It could be said that the Domesday Book was a type of census and therefore our very first. Carried out in 1086 during the Norman era, its purpose was to establish who owned what and what revenue was due to the King. Halstead’s Domesday book entry was recorded under the name Halsteda. It was a big settlement in those days with 22 ‘free men’ living within its limits. Some residents’ names seem very strange to our ears (e.g. Ar-nold; Beorhtmaer, Beorhtric, Germund and Goismer). Others however, like Richard of Clare, sound very familiar.
Another inquiry into land holdings was made in 1279. Called the Hundred Rolls it also logged information about the villeins and serfs. Halstead was one of 47 parishes that made up Hinckford Hundred, an administrative authority not unlike our district council. Alas, many of these documents were lost.
More nations began to take stock of their populations in the 18th century and in the 1790s, while we were still engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, publications and high-level discussions abounded about the need for greater knowledge of the population to help plan for the purposes of national defence and food production. The result was the first version of the census in 1801.
Between 1801 and 1831 a headcount was conducted on a single night every ten years in an attempt to capture general information about localities and the population as a whole. Once again, many of these documents have not survived, but we do know that the population for the whole of the UK in 1801 was 8.87 million – that’s less than London’s is now!
Census record-keeping was refined from 1841 and was the first census to contain personal names. Various other categories of information have been added over the years to reflect social changes. (You may have noticed the new questions in this year’s) The records are archived and kept secret for 100 years after which they can be accessed by the public. Consequently, they’ve become vital historic documents and an important part of our cultural heritage. And TV programmes like Who Do you Think You Are and A House Through Time would be much less informative without them.
At the time of blogging, the latest census records we can find are from 1911, when Halstead Urban District had a population of 6,264, 24% up from 1901, and bigger than Braintree. Courtaulds, our biggest employer at that time, might have generated higher population movements, but we still find surnames we recognise in the returns for Factory Terrace. Ernest and Jessie Sparkes already live at No. 2 with their family, including 13-year-old Albert William, listed as Willie, and the father of our own air raid shelter poster girl, Barbara Root, and grandfather to Malcolm and Richard.
The 1911 census also provided an opportunity for civil disobedience and Katherine Mina Courtauld of Colne Engaine boldly expressed her objection to the lack of female representation in Parliament in red ink!
No archiving system is perfect. Early entries were made in longhand and were sometimes difficult to read, so errors occurred in transcriptions. The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire, and the 1941 census was missed altogether because of the Second World War. However, a register of the population had been taken in September 1939, soon after the outbreak of war.
Census returns provide fascinating information about families and places and can be viewed for free at Essex Record Office once lockdown is over. There are subscription services too such as Ancestry UK and Find My Past. They’re not free, but you won’t need to move from your couch.
Don't forget to submit your census returns tomorrow!