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Royal History lurking in the aged pages of the Census

On Sunday March 21st 2021, the Census takes place in the UK. Every ten years, all households in the country are required to fill in a form with details of everyone living in that one unit to give a picture of the population and help plan future services. The information is held securely and can’t be released publicly for another 100 years. But that means that, a century on, we get wonderful snapshots of life long ago. And on Census Day, I thought the time might be right to share my favourite page in these immense historic documents.

You see, perusing the past in this vast record is up there with royal history on my things to do list. And every now and again, the two collide. Never more so than in an entry from the 1881 Census. There is a scrap of paper from that information gathering exercise that always fascinates me. It is the record of who was at home at Windsor Castle on the night of April 3rd that year and it is really rather royal indeed.

You see one of the most interesting things about the UK Census is that everyone has to be recorded on it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been ruling an entire country that has expanded further into an empire under your jurisdiction. You still have to be included on the document and provide exactly the same information as everyone else. Which is how Queen Victoria, perhaps the most famous person in the world in 1881, ended up as a simple line of information on a great record from her reign.

Back in 1881, a census collector would have turned up at her house and filled in the information for her. That was the same for everyone whether they were living in an ancient symbol of royal power or a room in an overpacked tenement house. The details collected were relatively basic in comparison to the questions asked today but they had the same aim – to make up as accurate a representation of the people living in the country at one particular moment in time. And they were noted in exactly the same way. So even though we know plenty about Victoria, her entry in the census isn’t nearly as fulsome as the most basic biography of her. But the image conjured up from this return page is really rather magical.

The photographs taken of it and made available on family research websites show a stained piece of paper. But on the lines contained on it, are some of the most familiar people in royal history. Each has provided their name, their age, their occupation and their relation to the head of the household.

Victoria, of course, takes top billing but that rather unusual first name which she gave to an entire era is nowhere to be seen in her entry. She is simply recorded as ‘The Queen’ while the column marked ‘Rank, Profession or Occupation’ is slightly more detailed, saying ‘Queen of Great Britain and Ireland’. Even though she’d acquired a new title since the past Census of 1871, she didn’t ask for it to be recorded. There is no mention of her being ‘Empress of India’. Her marital status, widow, was well known around the world but is noted simply as is her age, given as 61.

Two of her children were at home with her on that historic night. HRH The Prince Leopold is second on this census return. The 27 year old is listed as ‘unmarried’ and his rank is recorded as prince. The entry for his younger sister, HRH The Princess Beatrice’, is just as stark, noting she is 23 and a princess. Four of Victoria’s many grandchildren are listed, too. The children of her third son, Alfred, were staying with their granny on April 3rd. Prince Alfred of Edinburgh, aged six, is the first recorded followed by his sisters. Two year old Alexandra and three year old Victoria are clear to read. But the eldest of the three girls appears to be recorded as Princess Maria, when she had actually been baptised Marie. It’s just another indication of how the Census is a great leveller. Many a family historian has been bemused by a strange spelling of a name on the returns.

However, the part of this return which always fascinates me the most is the house guest enjoying Windsor Castle hospitality on Census night in 1881. Her name is given simply as ‘Eugenie’ but there follows a large scrawl which reads ‘Ex-Empress of the French’. For poor Eugenie was a royal in exile and her visit came at one of the most difficult times of her life.

There is one small clue to the sadness then engulfing her. She is noted as a ‘widow’. Her husband, Napoleon III, had died eight years earlier, soon after they had been forced to flee France following the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of their monarchy. However, in 1879, Eugenie also lost her only son, Louis Napoleon, who was killed in the Zulu War. Eugenie’s health had begun to decline but she was given support by other royals across Europe with a special bond developing with Victoria and her family. Her inclusion on the Census return underlines their friendship but adds a poignant touch to this historic document.

Of course, Victoria is recorded on other Census returns. The first full count of England and Wales had come in the early years of her reign, in 1841, and had been held every decade since. She would make her last appearance in 1891 for the 1901 Census was taken several months after her death. Since then, all royals have been recorded in the same way. The records are kept secret until a century has passed meaning the most recent example we have is from 1911 when Victoria’s grandson was on the throne and is noted on the return as ‘HM King George’.

The 1921 Census is set for release next year and will feature more royal records among the millions of returns. But for me, it will be hard to beat the regal allure of that simple set of statistics recorded at Windsor on an April night almost 140 years ago. A queen, an ex empress and a room full of HRHs, all held for posterity on one fascinating scrap of paper.

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About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.