The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker, by Roger Hutchinson
Census night: studying the results is an opportunity to create an autobiography of a country through examples of its citizens’ lives. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker
This book claims to be a history of Britain since 1801 through it census, “a series of decennial surveys which are a uniquely dependable historical source”. Studying censuses offers the opportunity to create an autobiography of the UK through examples of its citizens’ lives. Roger Hutchinson’s approach is anecdotal in this idiosyncratic mixture of broad, general history and interesting nuggets, which makes for an easy read but leaves some questions unanswered. For various reasons Ireland was not added until 1821 and always proved more uncooperative than the rest of the UK. The three censuses taken on the watch of the Irish registrar general William Donnelly, in 1851, 1861 and 1871, “were the most comprehensive social surveys yet attempted anywhere in the United Kingdom”. Those censuses “would record in cold detail what could be described as the only Malthusian catastrophe to occur in the British Isles in the modern era” – that is, the shocking population decline because of famine and emigration. A very satisfying aspect of the book is the attention paid to Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and, especially, Irish-language speakers.