Whatever shall we count on if we don't have the census?

Historians condemn government's plan to scrap national survey as 'crazy'. Matthew Reisz writes

July 22, 2010

Historians are queuing up to criticise "crazy and short-sighted" government plans to abolish the National Census after 2011, citing both their own research and wider concerns about the loss of cultural heritage.

Matt Houlbrook, tutorial Fellow in modern British history at Magdalen College, Oxford, is using census records to research the confidence trickster, journalist and royal biographer Netley Lucas.

The proposal risked wiping ordinary people from history, Dr Houlbrook said. "The idea of scrapping the National Census is crazy and short-sighted. It's the demotic - almost democratic - qualities of the census that make it such an important source of information about even the most obscure and long-forgotten individuals.

"Its records provide us with the traces of everyman and everywoman in the past, rather than just the rich and the powerful. Scrapping the National Census risks silencing such voices for generations of family and academic historians to come."

Hilda Kean, director of public history at Ruskin College, Oxford, used the census' street-by-street documentation to investigate East London's silk industry in her book London Stories (2004). She was most worried about "the erosion of materials, the destruction of cultural heritage and the potential for an accessible past", she said.

"I've often taught people who have become interested in family and local history, particularly through the census, and then moved on to looking at broader social and cultural history," she explained.

"Unlike the individualised records of births, marriages and deaths, starting with a street or an area can lead to looking at the past more widely through local contexts."

Edward Higgs, professor of history at the University of Essex, argued that the core value of census data is that "they cover everyone and tie people down temporally, geographically and socially, so you can link to other records and draw a rich picture of the past. It's this record-linkage potential that is crucial."

Sources such as the material generated by credit-rating agencies, which future historians may have to make do with, are full of gaps and lack the same variety of data, he said.

Selina Todd, lecturer in modern British history at the University of Manchester, said census returns had allowed her to correct myths about the recent past in Young Women, Work, and Family in England 1918-1950 (2005). She cited, for example, "the notion that immigration massively increased in the late 1940s, or the myth that working-class families gave their sons greater chances of education than their daughters".

"The message that today's government doesn't have the interest or enthusiasm to continue with this survey is highly revealing," she said.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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