Census and sensibility

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Volume 16

Magenniss’s Court, off Townsend Street, Dublin, c. 1911. (© Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, from a forthcoming publication Darkest Dublin by Chris Corlett)

Magenniss’s Court, off Townsend Street, Dublin, c. 1911. (© Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, from a forthcoming publication Darkest Dublin by Chris Corlett)

The film Goodbye Mr Chips (the 1939 version, please) has much to recommend it, not least the delightfully heavy-handed way it has of signalling important dates and historical landmarks as it tells its fifty-year story. Consider the scene on the public-school housemaster Chipping’s first retirement. As he leaves the school gates one evening in June 1914, supposedly for the last time, he greets the suitably deferential and lower-class porter—of course he is called Jenks:

‘Any news, Jenks?’
‘Oh, nothing very much, sir. An Austrian archduke’s been murdered.’
‘Oh, dear—Well, good night, Jenks.’
‘Good night, Mr Chipping, sir.’

The film is littered with similar historical post-its (for example, ‘Some French chap just flew over the channel: damn cheek!’), indicating to the viewer that it’s 1910, 1914 or whenever. It is interesting that the Hollywood producers (via their scriptwriters) were confident enough of people’s recognition of such events to insert such allusions, trusting in their usefulness. And still the viewer ‘gets it’, another 70 or so years on.
Such an imprint of world events on the public mind seems to me indicative of the general public’s attitude to history (I count myself among their number). We are endlessly fascinated by and retentive of events, no matter how distant, to which as non-historians we can relate and to which we have an intimate connection, be it the Battle of Clontarf, the Norman Invasion, Catholic Emancipation, Vinegar Hill, Robert Emmet, the Somme, the execution of the 1916 leaders, D-Day, the North Strand bombing, the climbing of Everest, the Munich Air Crash, and so on.
Little wonder, then, that the on-line publication of the 1911 Census for Dublin has created a great deal of interest. While this curiosity must be partly driven by genealogical interest, anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggest that the reaction is more profound, and indeed of more lasting value for the study and appreciation of history.
It has been said that dogs lick their private parts because they can; it seems to me that much historical research (yes, even in the pages of History Ireland) has this character. Nicholas M. Butler (a former President of Columbia University) remarked that ‘an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less’. On this theme, our editor often cites a Ph.D awarded in Peterhouse, Cambridge, in the 1980s—‘Buggery in the Royal Navy . . . 1810–1812’ [cited by the late, great economic historian Lawrence Stone at a staff seminar in Trinity College, Dublin, in 1986—Ed.]—as an example of this tendency to research and explain issues of interest to the researcher, his/her supervisor and maybe two others. But the publication by the National Archive of the 1911 Census, free to anyone with an internet connection, is a landmark in the popularisation of history. Its enthusiastic reception is a useful lesson to historians (and journal and magazine publishers) that the study of the past and the analysis of source material are not the prerogatives of an intellectual or historical élite but something that can be enjoyed, appreciated and processed by a wide range of people.
Consider three totally random, anecdotal and unscientific case-studies.
l— The inhabitants of a street in North Dublin, chatting in the pub, have all been on-line to see who lived in their houses in 1911. It turns out, among other things, that the earlier inhabitants all belonged to the Church of Ireland, and this leads to the conclusion, not previously realised, that the white horse featured in many of their over-door windows probably relates to King Billy. All of the current owners are Roman Catholic in origin. There was a feeling of the social change that had occurred in the preceding 100-year period, of which they would obviously have been aware but have now come to fully appreciate.
2—A friend had a vague idea that there was some sad family story to do with her great-aunt. A trawl of the Census forms revealed that she lived in a single room in a Harcourt Street boarding house and that her children were all resident in a west Dublin boarding school, confirming the suspicion that her children had been taken from her on the death of her husband and that she was placed in boarding accommodation alone—a sad and personal illustration of the position and power (or lack thereof) of women before the First World War.
3—According to the Census form, the six members of my mother’s family (see panel), seven years before her birth, shared a three-room dwelling with a Church of Ireland widow and her spinster ‘relative’. My grandfather (d. c. 1933), an insurance clerk, my grandmother, a ‘ladies’ tailor’, and her elder sister, ‘a music teacher’, provided what must have been more or less a subsistence income in overcrowded and substandard accommodation. Contrast this with my father-in-law’s family. His father, listed as a brewery salesman, was the only breadwinner, yet they had a much better standard of accommodation. The older children are listed as speaking English and Irish, and they have a servant who could read and write. (There’s posh!) And indeed, a brewery salesman must have belonged to a different stratum of society, positively middle class. And can it be that the pursuit of the Irish language was as proper a bourgeois preoccupation in 1911 as it is today? (Incidentally, Padraig Pearse’s Census form reveals that his family unit filled in the form entirely as gaelige.)
What is endlessly fascinating about the bare details—ages, occupation, literacy levels, languages spoken, total children alive from total born, and dwelling details—is the portrait it paints of society in 1911. Despite the fact that one may be aware of the conclusions, the detail reinforces one’s understanding in a way that no amount of second-hand knowledge can. It also allows one to speculate pleasurably for hours with one’s friends and family. Has social history ever been so appealing?

Nick Maxwell is a publisher whose history career came to an end post-Intermediate Certificate 1966.

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