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A view of Dublin's Grafton Street in the Edwardian era

A view of Dublin’s Grafton Street in the Edwardian era

Reading the census returns for 1901 and 1911 is like strapping yourself into a DeLorean time machine, switching on the flux capacitor and suddenly finding yourself back in the Ireland of the late Victorian and Edwardian era.

The documents themselves, published online in a mammoth project by the National Archives which ended in 2009, are hugely atmospheric.

One of the most surprising aspects to the modern eye is that almost every household had a servant. These were usually young country girls who went “into service” and sent some of their earnings back home to their families.

In the case of my own family, Annie Whelan, aged 16, performed the duties of “general domestic servant” in 1901, but had been replaced by Rose McCall (aged 20) by 1911. I can’t help but imagine my great great grandmother Charlotte Robbins giving out about the difficulty in getting good help in those days.

The domestic architecture of the time took it for granted that even the most modest home would have servants. Where I live, in Brighton Square, a mid-terrace Victorian house, has a maid’s room at the top (but unfortunately the maid has long since departed).

We also have a bell-pull in the drawingroom, while at the back of the house there were various other low and dark rooms designed for servants; the bright, high-ceilinged rooms at the front were reserved for “the family”.

The houses along Park Drive in Ranelagh were the last word in state-of-the-art Edwardian building. They were showcased at the World Fair (or the Irish International Exhibition) in Herbert Park in 1907, and were designed for a family of four with two servants.

The 1911 census return of Henry Beresford, Marquis of Waterford, also makes interesting reading. The poor man had his in laws staying at the time (the Marquis and Marchioness of Lansdowne), and had to make do with a nurse, a housekeeper, two ladies maids and the Marchioness’s visiting ladies maid. He puts his occupation as “peer”.

It’s easy to forget the huge progress in technology since our ancestors sat down to fill out their census forms on April 2, 1911. Recent TV programmes such as The Victorian Farm and The Edwardian Farm (both a form of what might be called pre-nostalgia) reminded us that pretty much everything had to be done by physical labour.

The weekly household wash, with its elaborate stirrings, mangling and drying, took about four days of hard work. Humans or horses provided the energy for everything that had to be manufactured, carried, moved, dug, ploughed or transported.

Huge numbers of rural census forms feature an occupation that has all but disappeared from the countryside: farm labourer. The number of people who made a living by selling their physical labour – on farms, as servants in houses, on the docks – is one of the most striking differences between their age and ours.

The archaic layout of the forms themselves strike you first. There is a formality to the language of the various questions and sections. The typography, too, calls you back to the Ireland of the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

The weekly household wash,
with its elaborate stirrings,
mangling and drying, took
about four days of hard work.

And then there’s the handwriting. The elegant cursive script, the lovely serifs of the capitals, the clarity of the characters all speak of a generation for whom writing with ink was the primary means of communication – a million miles from our age of email and text.

When you delve a little deeper, other things begin to strike you. Like the fact that many people earned a living as clerks. In my own family, who lived in Rathmines in 1901, two of the sons worked as “shipping clerks”, and a daughter was a “typist”.

The typewriter was a relatively new invention in 1901, and its use was not widespread. The writing of letters and copying of documents was still done by hand, hence the need for shipping clerks.

My great-great aunt Suzette must have been ahead of her time in (i) working at all, and (ii) learning to use a new fangled machine like the typewriter. (Photos of the early typewriters show them as huge apparatuses, about the size of a suitcase.)

In the recent hit costume drama Downton Abbey (set in 1914), one of the maidservants decides she wants to train as a typist. The mere suggestion is treated as a form of social revolution. I’m beginning to imagine Aunt Suzette as a bit of a firebrand rebel.

She would not, I now think, be too happy with the treatment on the census form of women who work in the home. “No entry should be made for wives, daughters or other female relatives solely engaged in domestic duties at home”.

Other terms also offend our post-feminist, politically correct modern sensibilities: the head of the family is asked to inform the authorities on the 1901 census form if any of his relatives falls into the category of “Imbecile, Idiot or Lunatic”. The terminology has not changed by 1911.

A random trawl through the census returns for my area of Dublin 6 in Rathmines and Rathgar reveals a large Protestant population and a surprising number of residents born in England.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising at all; Dublin in those years was the second city of the British Empire and there were a large number of British soldiers, functionaries and administrators stationed here.

Over 100 workers at Clerys department
store in Dublin’s O’Connell Street
lived over the shop in 1911.

There are also a larger number of named spelled in Irish than one might expect. My idea of Edwardian Dublin – based on accounts by Joyce and others – is a world of tennis parties, cricket matches and afternoon teas in the garden. Yet Gaelic Ireland was alive and well and getting ready to express itself.

Those old census returns also give a wonderful window into the class structure of the times. Despite a huge rise in the Catholic middle class, most of the professions were dominated by Protestants, as were certain sectors such as insurance and accounting.

The returns also show how common it was for people to live where they worked. This applied to live-in servants, of course, but also to workers in other sectors. Over 100 workers at Clerys department store in Dublin’s O’Connell Street live over the shop in 1911.

In Dublin, the wealthy middle classes had migrated out of the city and lived mostly in suburbs outside the canals; the inner city was inhabited by the labouring classes.

Certainly, it was a good time to be alive if you were an educated man earning over £700 a year. But if you were an emancipated woman, a working man, or the maid who lived upstairs in our house, you might want to get into that time machine and go back to the future.