Editor’s note: We haven’t normally been posting these news releases on the AFHS blog but this was just too good to pass up. Enjoy!
The final, missing column of data from the 1911 census, which details individuals’ infirmities is today released for the very first time at www.findmypast.co.uk and www.1911census.co.uk, the family history websites which first launched the 1911 census three years ago in 2009 in association with The National Archives.
The infirmity column details wide-ranging descriptions of peoples’ health conditions as perceived and hand-written by the head of the household on the night of Sunday 2 April 1911. Under data protection regulations, this sensitive information has remained closed until now.
A less ‘politically correct’ society
‘Lunatic’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘feeble-minded’ are some of the most commonly used entries reflecting an era before such terminology was deemed unacceptable. The census in fact prompts the respondent to record if a person is ‘totally deaf’, ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘totally blind’, ‘lunatic’, ‘imbecile’ or ‘feeble-minded.’
5 most common ‘infermities’ recorded in 1911
- Deaf and dumb
However, not all the entries are negative or insensitive. The 1911 records also reflect the humour and curious family dynamics from a century ago – not too dissimilar to what we know now in 2012. One extraordinary record details a Mr John Underwood from Hastings recording his children as ‘quarrelsome’, ‘stubborn’, ‘greedy’, ‘vain’ and ‘noisy’. He even records himself as ‘bad-tempered’ and his wife as suffering from a ‘long tongue’.
Another unusual entry is from Thomas Wallace Young, who was described as being ‘bald and toothless’, helping us picture exactly what he looked like. William Robert Arnold from Yorkshire commented on his financial status in 1911 by recording his infirmity as being ‘short of cash’.
Suffragette labels ‘voteless’ as her infirmity
The cause of the suffragettes is also illustrated within the new records, with some women listing their infirmities as not having the vote or not being enfranchised. For example, four women living in the same household recorded their infirmities as ‘voteless, therefore classed with idiots and children’.
Infirmities? ‘None, thank God’
Some chose to make a note of their good health instead of the health problems the form enquired about, such as ‘well’, ‘healthy’, ‘sane’, ‘alright’ and even ‘perfect’. Evelyn Baker and her family from Leeds were recorded in the census by their father Addiman Parkin Barker as simply being ‘alive’. Seventy-two entries simply say ‘none, thank God’.
10 unusual infirmities in the records
- Bald and toothless
- Short of cash
- Bad tempered
- Long tongue
Connections between infirmity and profession
A correlation between infirmity and occupation can also be identified in some cases. The biggest source of employment for blind men and women was basket-weaving. Other trades for blind men were musicians or musical instrument makers. Women who were ‘deaf and dumb’ were often employed within the textile or garment trades, or in domestic service, while men were most likely to be labourers.
Debra Chatfield, family historian at findmypast.co.uk, said: “The infirmities column is the last piece of the jigsaw completing the 1911 census. This column alone provides a fascinating insight into life a hundred years ago. It not only reflects health conditions, but also a time before society became aware of political-correctness and certain terminology was deemed acceptable. In the more unusual entries we also get a wonderful sense of post-Edwardian humour, society and family dynamics at this time.
“Researching your family history is a fascinating way to learn about your ancestors. The 1911 census records include detail about occupations, housing arrangements and social status and you are also able to see a copy of the handwritten record itself.”
Audrey Collins, Family History records specialist at The National Archives, said: “The information in the ‘infirmities’ column being released today helps add an extra dimension to the picture of our ancestors’ lives in 1911. We have to remember that the census returns were completed by relatives living in the same house who for the most part had no specialist medical knowledge. Their descriptions provide us with a clue as to how each individual was viewed by other family members, although many would have been reluctant to admit that their relatives suffered from any defect.”