Sunday 21 March was census day in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This feat of bureaucracy has taken a once-a-decade snapshot of the population since 1801, gathering valuable data for governments, policymakers, and historians. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, 2021 was the first online census. Its forerunner 110 years ago also saw a radical change. 1911 was the first census where household schedules – completed by the ‘head’ of the family – were retained, offering researchers a unique window onto the data-gathering process at home. Giving this role to the head of household often reinforced paternal authority, and census forms expose families’ messy intergenerational and gender dynamics. Family politics are inscribed on the page, the complexities of self-presentation revealed in script, scribbles, crossings out, revised word choices.
The 1911 census is often associated with the women’s suffrage boycott. A brainchild of the Women’s Freedom League and backed by other militant suffrage groups like the Women’s Social and Political Union, this campaign urged women to evade the count or deface their census schedules. This was what led suffragette Emily Wilding Davison to hide in a cupboard in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Houses of Parliament on census night. Statistical non-cooperation was designed to force the government’s hand on female enfranchisement. If, in the eyes of the state, women did not count as citizens, why should they allow themselves to be counted?
These protests, though patchier than historians once thought, are an important part of the 1911 census story. But that story also involves questions about children’s contested citizenship, with echoes in current debates over young people’s uncertain political status. While some disenfranchised women sought to disrupt the national count in 1911, other not-yet citizens bolstered the state’s statistical exercise, as the government turned to schoolchildren to help complete the mammoth task of numbering the nation.
This year’s Let’s Count! education programme from the Office for National Statistics offered cross-curricular teaching resources about the census to English and Welsh primary schools. In 1911, schools were also encouraged to treat the census as an educational opportunity. Early that year, the Board of Education instructed teachers in public elementary schools across the country to teach their pupils about the census. All schoolchildren – boys and girls – should be given ‘census lessons’ to learn about its purpose and process, as well as the population’s duty to comply. This fit a familiar pattern of working-class school civics instruction. Though never compulsory, from the 1880s this new subject taught elementary pupils to respect the workings of the law, parliament, and government.
Civics was designed to pay off in the long-term, producing compliant future citizens and workers, but census lessons served a more immediate practical purpose for the state. As school log books and teachers’ magazines show, older children – aged around nine to thirteen – practised filling in census schedules to support their parents to complete the real thing. Child labour helped to enumerate the population.
Children’s census-taking was understood to be especially important in areas with large immigrant communities. As the Illustrated London News explained alongside an illustration of East London schoolgirls taking a census lesson, such instruction would ‘enable them to act for their parents or for others whose English is a negligible quality, by entering the necessary particulars on the census-papers’. However, the state was also aware that the literacy skills of first or second-generation recipients of free elementary schooling might outpace those of their native English-speaking heads of household. How this played out behind closed doors is difficult to determine. Were parents happy to turn to their children for advice? Or could census-taking provoke conflicts of authority between generations with different forms of educational capital?
Newspaper reports described how the material culture of state administration was brought into the classroom. The Board provided blown-up copies of the census schedule onto which children took turns to enumerate imaginary families. This mirrored innovations in civics teaching. As progressive pedagogy gathered pace at the turn of the century, new embodied methods of political education grew in popularity. Some schoolchildren re-created political activities in the classroom, though this was more widespread among middle-class secondary pupils. In mock trials, parliaments, and elections, young people learnt about politics by practising it. Of course, completing a census schedule offered fewer opportunities for political expression. But, crucially, it moved beyond the imitative and imagined. Rooted instead in an official recognition of children’s instrumental value to the state, could census lessons empower school pupils?
Staged photographs anticipated newspaper readers’ curiosity about this novel experiment in children’s citizenship. Just as today’s media narrative infantilises youth politics, the Edwardian press tended to associate children’s census-taking with inexperience. On 28 March, the Daily Mirror reported amusing misconceptions among London County Council schoolboys who were unsure of a teenage boy’s marital status. This exposed the gap between schoolchildren’s knowledge and the census-taking skills required of a head of household. Children’s ignorance was a familiar starting point for champions of education for citizenship. As with civics, so with the census: through careful teaching even complex state processes could be made intelligible to future citizens.
The state’s attitude towards young citizens today is riven with contradictions. The government is anxious to mould school pupils around its peculiar vision of ‘British values’ and distorted island story, though baulks at the idea of young people challenging the political establishment, either via protest or a lower voting age. The pandemic has heightened these tensions. Remote schooling has exacerbated educational inequalities and child poverty, with inadequate government action to address the digital divide and reluctant U-turns over free school meals. Repeated policy failures have side-lined young people’s own views. Where was their input in last summer’s exam results fiasco? More disturbingly, as evidenced by the recent Court of Appeal ruling which upheld that the profit-making fee of £1,012 which the Home Office charges children to register as British citizens is unlawful, the state continues to exploit children for gain while denying them their citizenship rights.
Suggestions that 2021 might be the final census raise questions for historical researchers. We risk losing not just statistical evidence – from demographic big data to the minutiae of family dynamics – but valuable insights from the data-collection process itself. Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician, has suggested that ‘administrative data’ might replicate census findings more efficiently. But relying on data from existing sources, supplemented with smaller-scale population surveys, deprives the census-taker of the complex experience of participating in the national count. It overlooks our discomfort at being pigeon-holed and our emotional response to confronting questions about our identity. It denies our opportunity for self-expression, even protest. The political act of census-taking and the census as cultural event have always prompted conversations about the negotiated relationship between the state and its (not-yet) citizens. How long will this continue?
Helen Sunderland has recently completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge on The Political Socialisation of Schoolgirls in England, 1870-1914. She is the author of ‘Politics in schoolgirl debating cultures in England, 1886-1914’, The Historical Journal 63 (2020). Her research interests lie in the intersections between the histories of childhood, education, gender, and political culture in modern Britain. You can follow her on Twitter @hl_sunderland.