Investigating 1911


Apparently two years ahead of schedule, the 1911 census for the United Kingdom has been released to the public. The reason given is that the 1920 Census Act, which ruled that 100 years had to elapse before information could be released on any one census, did not cover the 1911 census. At any rate, it’s here, and as has been argued here before, family history sources are a precious source of information for the early film historian. So let’s investigate.

The 1911 census is being made available through a commercial genealogy service, So far as I know, the information is only available online through this one source i.e. it hasn’t been made a part of subscription genealogy services such as Ancestry. It is a record of everyone living in the United Kingdom on Sunday 2 April 1911 (bar those few who avoided the census takers or engaged in boycotts – as some suffragettes did). Consequently one can find anyone who was working in the film business in Britain at that time, provided they weren’t abroad that day. Generally they will be found at home rather than at the workplace.

Searching is free. Under person you can search by first name, last name (this is required for all searches, though wildcards can be used), year of birth, place of birth, county, residential place, and if you use the advanced search option there are additional fields such as occupation, keywords and place of birth. Under place there is a range of search options, but you have to include street name, which is very limiting.

Search results for a person will give you schedule type (e.g. Household), first and last name, sex, birth year, age in 1911, district, county and the option either to see a transcript of the census form or an image of the original document. This is where the pricing comes in. A credit system is used: you can by 60 credits for £6.95, 280 credits for £24.95 or 600 credits for £49.95, with different expiry dates. To see a transcript costs 10 credits; to see a facsimile document costs 30 credits. Payment is online, through WorldPay.

So it can be a bit pricey, and it’s worth knowing what exactly you are looking for before launching in. But there is plenty to be uncovered – and a fair bit of it you can glean without payment. Obviously there are the notable names in the industry at that time – I’ve found Charles Urban, Cecil Hepworth, Alfred Bromhead, George Albert Smith, Montagu Pyke and several more, though a number of names remain elusive or just too common (Will Barker, for example).

But the interesting option to test is searching under Occupation. Frustratingly you cannot do this alone, but seach under Smith as a surname and Cinematograph as occupation, and you get 19 hits; under Bioscope and Smith you get 5; under Kinematograph and Smith you get 2 (including George Albert Smith); under Cinematographer and Smith there is 1, ditto for Cinema. However, word truncation comes to the rescue – search under A* in surname (wildcard option) and Cinematograph as profession, and you get 25 hits, with surnames from Adams to Avery; 103 under B*; 77 under C*, and so on. More will be found searching under Film (a term that probably would not have been considered a year or so earlier).

For the patient, lateral-thinking researcher, a lot could be uncovered, and one could get a picture say of the number of women in the cinema profession at this time (very few, to judge by initial searches). Note, by the way, that most of the people will be working in cinemas, not in film production. And of course not everyone described themselves so helpfully (so will simply be Manager, for example). Be on the look out for anomalies – I wonder what Master Herbert Clarke of Wandsworth, aged five months, was doing being classified under Cinematograph as his occupation. Child star…?

if you fork out for a transcript or a facsimile document, you get everyone else included in that household, which reveals all sorts of interesting information, not least social standing or wealth (Charles Urban, for instance, had three servants – his profession he gives as ‘Kinematograph Specialist’). For most purposes, the transcripts will do and will therefore save you money, but do be aware that errors creep into the transcriptions (which can affect searching, of course) and that only the original document (or its facsimile) counts as a primary source.

The 1911 census goes alongside an exciting range of genealogy online sources which I’ve certainly used for film history research, and would encourage others to investigate. The 1901 census gave us a snapshot of the industry just emerging; in 1911 film has become a mature business, and there is a vast exhibition sector that has opened up that could not have been envisaged in 1901. For some of the other resources, see the Bioscope’s earlier post Family History for Film Historians.

And go explore.

2 responses

  1. Hi Luke,
    Although the online information is only available through, you can see a lot more for free by visiting the National Archives at Kew. There you can search and view the transcripts and – better still – the scanned images. You have to book an hour’s slot on arrival but I found there was no queue, you could book another session and the staff there are incredibly helpful. The scanned images are far more informative, and bear in mind that there are a lot of errors in the transcripts. This is inevitable; previous UK censuses were handwritten by enumerators for each district so it’s easy to familiarise yourself with their handwriting styles by perusing through over many pages. In contrast 1911 the censuses are handwritten by heads of individual households, and are therefore harder to decipher, but the information is more personalised.

  2. Hi Richard – and welcome to The Bioscope! Indeed, in my enthusiasm for pointing out online resources, I can sometimes forget that there are such things as real documents and real archives out there. Thank you for the guide to how things are organised at Kew.

    One cannot stress enough the hazards of depending on the transcriptions alone, which are inevitably riddled with errors – though there is some satisfaction in using lateral thinking to guess how the name you are searching for has been mistranscribed (two personal experiences – an ancestor called Gowan was written down as Gouind, another called Zachariah was transcribed as Lachariah).

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