Monday, in nearly all cases, by the enumerators, of whom Mr Butler had twenty-five, none of whom were women. The public institutions comprised in the area for which he was responsible were the prison (in which there were fifty-seven persons undergoing sentence) and the Infectious Diseases Hospital. The work of the enumerator in this city was of a very easy character, as the difficulties experienced in the case of a large and crowded population did not present themselves. It so happened, however, that there were several Italian street musicians in Oxford who could not be persuaded into giving their names, or any information, in fact, about themselves, and upon a compatriot living in Oxford proceeding to go to their lodgings in order to explain what was required of them, it was found that the whole lot had disappeared, consequently they succeeded in evading the Act.

Mr Draper had in his registrar’s district the parishes of St. Giles, St. Clement, Cowley, Cowley St. John, St. John-the-Baptist, Headington, Marston, Elsfield, Wood Eaton, Stowood, Beckley, Horton-cum-Studley, Iffley, and Littlemore. He engaged the services of 28 enumerators, of whom several were women. Included in the district were several public institutions of over a hundred inmates, namely, the Littlemore Lunatic Asylum, the Cowley Barracks, the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Oxford Workhouse, the Cowley Industrial School, Nazareth House, and the Warneford Lunatic Asylum.

The Local Government Board enjoined on the registrars the desirability of making the enumerators’ districts as far as possible the same as the last census, and there being thus a minimum of alterations in this respect, the work in some of the districts where there had been a large increase of population and houses was extremely heavy, and the collecting of the schedules had to be completed on Tuesday. There were two more enumerators than at the census of 1881.

Among the incidents in the work may be mentioned the case of a lady enumerator who was suspected of being the bearer of School Board summonses, and who had the front door loudly slammed in her face, while to another was attributed the belief that she was on the look out for defaulters in the matter of dog licences. It is believed that the fact of the census being taken in vacation, and that a considerable number of families were out of Oxford, and, further, that a large space is now occupied by College buildings on which there were dwellings at the last census, will cause the return of the population of the city proper not to be so large as has been generally anticipated, but at the same time the aggregate must be considerably larger than in 1881, by reason of the populous districts which have been brought into the boundary. The strictest precautions have been taken to preserve as secret and confidential the information given in the schedules, and as the object is only to publish general abstracts, none of the returns will be used for the gratification of curiosity or for any other purposes, and all persons engaged in the work have been forbidden to give any information on the subject in anticipation of the official publication. It has been part of the duty of the enumerators to enter the particulars in a book and to summarize the results, and these books are to be forwarded to the Registrar General.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday April 11 1891, p. 8

* The parishes of the Headington Union comprised Beckley; Chippinghurst; Cowley; Cuddesden; Denton; Elsfield; Forest-Hill-with-Shotover; Garsington; Headington; Holton; Horspath; Horton-cum-Studley; Iffley; Littlemore; Marston; Stanton St John; Stowwood; Studley; Wheatley; Wood Eaton; as well as three parishes in the City of Oxford itself, namely St Giles, St Clements, and St John.


From The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green (1853):

… but these dates [of birth] we withhold, from a delicate regard to personal feelings, which will be duly appreciated by those who have felt the sacredness of their domestic hearth to be tampered with by the obtrusive impertinences of a census-paper.

© Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 10 September, 2012

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