By Helen Fisher, the 2011 Census Digital Marketing Team Content Editor
When I first came to work for the census back in 2009, my knowledge of it was limited. All I knew was that it was about a big form that everyone had to fill in, was taken once every ten years and helped the government count the population. Now, with census day on the 27th March just around the corner, I am a lot wiser..
A census is the only way to paint an accurate picture of the population and, importantly, the services they need. We all use public services during our lives and the census is the first important step in making sure we all get what we need, when and where we need it. Some 200 countries around the world take a census of some kind to describe the lifestyles and living standards of their people.
The principle behind the census is as old as the hills but, like everything, it evolves and changes with the times. New census questions have been introduced – and others dropped – reflecting certain changes in our society. The 1851 Census was the first to classify people by occupation and age, helping statisticians to determine the influence of types of employment on health; this census will seek to classify around 28,000 job titles. The 1881 Census asked people to categorize those in their household as ‘lunatics’, ‘imbeciles’ or ‘idiots’ – all terms which were dropped completelty with the 1911 census.
One hundred years ago the census embraced new technology, in the form of punched card machines and tabulators. How things have changed since then.
This is the first time we’ve been able to invite people to ‘find out more’ on our website. It’s the first census to build a secure data collection site so that people can, if they wish, complete their questionnaires online – and to provide extra help to help as many people as possible complete their census independently. This census is also the first to embrace social media, with a Facebook group focusing on history of the census; a Twitter feed and YouTube and Flickr channels for a host of other information, including videos and photos.
As ‘census ambassadors’, family historians both recognise and appreciate the value of census records in a way that perhaps no others can. These detailed and valuable records of people living in the UK have become one of genealogy’s cornerstones. Every 100 years, another set of census records is released to public, to the delight of family historians eager to discover more information that will help open more doors to their past and break down those dreaded walls.
This is why we set up a section of our website for family historians and created a fan page for members of the public to share their stories, tips and hints and tell how they’ve used the census to find people from their past.
We’ve had a brilliant response. We have tales about a lighterman and an iceman, a trumpeter, a Battle of Britain hero and a counterfeiter. Some, like Ted, are still searching for a long lost relative.
I’ve now begun my own journey of discovery and entangled myself in a web of Jones’s, Fletchers and Pictons – a search that I’m sure will continue long after I leave the world of the census. I’ve been amazed at how quickly fellow family history enthusiasts, whom I’ve never met, have jumped to my assistance with tips and advice.
Thanks to some much-needed clues from a local family historian, I’ve begun to trace my mother’s line into the heart of the Forest of Dean. Seeing my mum recorded as a tiny baby by my grandma all those years ago was a very poignant moment. Mum was 92 when she died and on seeing her name on the register, all the childhood tales she had shared with me came flooding back.
2011 Census day is only weeks away now. For most of us here, and no doubt most of you out there, it will all be over in a flash. For the Office for National Statistics (ONS) however, it will just be just the beginning. ONS statisticians will spend many long hours, weeks and months interpreting the data that comes in to produce valuable and detailed population estimates. Census users, such as local authorities, healthcare organisations, voluntary groups and many others will then use those results to plan and deliver services for people living in the UK over the next ten years.
Helen Fisher is the 2011 Census Digital Marketing Team Content Editor