There are many ways of measuring how old you are. The number of censuses you have completed is one of them. You should by now have received your invitation to take part in the 2021 Census. It’s online but you request paper and there is support for completing the questionnaire from Shropshire Libraries.

I said it’s an invitation. It is not. It’s compulsory. But is one of the most important surveys we complete in our lifetimes.

Please complete it. Please don’t be Jedi. And share you experiences of censuses of old in the comments section below.

There is a sound of letterboxes ratting down the street. Mel the Collie goes to sit outside in anticipation. The postie is coming. That means a biscuit for the dog and letters and magazines for me. Among the letters is a letting telling me to take part in the decadal census.

Although the official date for the census is 21 March, the modern practice is to allow householders to complete the form at their time of choosing as a few days either side makes little difference. I decide to complete mine immediately. It took under ten minutes but I am the only personal resident in the household.

There are questions on who you are, where you live and your employment, including whether you have been in the armed force. The census asks whether you have a vehicle. There are compulsory questions on ethnicity, nationality and your general state of heath. Voluntary questions are asked on religion, sexual orientation and the gender you identify with. Questions on income are absent because it is thought that will decrease the response rate or the accuracy of answers.

The online interface is easy to use but you can request a paper census form online or by ringing 0800 141 2021. Shropshire Libraries is working in partnership with the digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation to deliver local phone or online support for people needing help filling in the form. Further information.

Ten years ago, a campaign led to 390,127 people, almost 0.8 per cent of the population, listing their religion as Jedi. Humanists are pleading for people not to claim they are of Jedi faith in this census because that leads to undercounting of the level of secularism in our society. Mind you, when I spotted there is a Czech Church of Beer I was tempted to stray for a moment.

The UK census is the bedrock of demographic statistics. Unless we know our society, we can tackle its problems. But this could be the last census. It has been very costly and the Office of National Statistics was told some years to cut costs. The government wants to save money by using government and other data instead. I am not a convert to this approach.

The census has been going since 1801 and provides a resource not just for modern day demographers and policy makers, it is a great resource for historians. Many people reading this article will have sat in archives studying and transcribing census records or researching them online. This is the stuff of family and local history. The 1921 census will be published early next year and that will lead to surge in local and family studies.

I rather miss the old way of doing the census. It created unusual situations. On 21 March 1991, I was hiking Offa’s Dyke from south to north. The weather was damp but not unreasonable when I strolled into a pub in Hay on Wye trying not to look like I’d walked enough for the day. The landlord grudgingly poured a pint as he had closed. I looked dirty and was dirty but I had a booked a room. Later that night around the bar, there were half a dozen of us sitting around the bar. We were all hiking the dyke. The landlord, only a bit more sociable, came out with the census form and interrogated us to ensure he had all of us recorded correctly on the form. The next day camaraderie evaporated as we hiked off into the mist. Sadly, I never completed the walk along Offa’s Dyke. As I hiked into Knighton, I received a call. In those days, I was head of Research Evaluation at the Economic and Social Research Council in Swindon. I was told I need to appear at a council meeting the next day to save a vote. I went arriving just in time with rucksack, still muddy boots and a filthy rugby shirt to sit among those in business dress. Although the chairman gave an apology for my dishevelled state, no one batted an eyelid and we won the vote. That was the day I stopped wearing a suit in the scientific civil service.

Do you have other stories to tell about census days of old?

One thought on “It’s census time again – help is available – what are your stories of census days of old?”
  1. Don’t know if it’s a deliberate mistake in the census algorithm but – have you noticed that, even if you answer Question 33 to state you are retired, regardless of whether you have NOT been looking for work in the last 4 weeks (Question 34), you have to go straight on to answer Quetion 36 which asks whether you could take up a job offer in the next two weeks?

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