Confessions of a census enumerator

Back in ... I worked as a census enumerator (I'd better not say when - or where - for fear of breaching the 1991 Census (Confidentiality) Act). Confidentiality was one of the first principles instilled into us during training. Anything of a personal nature recorded on a census form is locked for 100 years – which is the reason family history researchers get excited every ten years as another one is released. It's strange to think that I may have been the last person to actually read those forms – until they are released after 100 years.

The first job was to walk around my district, about 150 households, and note which homes were involved. Next, I had to leave a census form at each house. I had to speak with someone at each house, to ensure that if there were two households in a house each would receive their own form.

Then, after the actual census date, I had to go back again to collect the completed forms - checking to make sure all the questions had been answered. As you may realise, by the time I'd done that, I'd walked around my district three times, and the flat fee was starting to seem less generous.

Even having all the forms was not the end of the work, I then had to do the initial summary analysis. It can now be done by computers of course, but then it was the enumerator's job. The details have faded from memory – except that with 150 to do, it was another couple of evening's work.

Although the hourly rate was poor, the interest was very high. For example, my district included a mobile home site, where most of the men were working on a nearby motorway. The woman in the cleanest, shiniest caravan explained that she and her husband had not had a conventional wedding but had “jumped over the fire”. I was thrilled to discover that such an old tradition was still being practised.

Another man in a larger house said that although he had put down his “good lady” as his wife, they weren't actually married. Very ordinary now, but he had obviously worried about putting down an untruth. I assured him that anything he wrote, or said, was confidential for 100 years. I also realised that I had encountered both old and new relationship traditions on the same day.