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TIP SIXTEEN: Be alert to the misinformation inherent in Census records.

Eric Trudgill    -    4 September 2012


Beginners won’t find tips here on finding research material: for that they can use the internet, join the Romany & Traveller FHS, and buy Sharon Floate’s excellent book, My Ancestors Were Gypsies. What they are offered here are tips on evaluating and interpreting the material they find.

TIP SIXTEEN: Be alert to the misinformation inherent in Census records.

Census records are invaluable, but they are also more limited and unreliable than the other two main types of record used by Gypsy genealogists, Church registration of baptisms, marriages and burials, and civil registration of births, marriages and deaths.

Census records are more limited in chronological span: Gypsies rarely appeared in the few local censuses before 1841, and not much in the 1841 and 1851 national censuses, since census officials at that point were only required to count, not collect names of or data from, those not living in houses (luckily some officials decided to collect such information anyway). Even in the censuses from 1861 to 1911 huge numbers of Gypsies, traditionally suspicious of the Government’s interest in their affairs, or too mobile for the census officials to catch, were conspicuous by their absence.

Census records are more unreliable because of the conditions in which their data was collected: a priest recorded his in his church or home, and a civil registrar sitting in his office, but census takers were working, sometimes literally, in the field, in Gypsy camps, scribbling notes for later collation from Gypsies often unhelpful or even hostile, and ever likely, especially the children, to disappear into or appear from another family’s tent.

Census records, where they describe Gypsies who may be of interest to you, offer aids to identification (forenames and surnames, relationship to others), and aids to further identification (a date and place of birth that may lead you to valuable confirming or disconfirming evidence in birth, baptism or marriage records). But a census taker in a Gypsy camp, perhaps a little intimidated by the number and attitude of its inhabitants, might easily get confused by the information given him, unable to keep track of names, relationships, birth-dates, birth-order and birth-location.

Some Gypsies would probably mislead him even if they were trying not to. When asked where they were born, they might offer Somerset in one census and Bristol the next, because for them, travelling people who paid little attention to maps or local government, Bristol was in Somerset. When asked about his children, a father might not distinguish between a daughter, step-daughter, granddaughter, daughter-in-law or niece, for the reason that he didn’t make such distinctions; while they were in his care, he was their father. When asked how old he was, a grandfather, unconsciously acknowledging a man was as old as he felt he was, might unknowingly add a few years if worn by age, or lose a few if widowed and looking for, or the new husband of, an appreciably younger woman.Some Gypsies on the other hand didn’t care if they misled the census official: if asked where they’d been born, they’d name the place they were in or the one their spouse had just given, knowing this was nonsense. And a few clearly delighted in telling the official elaborate nonsense about the whole family.

The evidence for this is all over the census records. Sometimes a Gypsy family was caught in different places in the same census, and the differences in the data given illuminate the census taker’s difficulties, as indeed does differences in personnel even in a single day (if you find Esau and Elizabeth Scarrottonly in Longborough in 1861, you’ll miss their son, Windsor, who’s with them only in Blockley). Very frequently of course Gypsy families were caught in several censuses, the adults often claiming completely different dates and places of birth, and sometimes, like their children, completely different forenames. As a rule of thumb, the earlier a Gypsy’s date and place of birth is given (like when he was a child), the more reliable it is. But on occasion, as with census appearances of James and Emily Buckland’s family or Tommy Boswell/Lewis’s, you need a very large pinch of salt.

The important thing is to use the information you find in the census as a guide to future research, not an end in itself. Don’t regard its data as reliable until you’ve confirmed it in Church and civil-registration records; even though, as we’ll see in the next two months, you can’t always rely on them either.

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill