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Being counted for the good of society in the future

Earlier blogs talked about the historical characters of Sarah and Martha and the tragedy of them losing so many children, and the difficulties women faced when they lost their husbands.

But then women – and children – were considered, if not expendable, then of less importance as it was not unexpected when they died. Life was tough. Conditions were appalling and mortality was high. But was there a reason? History often tells us there was.

In 1800 in the UK, the Census (Population) Act established a national census to take place every ten years, the first of which would be taken in 1801 to better determine where food should be distributed.

Whilst included in the numbers, it seems women and ‘others’ had to battle for their place in society. In my latest novel, (the third in The Art of Secrets series, due out in May 2023), Lucy, the protagonists, is a young suffragist wanting the vote to improve the lot of women in 1890s New Zealand.

The early UK census collected data on an aggregate rather than an individual basis (as is still the norm in New Zealand).

The 1801 focus was on the number of houses (and whether they were habitable and how crowded they were), where people worked (whether in agriculture or trade and industry), where they moved to (rural or city), and males who could be considered able to form an army if required. The questions were designed to assess future needs.

The earliest UK census of value to a Family Historian is 1841 as it included names, sex and occupations. Even so, it is woefully lacking in information as the age and birth place columns are notoriously inaccurate, but it was a great step forward, and a turning point in recording individuals and families.

By then Victoria had ascended the throne (in 1837) and community leaders were becoming concerned with the health and welfare of increasingly enlarged urban populations as people moved away from rural based family occupations.

In this fascinating timeline of pioneers in the area of health and social reforms, scientists and doctors were developing theories that disease was caused by miasma (bad air) and germs in the overcrowded cities and towns, and argued for improvements in sanitary conditions. With no running water, the houses and streets were filthy. Anaesthetic and antiseptic was invented – a vast improvement for the patients and doctors alike.

With each census more questions were added and more data collected, and more accurate results could be matched with the official civil registration of births, marriages and deaths which began in 1837.

Comparing the information gathered from one census to another can show a sharp-eyed researcher the changes in their circumstances. How many more deaths and births had there been, where did they live, and what were their occupations and living conditions?

When records show multiple deaths in a short period, it’s worth investigating further. A mother and child dying in childbirth (as a result of unclean practices such as not washing hands between patients) was common, but often death was as a result of a catastrophical pandemic such as The Black Death in the mid-1300s that killed many millions and struck again in London in the 1665, or the third cholera epidemic of the 1850s. Later it was the flu epidemic of 1889-1890 and another outbreak of cholera in 1910 followed by the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 to list a few. There have been many more. Between war and pestilence, only some survived. Mothers were destined to mourn their children generation after generation (and fathers, but I write about the women of the past).

There have been other global pandemics since, right up to and including the latest Coronovirus pandemic that took hold in 2020.  We are still counting the deaths. Every piece of data adds to previous knowledge and improves the future.

It’s why being counted is for the good of society.

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