How to dodge a Census: examples from old records

Have you completed your Census Form? You are required to do so by law but over the decades many have found ingenious ways of avoiding “telling their secrets”.

The UK’s national statistician has suggested that the census form we fill in this weekend could be our last; future headcounts could be carried out in easier and cheaper ways.  Under the 1920 Census Act, the information we divulge will not be available to view for 100 years.

Census forms provide rich sources of information for anyone interested in the history of their family – or indeed of their house. Over the years though, despite the warnings about penalties for not filling it in properly (or at all), some have refused to fill in their details as required.

One of the more famous census-dodgers was the artist, JMW Turner, who is said to have rowed a boat into the Thames so that he could not be counted as being present at any property.

The Illustrated Police News of 18 April 1891 reported that “one obstinate individual” declared that he would not fill in the paper until the landlord had repaired the ceiling of the house, being under the impression that the papers had been issued by the owner of the dwelling with the intention of putting the rent up!

In London, over in St Giles’s, the occupier of a house where seven families lived had filled in the name of the head of the family, but apportioned the children to the wrong parties and allotted wives to men whose names they did not bear.

1891 was clearly quite a year for fun and games; a Mr J Morgan of 14 Aliwal Road, Battersea was brought before the courts for writing across the columns:  “Myself, my wife and three children slept under the roof of this house on April the 5th. All the other questions are of an inquisitorial nature and I absolutely refuse to answer any of them or allow anyone in my house to do so.”

He told the court that he was a free-born Briton, a husband and a father, and that he was seeking to defend his family and their secrets. Was it more of a matter of principle or did they really have something they did not wish to reveal?

The 1901 census had its moments too; in Willesden, the head of one family carefully noted the age and calling of all the people he lived with and then turned to the pedigree of his cat, describing its occupation as “mouse catcher.”

Occupation: Mouse Catcher – “Mo”Mouse catcher” by Holly Bourneuse catcher” by Holly Bourne

In West Cheshire, the newspapers reported that a maiden lady had avowed her intention of evading the age clause by walking about the roads all through census night. “They won’t be able to say that I have stayed anywhere then,” she said triumphantly. Diffidence over age was not confined to the fairer sex. “I shan’t put down my age,” a Leicester shoemaker declared. “We’re old men at 40 in my trade. If you’re over 40, you’re the last man put on and the first to sack.”

Women in 1911 were advised to express their displeasure about not having the vote on the census by, for instance, leaving the house empty and writing across the schedule: “House deserted by women who want the vote.” Many of them took this advice.

In the 2021 Census for the first time, most of us will have completed the census online.

This time, there are three new questions – whether the occupant has served in the UK Armed Forces, sexual orientation and gender identity. We will also be able to state that we are British European should we so wish.

One thing is for sure, there will be much for the genealogist of 2122 to puzzle over!