Onesimus Spriggles

Brighton Herald - 13 April 1861

Taking the census in Brighton - A personal narrative

The Census of Brighton is taken once more.

By means of a little machinery which has been at work in a quiet, methodical fashion during the past month, we shall shortly be in a position to determine questions of the utmost importance regarding the growth and present conditions of our town. The materials are collected, - and that is the main point, - and as soon as they are classified the interesting results will be made public.

The taking of a Census of a town, - we will say nothing of a kingdom, though that was accomplished simultaneously - is not a simple task.  The arrangements by which every Brightonian was enabled on Monday last to contribute his item to the general stock of intelligence, and by which, - and this is more important, - no Brightonian was able to shirk his duty in that respect, were the result of much forethought and of considerable experience.  It is not easy to exact from every man, woman, and child, from the intelligent and the obtuse, from the willing and the reluctant, not to say the pugnacious, the facts which constitute the backbone of domestic life.  Some people are by nature reticent.  There are men who regard it as a sort of impertinence to be asked their names.  There are many who, with more reason, object to being called on for their means of livelihood.  And then that question of age "Ah" you cry. "that touches the ladies on their weak point."  The ladies!  Why, man, it touches you on your weak point.  Yes, your lordship, with all your mental superiority, even you would skirk it if you could.  Age is nothing in a man.  Of course not; but some how our sex does linger strangely among the thirties, and as to the forties, they are interminable.  We have friends who, to our certain knowledge, have stood at thirty-eight these ten years.  And they would fain have stood there on the Census-paper; but a man's conscientiousness rises at the idea of setting down a fiction in black and white.  If he has a conscience, it pricks him at the thought of attesting a lie to gratify a foolish pride; and the consequence is, that the population has sensibly aged during the taking of the Census. If it had not, we should have expected to see the Registrar-General acknowledging the receipt of a good many conscience-papers during the next month or two.

Considering the difficulties, we have every reason to believe that the Census has been taken in a remarkably satisfactory manner in this town.

We have spoken of the machinery for taking it.  Perhaps a word or two of explanation on that point may not be unacceptable.  It may not be generally known - and now-a-days it is incumbent on everybody to know everything - that the taking of the Census was entrusted to the local Registrars.  These gentlemen share the town between them, it is being divided into three districts, namely, the St. Peter's District, held by Mr S. Thorncroft; the Palace District, held by Mr G. Smith ; and the Pier District, held by Mr C. Dumbrell.  It was the duty of these gentlemen to see that the Census was taken.

They did not, of course, attempt to take it themselves.  Ten years ago the population was 69,569 and there were 11,116 houses in the parish and it would have been a good day's work for three intelligent, middle-aged gentlemen to have enumerated them.  Since then the increase in the population is enormous, bringing it up, it is supposed, to over eighty thousand, and of course the labour of taking the Census has greatly increased.  It has, however, been accomplished by the united labours of about eighty Enumerators, specially appointed for the occasion by the District Registrars.

The experience of one of these Enumerators would be pretty much the experience of all.  Suppose, then, we take the experience of one for the information of our readers.  And suppose we let it be that of our friend Spriggles - Onesimus Spriggles, at your service - as communicated in a letter before us:-

The narrative of O. Spriggles, Enumerator

" When," says our friend, " I was asked if I would become a 'Numerator, I naturally enquired what that might happen to be, and what he had to do, and what he would be likely to get for doing it?  I was informed that an Enumerator was a Government official improvised to assist in the taking of the Census. I learned, further, that he was not subject to competitive examinations, even on Census questions : and that his services would not entitle him to a pension or participate in any superannuation fund.  I was assured that his duties were light and gentlemanly, and that his remuneration was creditable to a Liberal Administration.  Now, nothing to do and plenty for doing it, it is my ideal of a government appointment; but we don't often realize our ideals now-a-days, and I did not expect to realize mine.  Still there seemed a reasonable approach to it, and in the innocence of my heart and the trusting (though systematically abused) confidence of my nature, I consented to avail myself of the proffered benefit.  Yes, I would, I said, accept it.  I would enrol myself under the banner of Sir George Graham, with the approbation of Sir G. Cornewall Lewis (to one of whose works I had formerly been indebted for many a pleasant doze); in few words, I would become an Enumerator.

"It was a month, or it might have been six weeks ago when I formed the resolution, and having done so, I entrusted it to the Registrar of my District, and with a placid mind awaited the result.

"The result presented itself in the form of a young gentleman, who presented himself one morning with a double knock - which I naturally supposed to be that of the postman - and place in my hands a packet of papers.  They were, he said, the Census papers, and I was requested to look them carefully over, and to master the working of them before the time for using them arrived.  Another thing required of me, was to sign a form of contract by which I bound myself under I don't know what penalties to perform the duties I had undertaken.  I signed.  It is my usual fate to sign first and reflect afterwards.  I signed and then turned to an examination of these documents.  They had a particularly hard, official, and uninviting aspect, and I found them to consist of several distinct parts, constituting those portions of the machinery, - call them wheels, or cogs, or bands, or what you will, - which I was to set in motion in the matter of taking the Census. There was first, a scrap of paper, on which was written in a firm, bold hand a description of my District.  It informed me that it was " No.-, part of the Parish of Brighton, consisting of one side of So-and-So-street, one side of Such-and-Such-lane, Blank-square, Dash-road, and What's-his-name-hill.'  This document was accompanied by (2) about 200 of those blank schedules, the form and general aspect of which will be familiar to all; by (3) a large oblong blue-covered book, particularly uncomfortable for use, called an Enumeration Book; by (4) a small square pink-covered book of a dozen pages, called the Memorandum Book; by (5) a paper of Instructions to the Enumerator; and (6 and last) by an Enumerator's Claim for allowances, - in other words my bill which I was to fill up and send in, and ultimately sign when the work was done.

"When the work is done," I  said to myself as I spread out this small stationer's stock on the table before me.  "When it is done!"  The fact was, I began already to have misgivings that this stationer's stock did not mean a sinecure.  It had a look of work, and a good deal of work, too, about it; and the idea occurred to m whether my innocence and disinterestedness had not already been taken advantage of.  I had, at least, a presentiment that they had.

"However, there were the papers, and there was I bound to make myself master of their contents.  I found that my first duty was to obtain a thorough knowledge of my district.  I was to make myself "well acquainted with its boundaries, and the precise boundaries of every other local division wholly or partly within it, such as township, Parliamentary or Municipal Borough, ward, hamlet, ecclesiastical district &c.,"  This, you will observe, was merely preliminary duty.  One was to compile a District Gazetteer by way of prelude to getting up the District Directory.  That was what it meant.  And that "&c.," how considerately that was put in!  There was positively to be no restriction to the range of a man's enquiries.  He might improve his mind to any extent; and further, if he could not worry out any piece of knowledge for which he had a mind, the Home Office permitted him to apply to the Registrar to complete his education.  But in addition to this knowledge of the district, the Enumerator might carry on a sort of home-culture.  He might - in fact, he was expected to - devote his leisure to the careful perusal of those charming productions of the Home Office, - the Householders' Schedule, the Memorandum Book, and the Enumeration Book.  To these, I may say here, I subsequently devoted many yours; and I am bound to add that beyond extreme nervousness and a general sense of forgetting everything important and remembering everything not of the slightest consequence, I cannot say that it produced any ill effect on me.

"On Monday, April 1st, I was to commence my active duties.  Accordingly that morning I betook myself to my district, somewhat nervous in mind, from much study, and far from confident as to the reception I might meet with: but determined to recollect that I was on Her Majesty's service, and to do my duty mildly, but firmly.  At the very outset, however, my nerves were destined to a severe shock.  I found my district precisely as I had left it, in respect to boundaries, local divisions, and so forth; but in on important particular it was altogether changed.  In a word, there was the district, but the inhabitants had flown!  Every shop was closed, every door was fastened ; and not a soul was to be seen.  There was I, on Her Majesty's service, in the midst of my own district, prepared to discharge onerous duties, and there was I - alone!  For a moment I was petrified; then the fact suddenly burst upon my mind.  It was the 1st of April, and everybody was gone to Sham Fight.

"Fortunately the Government had granted a week as the period during which the Householders' Schedules might be distributed, and when I threw myself upon my District next day, I found that it had returned as it had departed, en masse- and I at once commenced operations.  I cannot say that my reception was in the first place altogether cordial.  It had been part of the instructions which I had attempted to master that I was to 'take care to observe the utmost civility;' but the first householder whom I approached with unwonted suavity incontinently took flight.  I subsequently discovered that he took me for 'the Water,' - from which I gather that the agents of the Brighton and Hove Constant Service Water Company are distinguished for their urbanity, which, nevertheless, sometimes fails to secure them a cordial welcome.  It was my lot throughout my travels to be constantly taken for somebody else.  I might have been acting a part in a modern English comedy in which the fun inevitably turns on mistaking Brown for Jones, or Tomkins for Bodkins.  The number of times in which I went in as  'the Gas' was only exceeded by the number of times I was kept out as 'the rent'.  It was, I suppose, in the nature of small-girlhood to contract 'Census' into 'sessed taxes,' and I will say that it was a natural impulse and not a vicious propensity which in on instance influenced a diminutive butcher boy to venture the enquiry as to whether I was the  'bum-bailey,'- whose advent appeared to leisurely anticipated.

"But after a time we got on better.  It became noised abroad that the Census was in the street - as if it had been the measles or the hooping-cough - and people benignantly awaited its arrival.  Among certain classes, though, there prevailed considerable fogginess as to its nature.  A vague notion that Her Most Gracious Majesty was editing a Directory was decidedly prevalent: while a suspicion that 'it's got to do with the Militia, ain't it?' cropped out in more than one quarter.  The fact is English folks are close over their private affairs; and with all their respect, - nay, that's not the word, - their worship of anything Governmental, they don't quite understand an individual walking into their house and demanding who they are, where they came from, and what they're about?  It is hard to persuade them that this apparent impertinence is for their good.  Very hard.  But as the nature of the thing became understood, so the suspicion about it allayed; and I am bound to say that I met with uniform courtesy and consideration throughout my District.  When I explained how the papers were to be filled up, they attended:  when I showed them on filled as an example, they thought they understood (though my impression was that in nine cases out of ten this completed their utter bewilderment); and when I requested that the papers might be filled before I called for them on Monday, the 8th, my request met with a ready promise of compliance.

"But long before I had distributed all my schedules I had arrived at a settled conviction that I was an injured individual, and that taking the Census was anything but a joke. However, I had undertaken it, the Home Office was in possession of my autograph, and I was bound to carry it through.

" 'Early on the morning of Monday, April 8th, commence the enumeration of your District.'  So ran my instructions; and I prepared to act up to them.  I was curious, I must confess, to see how far the schedules would, as a rule, be filled up correctly.  It was an educational test, and I have spoken on Education at our Discussion Class;  I have also read an article upon it in the Penny Magazine; and, on the whole, am disposed to take a decided interest in the subject.  The first thing I may note is that almost everybody had their papers ready.  Some few 'had never given it a thought since,' and two or three 'had been that bothered they'd given it up; but these were exceptions.  So was the man who had taken it to London with him and left it behind at a coffee-shop in Long Acre; but he dared say they'd give it in with their own, and so long as Government got it, what's the odds?  I may note next the general intelligence shown in the returns. Each paper has eight columns, so as to the present, in regard to each person, the name and surname, relation to the head of family, condition, sex, age, occupation, place of birth, and whether deaf and dumb or blind.  Now, these are not very abstruse points in regard to individuals; but they are not easily concisely stated by persons unaccustomed to making such returns.  The papers were framed with great forethought so as to render the matter as simple as possible, and every possible contingency seemed provided against; but simplicity as the result of elaboration is apt to prove particularly puzzling to unsophisticated minds. Still, the rule was, remarkable intelligence.

"The unlettered people presented the chief difficulty, especially the Irish, who indulge in unheard-of Christian names, allied to utterly unpronounceable Surnames, and who generally had the misfortune to be born in villages whose names I could not catch and they couldn't write.  But they were generally right about their Count - about which Englishmen of the same class would know nothing; - and so we got on.  The most decided Irishman of my District had, I found, entered on his schedule that his son, Miles, was in respect of age, one year and three quarters last birth-day.  In another case I found under the head "Where Born" the entry "Poor foundling," and on enquiring of a stout Irish-woman what was the age of the tender outcast, she replied, 'Sure, sir, and it's myself, and it's 47 I am.'  Sweet innocent!  Recalling my entries, there was one which puzzled me at the moment.  Under the head 'Rank, Profession, or Occupation,' I found the words 'Nothing afflicted.'  'Ah,' I thought, 'this is a mistake.'  It should have come under the column, 'If Deaf-and-Dumb, or Blind;' but a little enquiry set me right.  The entry was significant enough, but the punctuation was a little defective.  It should have read, 'Nothing.  Afflicted;' the individual being unable to work from bodily affliction.  I won't trouble you with curiosities of spelling, in which the papers are very rich; but I never saw 'scholar' spelt in so many ingeniously impossible ways; and as for 'ironer,' why, here is a sample:- 'irenir,' ieroner,' 'iranr,' 'hirenor,' 'iornyer' 'iorronnor,' and so forth.

"But if the blunders of ignorance raised a smile; the caprices of the better informed rendered them quite as amusing. It was funny to see how people schemed and finessed to impress the Home Office with a sense of their extreme gentility.  That expression 'fundholder,' in the printed instructions, was charmingly convenient.  I don't say that anybody used it who wasn't entitled to use it; but my impression is that the old ladies and old beaux of my District must have shared the 3 per cent.  Consols among them.  Then the numbers who had 'incomes derivable from property,' - a term happily inclusive of the proprietors of a landed estate, and the lady who lives in the cellar of her own house upon the lodgers in the floors above!  And people who had once had property I found equally claiming distinction on that ground, as in the instance of a nervous little body, who, having described herself as of 'no profession'  was happily reminded by the shaking of her hand in signing the paper that just so it shook when twenty years ago she signed away the family property in West Barsetshire.  By the way why are people so nervous about signing their name in public?  Why do they say that they really can't write as they have so severe a cold on the lungs?  And why are they all minded to take sanctuary in a cross, as if inability to write at all was less culpable then want of power to write well?

"To revert for a moment to the subject of filling up the papers.  I found the utmost anxiety on the part of wholesale traders to free themselves from any suspicion of retail;  and as part of the same feeling, I may mention that in a case in which I filled up a paper for a lady keeping a mangle, she was particular to have it discriminated as a 'patent' mangle!  'Patent, if you please sir.'  'Oh, certainly, madam, so shall your dignity 'moult no feather.'  I may say here that I believe the very difficult and very delicate question of age was, in the majority of cases, approached with heroic conscientiousness.  I am constrained to admit that I saw more than one, charming Englishwoman, in the bloom of her life, seize the pen and ruthlessly score herself down as - 40!  I am a sensitive man.  I am soon overcome by acts of heroic daring; and I own that I could have shed a tear over the dauntless heroism of my countrywomen!

"But it is time for me to close.  I will just add that ever since the day of enumeration I have been at work on the Census, and am so still.  I have had to copy my schedules in my Enumeration-book;  I have had to supply a list of 'persons not in houses;' I have bewildered myself with a  'summary,' a 'recapitulation,' a 'declaration,' and I know not what beside; and now I am about to send in a claim for payment according to the scale of allowances sanctioned by the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury.

"I am not sanguine, but mildly hopeful that in due time I shall receive my reward.  The amount will not be much; but I really am in anticipation that, under favourable circumstances, I may, as the result of three weeks' exertions, pocket - well, say a guinea."

Our friend has so fully gone into details, that we feel it unnecessary to add anything to his experience of the taking of the Census in Brighton.  We will only say that it is expected that the increase in the population since the last Census (1851) has been from ten to fifteen thousand.