Piers Brendon: What the census can't tell us about the way we lived then

'Really to find out about Edwardian suburbanites, you need to read Wells's "Tono Bungay"'
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The Independent Online

The Edwardian past is another country, so remote from our own lives, so altered by the First World War and the horrors that succeeded it in the last century, that we need to make an imaginative leap to reach it.

The Edwardian past is another country, so remote from our own lives, so altered by the First World War and the horrors that succeeded it in the last century, that we need to make an imaginative leap to reach it.

Perhaps the 1901 census information so copiously available through the Public Record Office's website (once the glitches have been ironed out) will help us, or prompt us, to make this leap.

My first thought, I must admit, on hearing that Edwardian Britain had brought about the jamming of the internet was one of Luddite delight. The fact that the Public Record Office's system had collapsed because so many electronic visitors tried to gain access to its online publication of the 1901 census report seemed a proper reward for technological hubris. It was also a suitable nemesis for those who thought that they could achieve historical enlightenment at the click of a mouse.

On second thoughts, though, I concluded that this was a disparagement of a great and worthy public enterprise. After all, the 1901 census is an enormously important original source, and that it is being studied by all sorts of people who might never open a history book, must be, in the argot of 1066 and All That, a good thing.

The census contains a mass of information about population density: 80 per cent of children born between 1901 and 1911 were born in towns and cities. It is indispensable in giving an account of who was living where, the dreadful overcrowding that prevailed in urban slums and the extent of immigration from eastern Europe. It also contains lots of insights: about the large number of relatively poor households that contained live-in servants – and lodgers; about the rarity of single-person households; about the fact that most married women, even in working-class families, did not have an occupation outside the home.

All this is true and interesting. Yet, on further reflection still, I return to my original reservations about the project. For it is really an extension of the arid antiquarianism that is family history.

Really to find out about Edwardian suburbanites, for example, you have to read H G Wells's Tono Bungay, in which they are described as "inexplicable people who in a once fashionable phrase do not 'exist' ".

The position of half the population can only be appreciated by a perusal of contemporary medical opinion: "No doctor can ever lose sight of the fact that the mind of women is always threatened with danger from the reverberations of her physiological emergencies."

Statistics tell us less about the "influx" of Jews into London than does Hansard. "Neither in race, religious feeling, language, nor blood are they suitable or advantageous to us," said Tory MP Sydney Buxton.

Indeed, to put flesh on the bones of the 1901 census, you need to look at Seebohm Rowntree's report, which appeared in the same year. It reveals, among other things, that nearly 30 per cent of the people of York were too poor to maintain the "physical efficiency" of their families.

Similarly, the census has little to say about the most potent fear in 1901: that of imperial weakness exposed by the Boers in South Africa (where Britain was inventing concentration camps). In that year two books were published, entitled Will England Last the Century? and What Shall England do to be Saved? The first deplored "the slime of the Music Hall song and the wild exaltation round a football match". The second declared that England's "national virility is exhausted".

The First World War changed everything, of course. And some of the changes were reflected in the 1921 census, notably the increased rate of illegitimacy and divorce, as well as the shattering death toll itself. But that census, too, fails to measure the size of the great cultural caesura caused by the Great War. After 1918 women got the vote (and lost the chaperone), trade unionism expanded, technology advanced apace, the Irish problem was solved (for a time), Socialists overtook Liberals. Subsequent events – Nazism, Communism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, galloping affluence, the communications revolution, mass travel, to mention nothing else – have transformed the landscape of today almost beyond recognition.

Of course, some things remain the same, notably official duplicity: the official commission investigating culpability for the Jameson raid (which exonerated the guilty Joseph Chamberlain) was nicknamed "the Lying-in-State at Westminster".

The census can provide information but it cannot provide the essential context in which the information becomes meaningful. That can only be acquired by the hard graft of reading books and articles, examining pictures, collecting oral evidence. It might, indeed, be more profitable to talk to your aged relations than to look for computerised illumination from the raw material on display.

Poetry, too, can bring the past to life, with images more evocative than anything dreamt of by census compilers. Philip Larkin was inspired to write "MCMXIV" by a photograph of volunteers queueing to join Kitchener's army.

Looking back at that callow age of "farthings and sovereigns", of "cocoa and twist", of "moustached archaic faces", he wrote: "Never such innocence again."

The writer's most recent book is 'The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s'