Palaces and Censuses

Today sees the publication of the 1921 Census of England and Wales. The census is usually taken every 10 years, most recently in March 2021*, and it records information about every household in the country – including the royal palaces. In this blog, Archivist and Curator, Tom Drysdale looks at some of the remarkable insights that historic census records provide about the past residents of the palaces.

If you have ever watched an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? – or even carried out research into your own family history – you will know that the census is a key source for tracing the lives of individuals from the past. Census records can tell us a lot about a person, including their age, who they lived with and where, and what their occupation was at the time of the census’s creation. And what is more, the census is comprehensive in its coverage: it includes everyone, from servants to royalty.

Occupation: “The Queen”

Take the 1851 Census of England and Wales. In the enumeration book for Buckingham Palace, we find an entry for one Alexandrina Victoria, a 31-year old from Kensington, residing with her husband and seven children. Interestingly though it is Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, who is named as the Head of the Family. This is because it was the practice at that time to name the oldest male as the Head of the Household.

In the next census taken in 1861, however, it is Victoria – now residing with her family at Osborne on the Isle of Wight – who is named as the Head of the Household. The 1871 census records ‘Her Majesty The Queen’ – now widowed – residing at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria’s Household. Clockwise from top left: Queen Victoria with Princess Beatrice; Prince Arthur; Prince Leopold; Princess Beatrice. From a memorial album collected by Baroness Louise von Lehzen © Historic Royal Palaces.

In 1881, Victoria’s extensive and eclectic household at Windsor included the likes of her children, Prince Leopold (aged 27) and Princess Beatrice (aged 23), and several grandchildren – Alfred (6), Maria (5), Victoria (4) and Alexandra (2) – as well as the likes of Eugenie, ex-Empress of the French (43); John Brown (54), the Queen’s Personal Servant; Hermann Sahl (49), Librarian; and Lucy Sell (26), a Confectionary Maid from the village of Stapleford in Cambridgeshire.

Hermann Sahl, Queen Victoria’s resident Librarian. The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A, acquired with the generous assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Hampton Court Palace

The last monarch to stay at Hampton Court was George II, and during the 19th Century the palace was inhabited by so-called ‘Grace and Favour’ residents who were offered accommodation by the monarch. Census records provide information about some of these households, including that of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, the suffragette and god-daughter of Queen Victoria.

The 1901 Census tells us that Sophia, then aged 24, lived in ‘Farraday [sic] House’, a property overlooking Hampton Court Green that was named after a former Grace and Favour resident, the scientist, Michael Faraday. Living with Sophia on the night of the census were her Cook, Parlour Maid, Lady’s Maid, House Maid and Groom. The servants – all single and ranging in age from 15 to 38 – came from as far afield as Yorkshire, Oxford and Suffolk.

Sophia selling subscriptions to the Suffragette newspaper on her pitch outside Hampton Court Palace. Public Domain © Wikimedia Commons.

Sophia was a passionate advocate for women’s rights, and in 1911 she participated in a mass census boycott along with many other suffrage supporters. In protest against the lack of representation for women, she wrote across her census return:

‘No vote, no census. As women do not count, they refuse to be counted. I have a conscientious objection to filling up this form.’

Sophia’s refusal to participate in the census – which normally incurred a financial penalty – tells us something about the strength of her political convictions, and also demonstrates how the census returns can be more than just a dry list of names and statistics.

Tower of London

Past censuses can provide us with tantalising insights into the lives and personal tragedies of some of the ordinary folk who have lived in the palaces, including HM Tower of London. Among the household of Robert Southgate (64), a Yeoman Warder living at the Tower in 1881, was his daughter Emily – a widow already at the age of 24 – and her three children, including 11-month old Edith, who was born at the Tower.

Illustration of a Victorian Ordnance Officer at the Tower of London by Iain McIntosh © Historic Royal Palaces.

These records are also a reminder of the various institutions that used to be housed within the Tower. On the same page of the census as Robert Southgate is John Lee (44), ‘Principal Foreman in the Ordnance Department in the Tower’. The Ordnance Office, which was responsible for supplying arms and maintaining fortresses and barracks, had been based at the Tower since the 15th Century. But by 1881 it had largely vacated the Tower leaving only a collection of historic weaponry, some of which can still be seen by visitors to the Tower today.

Unfortunately the census records for Northern Ireland, including Hillsborough Castle, are more sparse since many were destroyed by fire in 1922.

Records of the People

As an archivist, the census is a valuable resource because it is one of the few places that we can find information about ordinary people in the archival record, not just the rich and powerful. In the present day, the census allows the State to allocate resources and plan for the provision of services, which makes it a truly democratic record.

It will be another 30 years before the next Census of England and Wales is released – the 1931 Census having been destroyed in a fire and the 1941 Census never taken. But in the meantime, the available census records provide us with a wealth of historical data that can tell us a lot about the palaces’ residents, both common and royal alike.

Tom Drysdale
Archivist and Curator, Collections
Historic Royal Palaces

*The next census in Scotland is due to take place in 2022.

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