curiosity about the ways of the world

Ghosts of census past and present

Thursday 17 March 2022.  Approaching Census night the old kitchen has the look of a Victorian museum, or maybe a low budget costume drama.  Granny’s white cotton nighties hang in front of the shiny black range. Crisp and cool to the touch, they are the very devil to iron.

These are things of impressive though now impractical beauty and I rediscovered them during one of those lockdown cupboard clear-outs of 2020.  On impulse, I dug them out again to spruce them up in time for our Scottish Census 2021 – postponed because of Covid.  Removing the creases and wrinkles from yards and yards of best cotton, tackling the finicky fine tucks and broderie anglaise round the neckline, I’m thankful for the steam iron.  A Victorian maid standing in the old scullery (more or less where I am typing now) would have been applying flat irons heated on the coal-fired range, and no doubt listening out for the bells summoning servants to other tasks in grander parts of the house. Let’s call on Elizabeth…

Ironing granny's nightie: Fay Young

I’m wondering about the life of 21-year-old Elizabeth Leather. According to the 1881 census she was a housemaid for the family occupying the house which (somewhat to our surprise) has been our family home now for many decades.  Still more surprising, she was one of three servants – there was also a cook and a ‘nurse’ – all aged 21, employed by the apparently well-to-do Edward Bruce, a builder who lived here with his wife Betsy and four children. 

In just a few lines of names and numbers at one address, there’s a vivid glimpse of the changing worlds captured every ten years in the official census. Teasing so many questions in a need to know more! (Who, how, when, where, why?)  I’m starting out on a long-postponed quest to research the untold stories of our family home, so I’m indebted to that tantalising piece of evidence generously provided by urban historian Prof Richard Rodger – I had attended his Old Edinburgh Club talk on why access to the historic census matters and in an experimental interactive session, selecting my address among others, the Professor demonstrated how searching is easy for those with privileged, professional access. Amateurs like me encounter a paywall: The Paywall keeping the public out of history

If sewage pipes could talk…

Now, of course, there is no longer just one night to record the census, but as the legally binding deadline for Scotland’s first online registration nears, I hear the urgency of Rodger’s argument that “access to names and addresses enriches historical understanding.”  In our time of grotesque inequality, open access to public records feels more important than ever. 

There’s so much to learn from the buildings we live in – not just from the kind of people who bought or rented the place before we walked through the front door, but from the stones, stairs and, yes, the sewage pipes too. Our terraced house was built in 1861 ( too late for the census of that year) at a time when Edinburgh’s population was growing rapidly. Wealthy people had been escaping from the smelly, over-crowded closes of the Old Town, to the wide streets of the New Town.  Speculative builders were moving further into the green (and brown) spaces further east and James Bisset the man who took out a loan to build our house was one of them (more about poor Mr Bisset another day).   During the pandemic, I became obsessed with the value of good ventilation. The Victorian high ceilings and big windows which now turbo boost our heating bills are a legacy of a time when labour and coal was cheap.  But then, as now, wealthier people in big houses with running water were much more likely to survive epidemics and other diseases than poorer folk in cramped, badly built accommodation not far away. Indeed, a new question in the 1861 census, asked about the number of rooms with one or more windows (reflecting concerns about housing and sanitary conditions).

Weeks when decades happen

The pace of change has accelerated beyond imagining since the first census in 1801. If, to paraphrase that overworked Lenin quote, decades have been happening every day since Putin invaded Ukraine, there were centuries when very little changed in the fundamentals of human life in Britain. The point is nicely made by Boris Starling and David Bradbury in The Official History of Britain: our story in numbers

A time traveller plucked from the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and set down in the London of six centuries later on the eve of the Great Fire, would have found little to surprise him…

The Official History of Britain: our story in numbers as told by the Office for NATIONAL STATISTICS

But that same time traveller would become increasingly gobsmacked from the 1860s onwards. The transformation first brought about by the Industrial Revolution has rocketed in our own time. Imagine life before the iPhone, invented in 2007.  By 1881 the telephone had just arrived in Edinburgh and though electric lights would not switch on until after the next census, families like the Bruces had gas lighting as well as flushing toilets (the evidence is in our drainage system and some original light fittings).

I know nothing about their way of life. Yet. But they employed three servants which is an intriguing clue – perhaps it was Mrs Bruce who placed the Scotsman ad for this address in 1876: Cook wanted ‘must wash and dress well’.  

Cook in the Victorian kitchen : from Chambers's 1876 manual for housewives, Fay Young
From Chambers’s 1876 manual for young housewives – our range is not quite so grand

Flashforward to 1981, when we took part in our first census five years after miraculously conjuring up a mortgage hefty enough to buy our house.  By now the street we live in had been fully developed but I suspect Census questions and answers revealed changing fortunes. In our house there were just five (including our two young sons) and no servants – unless you count my medical student brother lodging in the  room probably once occupied by the ‘nurse’ tending the four young Bruces.  Next door (another of Mr Bisset’s 1861 constructions) was a house of multiple occupation and very crowded indeed.

Times were hard – inflation was 12.5% – and people were migrating from cities to suburbs at the end of what NA Fraser’s 1981 census analysis described as a ‘tumultuous  decade’ for Scotland. Which is why we were able to afford (just) the price of our house.

Zoom into our present day, the 2022 Census will reveal more social and economic change (not least the gender question) visible in the fast-changing ownership of houses and flats around us.  We, now only two occupants, could no longer afford to buy the house we live in.  Just for the hell of it, I hang Granny’s nighties and pretty petticoat by a range which has been here for 160 years, our smart new utility room still boasts the original Belfast sinks from the scullery where Elizabeth Leather would have laboured over dishes, pots and pans.  How much of all this will be here in 2031?   

Ghosts of Census, just Granny's beautiful white nightie: Fay Young

Images: my grandmother’s cotton nightgowns; engraving from Chambers’s Cookery for Young Housewives, 26th edition W&R Chambers London and Edinburgh 1876

Further reading: Property, Poverty and Urban Dynamics, Richard Rodger Economic History Society

Previously on this blog: how gentrification silences a neighbourhood Knock Knock who’s there?


  1. fay

    Thank you for such a kind and empathic comment, Roberta. It was a whim…I’m often aware that I do my ironing standing pretty much in the same place as housemaids employed here many years ago. I’ve no idea what my own granny, or great granny, were doing on the night of the 1881 census, possibly they were in an Ayrshire ‘but and ben’. How they laundered those nighties is a mystery!

  2. Roberta Buchan

    Fascinating. What an inspired idea to dig out the old cotton nighties and hang them to air as though the family of an earlier generation were out on a family visit in the neighbourhood and about to arrive home at any moment and ring for a nightcap.

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