What happened was that :
- a person called an 'enumerator' would deliver by hand a pre-printed form to all households to be completed on a designated evening. It was usually the head of the household who completed them the best he could and in his normal handwriting. A fine could be "inflicted upon any person who either refuses to give the required information, or wilfully gives false information in filling up the returns".
- the enumerator would later return to collect these forms and it was his duty "to open and examine to see that it has been correctly and intelligibly filled in, and he may ask any question which may be necessary to satisfy himself on this point. Errors are to be rectified by him upon the spot, and if, from ignorance, or any other cause the schedule has not been filled up, the enumerator must enter upon it himself all the particulars he can ascertain from the occupier or other competent member of the family". Presumably if the householder had a strong accent, the enumerator could well misspell names or other information given to him.
- the enumerator would then pass the forms to the district registrar who then put all the details from the forms into a register. Where the handwriting was hard to read or obviously mis-spelled it all came down to a matter of interpretation.
- the district registrar would then send the registers and the forms to the General Register Office in London who would check them again, make any alterations they thought fit, before destroying the forms.
As you will appreciate from the way in which the Census was taken, there was every chance that errors could be made at each stage of the process. Of course, at the time, there was never any thought that a hundred or more years later they might be of interest to genealogists tracing their family history.
To end this blog I would like to share this lovely little poem which perfectly describes what it must have been like - it describes the US census although it could equally apply to ours.
The pollster was ready ... a black book in hand.
He mounted his horse for a long dusty ride;
His book and some quills were tucked close by his side.
A long winding ride down a road barely there;
Toward the smell of fresh bread wafting, up through the air.
The woman was tired, with lines on her face;
And wisps of brown hair she tucked back into place.
She gave him some water ... as they sat at the table;
And she answered his questions ... the best she was able.
He asked of her children... Yes, she had quite a few;
The oldest was twenty, the youngest not two.
She held up a toddler with cheeks round and red;
His sister, she whispered, was napping in bed.
She noted each person who lived there with pride;
And she felt the faint stirrings of the wee one inside.
He noted the sex, the color, the age...
The marks from the quill soon filled up the page.
At the number of children, she nodded her head;
And saw her lips quiver for the three that were dead.
The places of birth she "never forgot";
Was it Kansas? or Utah? or Oregon ... or not?
They came from Scotland, of that she was clear;
But she wasn't quite sure just how long they'd been here.
They spoke of employment, of schooling and such;
They could read some and write some .. though really not much.
When the questions were answered, his job there was done;
So he mounted his horse and he rode toward the sun.
We can almost imagine his voice loud and clear;
"May God bless you all for another ten years."
Now picture a time warp ... it's now you and me;
As we search for the people on our family tree.
We squint at the census and scroll down so slow;
As we search for that entry from long, long ago.
Could they only imagine on that long ago day;
That the entries they made would effect us this way ?
If they knew, would they wonder at the yearning we feel;
And the searching that makes them so increasingly real.
We can hear if we listen the words they impart;
Through their blood in our veins and their voice in our heart.
The Census Taker author is Darlene Stevens. The Poem was first published in the Genealogy Bulletin #39 page 28.