Apr 25, 2006

Where were you on June 6, 1841?

Britain's first census goes online.
What the documents actually show is who was spending the night where on the evening of June 6. Householders were asked to fill in their house number and street and the name of every person in the house, with their age, sex and sometimes their occupation. There had been censuses before, since 1801, but they had relied on local vicars and poor law overseers and were accordingly much less detailed or reliable. The enumerators collected the forms, compiled the information in pencil, and then destroyed the originals.

What is left, therefore, is a snapshot of that night, neatly docketed and filed - and, of course, a picture of a society whose more affluent households were stuffed with servants.

At Buckingham Palace, the young Queen was tucked up with Prince Albert, her six month-old daughter, the Princess Royal, and 47 servants including four valets, five footmen, two dressers, two wardrobe maids, 12 ladies' maids, two pages of the backstairs, the Earl of Aboyne, Baroness Lehzen and someone called George Keppel, described as a groom-in-waiting, who may well be an ancestor of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall - in which case the family has certainly come up in the world, though a precise link may have to wait until royal genealogists have discovered it.

Across London at Devonshire Terrace in the parish of St Marylebone, 29-year-old Dickens, already a bestselling author but ever sensitive to his origins, was describing himself simply as "Gent". He shared his house with his wife, Catherine, his four year-old son, also Charles, two baby daughters, four female servants and one 19-year-old male servant, Thomas Hornsby.

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