1841 That's the Year That Britons Can Now Trace Their Roots Back to as the Census Goes on the Web. Life May Have Been Harsh Then, Says A.N. Wilson, but Britain Achieved a Greatness in Science, Industry and the Arts Inconceivable Today (and, Oh Yes, Literacy Rates Were 87%); Census,history
Byline: A.N. WILSON
HISTORY, as we have all discovered, is not simply about kings and queens and great geniuses.
It is about ordinary men, women and children.
Exploring the branches of your family tree used to be the hobby of the aristocracy. Now everyone is doing it, and we witness the popularity of television programmes in which famous people such as Jeremy Paxman or Ian Hislop can trace their ancestors with the help of researchers.
This week, the earliest of the Victorian censuses, the 1841 headcount, goes online for the first time, which means that all seven censuses from 1841 to 1901 are available on the internet.
It is an extraordinary development. For most of their history, the censuses, though available to scholars, have been a closed book to the general public.
Now, by typing into your laptop, you will be able to find the names of 164 million people from these ancient records, along with details of and insights into the daily lives they contain.
In Alan Bennett's play, The History Boys, the central character, a teacher called Hector, gets them to recite Thomas Hardy's poem about Drummer Hodge who is buried 'uncoffined - just as found' in the South African veldt.
Hector tells them the Zulu and Boer Wars of the late 19th century were possibly the first campaigns in which common soldiers were commemorated, with the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials.
Before this, he explains, 'private soldiers, anyway, were all unknown soldiers, and so far from being revered there was a firm in the 19th century . . . which swept up their bones from the battlefields of Europe to grind them into fertiliser'.
The process of ordinary history was in its way no less cruel.
The actual lives of our ancestors were ground to dust, to nothingness, because we knew so little about them. But the revival of the 1841 census brings them back. It gives them names. Many of them will, if we find out about them, turn out to have been people of extraordinary enterprise, especially in the field of industry and engineering.
The world of 1841, so remote to us in 2006, seems that bit closer if we can give names to our many times great grandparents. Revisiting 1841 is interesting, however, not just for those people who want to imagine the individual lives of remote family forebears.
By going back to that year, we visit a very different England.
And the thing which strikes me immediately as I get out of the time-machine and find myself in the England of 1841 is how overtinywhelmingly more creative it was than the England of today.
We are programmed today, by generations of state-funded education and state welfare, to believe that countries succeed only because a government has enabled them to do so. But the Victorian success story came from the people themselves, without government intervention.
It is sometimes imagined, for example, that until 1870, when the government first introduced primary education for all, there was a low level of literacy. The Victorian poor, by contrast with the disadvantaged in the worst of our own dud state schools, actually had a higher level of literacy than we do.
In 1841, 79 per cent of the Northumberland and Durham miners could read and write, and a survey of children in the Norfolk and Suffolk workhouse in 1838 showed that 87 per cent of them could read and write.
Private education was common for all classes of society and, in fact, by the time of the 1870 Act, 92 per cent of the population were literate. There would be crowing from Ruth Kelly if she could achieve 'targets' like this.
Self-help was the Victorian phrase to describe their success.
Look at them in 1841, where every invention was achieved without a government grant, every booming industry triumphed without government intervention, and every school was run either by a church, a chapel or a private charity. …