Census Returns Essay, Research Paper
Explain how you would evaluate the reliability of parish records and census returns as written sources.
Sources are never completely reliable or unreliable. It is the Historians job to evaluate the sources and from that reach drawn conclusions. However, different people, who may or may not see certain points as, for instance, biased, can interpret sources in different ways.
Both Parish records and census returns are public records, more so local records as they are kept in local record offices. They are made to keep account of the population and give other important information such as social structure, literacy and occupations.
Parish records, prior to 1837, would be kept by the parishes Vicar; they would record baptisms, marriages and burials. Basically the Vicar recorded all the ceremonies that took place in his church.
Other information that would be kept with the parish records would be; minutes of the vestry, registers of church services, records of church schools, tithe maps and awards.
The earliest parish registers were introduced to England and Wales in1538 and these would include baptisms, marriages and burials. This lasted until 1753, after this, marriages were recorded in a different register. Then in 1813 baptisms and burials also separated.
Everything changed in 1836 when the Government ruled that all births, deaths, and marriages should be told to local registrars who sent the information off to the General Register Office in London, becoming mandatory in 1874. It was called civil registration, and it meant the church now had no duty. As in most sources there are factors in the history of parish records which make them unreliable in parts, on the other hand there is a lot of useful information which can be drawn from them.
Parish records were not always accurate especially during the Civil War, because of increased numbers of deaths and other factors that contributed to civil unrest. A Parish Register was appointed to record the necessary information during harder times such as the Commonwealth period, but some were nearly illiterate and/or weren´t that concerned with their duties. This meant even more mistakes were made, adding to confusion and meaning the reliability is to some degree questionable.
Only civil marriages were accepted from 1653 to 1657, this means that only a few would have been recorded in the parish records. But as the period ran from 1645 to 1660, when the monarchy was reinstated, the registers may be incorrect and deficient. This may mean only a small percentage of the marriages which took place were actually recorded, making in short this period unreliable.
However the deficiency of the parish records does show that the problems at that time affected such things as marriage, and because of that it is still useful.
They were always hand-written so legibility was sometimes bad and when the information was copied out mistakes could have been made. Abbreviations would have often been used and also at the beginning they would have been written in Latin, which may be unknown to us, making reading it problematic.
Some parish records may have been badly handled therefore damaging them, this may mean some information is impossible to retrieve.
Parish records are very useful with careful studying. They can give information on, for instance, when there was an outbreak of disease. You could get this information from the burial register, as a lot of people would have died at a particular time, you would have to substantiate this with further sources such as death certificates.
By looking carefully you could tell if women were pregnant when they married, as the baptism would be less than nine months after the marriage. However this type of event may bring around inaccurate information as the parents would lie to cover this fact up, so distorting the records. You had to register the birth either the first or second Sunday after the birth.
On the Baptism records the date, name of the child and parents would be included sometimes adding their address and fathers occupation or status, all of this information had to be include after 1813, so it would give a large range of information. On Burial records it shows the name and abode of deceased, when buried, by whom and age. Marriage records also show similar information to the previous two. This gives us insights into the wealth of the area, the main professions, common names etc.
Overall I think Parish records can be taken as fairly reliable, becoming more so in later years, because they were completed by the Clergy and then officials who should have no reason to lie or show bias in completing simple forms. Problems may arise through presentation and any abbreviations used. Census´ first started in 1801 and have taken place every 10 years since, apart from 1941 as it was a virtual impossible with the war going on. Some people say the first census was The Doomsday Book, this was when William I carried out a survey on his new kingdom to find out about it.
‘A census is the official numbering of the inhabitants of a country.´ Not only does a census let the government know how many people they rule, but also provides them with other information, such as the wealth of the country so they know how much tax we should be paying.
The country is split into Enumeration Districts; an Enumerator was given the responsibility for overseeing the census in his district. He (always a man) would deliver a census to each house and later collect them on a set Sunday night and Monday morning. Everyone sleeping in the house that night was included. All the information was then gathered together and compiled to produce an Enumerator´s Return. Before 1841 several things were different about the census. They had been the responsibility of the clergy and the overseer of the poor but then it was given to the Registrar General and Superintendent Registrar. This meant the same people who handled the registering of births, deaths and marriages were dealing with it. It could therefore be seen that it would be more reliable, as professionals with experience were dealing with it.
More information was gathered from the 1841 census as the questions had been changed. They now gained information on occupations and relations; this would make it more reliable than previous ones, as it was clearer, with more detail. As more questions have been added with time the census has become more detailed but with this more reliable as a primary source.
Census reports mean the government can make predictions and so work around these for the good of the country. E.g. see how many children are going to need school places in two years time. If there is going to be a boom then more teachers will need to be employed maybe more schools built and so forth. It has to be reliable so they can have accurate statistics.
Census material isn´t allowed to be seen by the public for one hundred years. This stops embarrassment by other people seeing personal information about you. This makes the censuses more reliable as people won´t feel embarrassed and so won´t want to conceal anything, therefore being honest.
Unfortunately many records had not been kept or were destroyed from before; this would make it hard to check the reliability of later census against the earlier ones, to see any discrepancies.
The 1841 census was taken in June whereas later ones were taken in March or April. This meant the 1841 census might be unreliable, as many people would be moving around at that time in search of summer work, e.g. helping at farms.
Another point which made the 1841 and before census unreliable was the fact that they rounded down ages of people over 15. This could mean if someone´s age was written as 25, they could be any age between 25 and 29.
Census reports would only allow the inclusion of one occupation. For women this held a problem as many had part time jobs which they couldn´t include so instead they had to leave blank as to say they were house wives. This meant the number of women working isn´t truly representative, this is proved through looking at work records, which shows a much stronger female workforce.
Other problems on census included that if the head of the family had gone away to find work, he would be missing from the census, this can be confusing and makes things like income unclear. Also older relatives living with a family were recorded as servants on censuses. This was because they had to have an occupation, they couldn´t be retired. This leads to confusion as you may think the family is richer than you think as they have servants but also means you think the relatives are still working.
Enumerator returns were written by hand. This causes problems as they can be illegible, and mistakes were often made. Shortened names or nicknames were sometimes included; this makes the results inaccurate. They also used abbreviations that must be known before you can attempt to understand the returns. Both Parish Records and Census Returns give important historical information, such as percentage of men to women. Both allow you to trace ancestry over a long time but neither are completely reliable. The parish records only give limited information and so do early census reports. However with time, both have become more reliable with more efficient methods/ questions being used.
Census returns and parish records can be cross-referenced to check the reliability of each. Such things as address´, dates of birth and so on, can often be seen on both and so checked off for accuracy.
To evaluate the census and parish records as reliable written sources, I think to begin with the date plays a crucial role. The older sources are less detailed and are harder to read and understand clearly. Yet they all give us some clue to the lives and deaths of our ancestors. The individual source has to be looked at to gain a definite claim of reliability but there are certain things one can look for within the source. It´s date, where it is from, whom it is written by and about and whether there are other sources which can be cross-referenced to check the reliability of the sources in question.