Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Untold lives II - the census

Following on from yesterday's post on Untold Lives, last night the census enumerator called. He was scared of our dogs, so gave me the form to fill in, which saves a bit of time anyway, and it always seems such a fruitless exercise, as we are told that the forms will be recycled once statistical information has been abstracted.

In the last couple of months we've been looking quite a lot at UK census information from the 19th century for our family history, and think that the census records tell us quite a lot about "untold lives".

In the 18th century we have Thomas Gray's musings in a country churchyard in England:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

You can read the whole of Thomas Gray's Elegy written in a country churchyard here.

And a few years ago we visited the UK and in a country churchyard in Cardinham, Cornwall, found the annals of some of my 18th-century ancestors, my seventh great grandparents, William Sandercock (1705-1786) and his wife Mary Verran (1705-1786).

The inscription reads

To memory of William Sandercock who departed this life the 25th day of November 1786 Aged 80 years. And in memory of Mary his wife who died 2nd July 1786 aged 81 years. Morne not for us our children dear Tho here we lie in death We hope in heaven to meet again And there in Christ to rest.

Such were the short and simple annals of the poor in the 18th century.

But in the 20th century, having collected the information about untold lives, we wantonly destroy them. Perhaps one day the descendant of an illegal immigrant, living in a shack in an informal settlement, will want to know where he came from, and the information will have been mashed up, and turned into a percentage.

It makes filling in the census forms seem so futile.

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