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Use of Databases and Statistics in Historical Research

This post was contributed by one of our anonymous volunteers, who has been doing the fiddly but essential job of going over the data and trying to spot and correct issues. This means that they’ve seen pretty much all of the project data (including the 1000s of cases currently being prepared for public release). As a result, they’re in an ideal situation to think across data – and as this post shows, to make wider connections. As before (see their previous post here), we’re very grateful to the volunteer for everything they’re doing.


Some years ago in the 1990s, when I was teaching History to Undergraduates, I was involved in devising a short course on the use of statistics in historical research. The simple thought behind this course was that, as more historical information became available online, it would be useful for historians to understand basic statistical techniques in order to make sense of the data.

This started by asking the students to construct a simple database from a United Kingdom Census of their own choosing, incorporating about 250 lines of data covering names, gender, ages, occupations, numbers of children and housing locations. Several of the students chose their home town; others chose Bristol, where we were based. From this simple database, the students were tasked with extracting information that might be deemed useful to a researcher. Some of the correlations that were arrived at were surprising; it also showed the widely differing thought processes of the students! Most did the simple things – listing age groups, gender groups and child numbers and correlating some of these with occupations, for example. But some students went well beyond that, raising some interesting questions that produced simple answers and added to the students’ knowledge.

One student covered an inner-city area of Birmingham and was surprised to find “Boatwright” among the occupations. He wrote that this was odd “because Birmingham was so far from the sea”. He had obviously not known about the extensive canal network in and around Birmingham! Another found a man of 87 listed as “Sexton-gravedigger” in a small village in the Cotswolds. This student queried the accuracy of the age for such a job, but people in rural areas needed to work, and not everyone would want to dig graves for a living.

I performed a study of my own, which was used as a template for the students to follow; this involved the 1881 Census of a street in St Jude’s, a poor area of inner-city Bristol, with a row of only seven houses which gave rise to nearly 500 lines of data! These were houses of multiple occupation, mainly with one family to a room, but some of these families were of up to 12 people. As I worked through the data, it became clear that the majority of people living in this street worked at two factories close by. The men were largely occupied in a rendering plant whilst the women worked as seamstresses, sometimes from their homes. Some of the children were listed as “Scholars”, but I suspect that very few actually went to any kind of school; education had been made compulsory by the 1870 Forster Education Act and it appears to have been common practice for parents to tell the Census Enumerators that their child was attending school to avoid any punishment. Some children of the age of only 10 were listed as having a working occupation; I noted that some older children worked for the Great Western Railway in Bristol.

I visited the street in central Bristol where my Census records had been taken. At the time of my visit there were no buildings, just a cleared site waiting for re-development. The pavement with a metal kerb still existed and the street was paved with cobbles, probably the ones that were there in 1881, over a hundred years before. I found some photographs of the street in local newspaper archives and wondered about the way of life of those people crammed into those seven houses.

I decided to have a look at the Census for 1891, just to see if anything had changed. Surprisingly, many of the family surnames names were still there, but not always at the same address. In addition, some of the ages had not advanced by exactly ten years; this I put down to the possibility of “guesstimates” given to Enumerators previously. Many of the occupations had changed with a wider range being seen in 1891.

A database is much more than a simple listing of facts. If someone is tracing a family member and finds their name on the Railway Work, Life & Death database, they might just take the details of the incident and lodge that into their family tree. But what if they decided to look a little bit further? What if they checked how many other people there were in the same occupation as their family member who suffered from an accident, or death? Did other peoples’ incidents occur in the same way (there was a recent post on shunting as a dangerous occupation, for example, or the post on number-taking) or in the same locations (tunnels, for example)? Whilst the family tree researcher may not directly benefit their own research by looking more widely, there would be a Benthamite benefit to the history research community.

As we move away from the difficulties of the year 2020 (hopefully!), would it not be a useful thing to offer any correlations that could be made from their family members’ details with others that might be of use to a wider audience? Offer to write a blog post about what you have found. For a 2021 New Year resolution, I would like researchers to think a little more “outside their box” and show that even a cursory wider look at the Railway Work, Life & Death database might reveal more than was thought possible. Happy researching!

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