Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Some thoughts on census keeping

Having access to the UK census results from 1841 onwards has been invaluable in tracing this family history. Parish records and national registrations of births, deaths and marriages provide a lot of information, but the census records often help to confirm relationships, fill in gaps and sometimes provide unexpected information.

For instance, I discovered that Frances Ward (nee Dickinson) remarried when I was looking for information about her daughter, Esther Ward. I found an Esther Ward on the 1841 census living with a William and Fanny Tomlinson in Salford, along with a sister, also named Fanny Ward, who I hadn't known about previously. A little research showed that Fanny Tomlinson was previously Fanny Ward, a widow, who married William in 1829. This explained  why I couldn't find a recorded death for Fanny Ward.

So I was surprised to discover this week that since 1901, all Australian census data has been routinely destroyed once the statistics have been extracted, to protect people's privacy. Only some very partial records are available from the 19th century. I knew that there was little census information on line, but I'd assumed the records themselves were still in storage somewhere. In 2001 people were asked for the first time to tick a box on the census return if they were happy for the information to be kept and released in 99 years time. About 50% of people ticked 'yes'. 

This contrasts with the United States, where census information is released after 70 years. The 1940 census has just been released, causing much jubilation among genealogists. Perhaps 70 years was once the life expectancy of Americans, but there must be many alive today who were children in 1940. Perhaps the British embargo of 100 years is more realistic if privacy is a concern. But I wonder what it says about the relative cultures of the three countries that they handle the census information so differently?

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