Updated 17 Jan 2001

WIRKSWORTH Parish Records 1600-1900

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A 1901 Enumerator

Anyone thinking of signing up as an enumerator for the 2001 census might like to see what their fellows had to cope with in Chesterfield 100 years ago. An article from the Derbyshire Times, Saturday April 6th 1901 (reproduced by kind permission of the editor) describes the difficulties they encountered.
Transcribed and proof-read by Michael Connolley, Amersham, England. Thanks Michael.

The 1901 Census in Chesterfield, Derbyshire

The Derbyshire Times, Saturday, April 6th, 1901

With The Chesterfield Enumerators


Some Dark Places Revealed

During the past week one of our representatives has had a chat with several of the gentlemen who have been engaged as enumerators in the borough of Chesterfield, and there appeared to be almost an unanimous opinion that they had seen quite enough of the census for the ten years, and moreover if they lived for another decade they would not undertake the work again.

There were exceptions, but they were very few indeed, and generally speaking, the enumerators have had rather a more difficult task than they imagined. One of these gentlemen was very emphatic as to the "miserable amount" that was allowed for the important work that had to be undertaken. He is a professional man, and with much indignation he asserted, "I shan't get 6d an hour for the time I have spent upon it, and then there is all the humbug that you have to put up with."

He had not one of the most aristocratic parts of the town to deal with, and from a few general observations one could easily come to the conclusion that his path had not been one of the pleasantest. But there is no shadow of doubt that the returns have been so elaborated that the time spent in purely clerical work is more than doubled to what it was at the 1891 census. Still there is to place alongside of that, according to the general statements that we have collected, the fact that to-day there is more intelligence amongst the majority of the people, and less scruple to give proper and accurate information without so much of the of the prejudices and annoyance which characterised census operations ten years ago.

Mr C W Furness, the registrar, had supplied forms to the various Board schools and the teachers had most ably instructed the elder children as to the filling up of the various details required. This undoubtedly resulted in a considerable relief to the enumerators, and as a consequence a large majority of the forms were collected on Monday. One of the great stumbling blocks appeared to be the description of a miner. According to the return "coal miner" was not a sufficient description, and the authorities required "coal hewer" to be inserted as the occupation of a man that worked underground, and at the coal face.

One of the enumerators had much difficulty to instil into the mind of a miner's wife that he was obliged to obtain this information. She informed him, "I tell thee he be a coal miner." "Yes," said the meek and patient enumerator, "but is he a coal hewer?" "Na, then, dost tha' think I know anything about hewers now?" "But," said the official, "does he work underground and get coal?" "Oh," said the old lady, "tha's trying to be funny. Didn't I tell thee he was coal miner now? What dost tha think that a miner does - get his pay for nowt like some o' thee chaps?" This lady was evidently not in the know, or she would not have made the last remark, but Mr Enumerator only smiled and entered upon the paper "coal hewer."

This is only one instance of the crass stupidity that was found in some quarters, but perhaps it is going too far to so describe the awkward answers that were given by some people. There appeared to be a feeling of suspicion still left as to what might be the effect of giving correct information. In certain quarters, where County Court bailiffs and their plaints are not unknown, the enumerator had rather a hostile reception, some of the people imagining that he was a County Court bailiff come to deliver summonses, and the whole row was up in arms immediately! The man at once pictured the number of tradesmen's accounts that must be unpaid to cause so unanimous a dread of the bailiff and his blue papers. But there was one lady in the number who acted as a kind of spokesman, and who, if she did owe anything, dissimulated with an air of righteousness and said, "I will not be insulted before my neighbours and held up as if I had to go up the steps at the Market Hall."

The missionary in a savage country could not have done more than this enumerator did. He possessed the fortitude of a saint, and with a meekness which was sure to win its way, relieved the lady's mind of any suspicion of legal process, and to comfort her spoke loud enough for her neighbours to hear, that he was only taking the census. "Taking what," said one woman, "The census, madam," replied the official. "Well," said the lady, "don't you come here to take anything, for there's nowt to take," and the lady spoke the truth for once in her life, for the interior of the house was nearly as bare as when they were erected, though one or two did show signs of having recently seen the application of soap and water. There was one feature about these houses that was surprising. When the enumerator came to collect the papers they were nearly all filled up, and with one exception correctly, and yet this was amongst people who may not improperly be called "the submerged tenth". The exception was a lady, who though living in such a quarter, wrote in the column for trade or occupation "living on my own means." The official unwisely asked for an interpretation of these words, considering that she was living in such a quarter. The lady, as some ladies will, displayed much temper, and informed him that she was not going to tell "whys or wherefores; that was her business. She owed no man nothing, and she took good care no man owed her nothing." Now, what could the census man do with such a person; he shrugged his shoulders and went to the next house, but said afterwards, "No more of these ladies for me."

More than one pathetic incident occurred in the course of the house to house visitation. In one case an old man was found lying in a dirty bed, in a stinking atmosphere, with only another old man limping about the room. It was a house with one room down and one room up, and the old man on the bed had already the sure and certain sign of fast approaching death upon him. Asked for information, he gave his own name and age, and when in the ordinary course it came to his trade or occupation, he said to the enumerator, and a tear rolled down his cheek, "Tell 'em I'm worn out and forgotten; forgotten even by the woman who married me and swore to look after me. She is all right, she is well, and gone off with another chap, and I'm left to die like this." It was a sad picture, and the enumerator will not soon forget this experience.

In another quarter of the town, which is not noted for its salubrious atmosphere, the usual knock at the door was responded to by a gruff "come in." It was so when the return was left; it was so when the return was called for. The old woman was still on the bed, a bed of rags, no proper covering, a bed of filth also, reeking in its nastiness and surrounded with evidence of carelessness, neglect and dissolute habits. Ashes strewed the floor, the table was black, and the atmosphere, to use the official's own words, "might almost have been cut with a knife." He informed the woman that he had come for the return. She fumbled about, still remaining upon her back on the filthy rags, and pulled on one side a kind of counterpane, in which there was a most mysterious pocket, out of which appeared the paper, which required fumigating before being handled by human being. With the best grace possible, though with anything but a happy feeling, the particulars for the form were taken and entered, and what was the surprise of the enumerator to learn that this individual by trade was a laundress, a laundress, who prided herself and claimed to turn out " the best cuffs and collars in Chesterfield."

In various quarters there appeared to be a misapprehension as to the last column of the return, in which any infirmity was to be entered - lunacy, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness. One individual wrote "Quite well," alongside the name of each of his family, and in one case this was done by a parent who has a feeble-minded child, but the father could almost be forgiven for trying to hide "the skeleton in the cupboard," actuated as he was without doubt by affection for his own offspring.

It was difficult really to describe the occupation of some people, as they really followed no occupation at all, being only the obstructions of street corners and the supporters of lamp posts. One of these individuals informed the enumerator that he "picked things up." Though this did not come under any of the various headings that were sent out as necessary descriptions of trades and occupations, the individual in question might have sought for a different term and been further away from the truth. Rather amusing was the experience of another gentleman, who having been politely invited to enter the house and sit down at the table to fill up the return, asked for the occupier's name. He entered it upon the return, and then looking up at the occupier he observed, perhaps with malice aforethought, "I suppose you are the head of the house?" "Is he," said a vinegar-tongued female standing beside him, "you may put me down what you like, but I can tell you I am boss in this ere house." The enumerator didn't discuss the point, but he entered the poor man as head of the house.

Still more amusing was the case of a lady who was married the day before the enumerator called, and the first question she asked with great anxiety was "Shall I give the name I had yesterday or the name I have got today, because," she added, "my chap's paid for the name I have got to-day." The enumerator told her she must fill in the name of her husband, of course. "Oh," said the lady, "but I have not yet made up my mind whether I shall turn the house over to him, "and, later, "I am the occupier here, and, "pointing to the column, "I must go down as the head of the house."

In one district in Chesterfield an individual was met who persistently refused to either fill up the return or to give any particulars for it. Persuasion failed entirely, and threats nearly failed when the 5 penalty was mentioned, as the woman laughed and said she had never seen so much money, but when the official told her that if she did not find the money she would have to pay a visit to Derby gaol, she with great reluctance gave particulars which may or may not be true, but particulars which the enumerator was bound to accept. In one form alongside of a child which is two years of age, appeared the words "Not out at work yet," and in another column the wife desired the enumerator to enter on the sheet "We all do a bit and I do the most."

Some of the enumerators, when they delivered the paper, asked how many lived in the house, and in one case where there were only two small rooms upstairs and two small rooms downstairs, the answer was "We're ten in family." "Any lodgers," asked the official. "No," replied the woman. When the return, however, was collected, the penalty had evidently acted like magic, for fourteen names were recorded, fairly divided between the two sexes, and these fourteen occupied the two small rooms upstairs. In this particular district there are 112 houses, occupied by families, large and small, and many of them with lodgers, of only four rooms all told, and in a large number of cases even less.

There is a certain yard in Chesterfield which at one time was numbered, but in this yard there is a place occupied -it cannot be termed a dwelling-house - which was evidently missed by those who did the numbering, and might have been missed by the enumerator but for one circumstance. As he was going down the yard a little lad, as well -nourished as could be expected in such a quarter, disappeared in what was only like a hole in the wall. The enumerator followed and asked if anyone lived there? "Oh, yes," replied the lad, "we do." Opening the door he saw a flight of stairs which led to one biggish room above the passage, where a man, his wife, and family lived, ate and slept, and, as the enumerator remarked, "and yet there is supposed to have been an investigation and all places unfit for human habitation are supposed to have been condemned." Yes, supposed, but it is time there was an alteration.

Some of the old women living in the yards asked the enumerator when he delivered the returns, "Who do you want us to vote for this time?" and in one case particularly, after a long explanation as to what was required, an old lady replied, "And shure Oi loike you and will vote for anybody you asked me." She could not grasp what it all meant and the enumerator filled up the paper for her, and then she said "Be jabers you'll sthand me a pint for littin you do it."

There were many more instances, amusing and pathetic, but enough has been written to prove how difficult a task had to be undertaken by those who have been employed in securing an accurate return of the population. It need only be added that speaking generally there is a consensus of opinion amongst the enumerators that the returns have been filled up in a decidedly creditable manner, although in many cases grease and other undesirable spots were more numerous than pleasant. There was only one difficulty experienced in obtaining the age of a lady, who vigorously estimated her years from 17 upwards. "Now," said the enumerator upon his third call. "I'm going to fix your age for you. You're 27 aren't you?" The lady was evidently pleased, and she replied "You are a nice chap; I will tell you now, I am 32." And she looked it! It may be stated to the credit of the people of Stonegravels that out of 400 houses only six papers had to be filled up by the enumerator, who says that he found the people most courteous, obliging, and in every way ready to make the return as complete as possible. As to my last remark, it certainly applies generally to the whole of the district.

(Reproduced by kind permission of the editor of The Derbyshire Times)

Compiled, indexed, formatted and copyright © 2001, John Palmer. All Rights Reserved.