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Friday, 2 February 2018

A Woman's Age in the Census - A Man's Point of View!

Having recently written a blog post on Census Discoveries, I just  had to feature this newspaper article of 1891  which looked,  very sceptically,  at the ages of women as given in census returns.     

The article  "A Woman and the Census" appeared in one of my local papers "The Kelso Chronicle"  of 15th April 1891, available on microfilm  at the Scottish Borders Archive Centre at the Heritage Hub, Hawick.  .

The item makes for entertaining reading - but was obviously written by a man!

A Woman and the Census
"As a rule, men do not mind their real age being known and therefore they can scarcely appreciate what an awful ordeal the recent Census was for certain members of the softer sex...........

Girls in their teens and married women do not mind it much.  Young servant girls overrate their ages, with a tendency in the opposite direction once they pass five and twenty...........

The women, however who are mostly averse to telling their ages are widows who hope to marry again, and maidens who have passed the first bloom of womenhood, who are, in fact, what is called in polite parlance "old young ladies".......

If their consciences are tough, when the Bogie Man, (that is the Census Man), comes round, they boldly lop off ten or fifteen years. 
If their consciences are tender - a rare occurrence - they will quit the neighbourhood where they are known and hide themselves in some big town.  
The worst of all these precautions is that they are of little use if the proverb be true that " a man is as old as the feels, but a women is as old as she looks".


Do you get confused by an ancestor's age and supposed year of birth in the various census  returns?    I suspect most of us have come across this in the course of our research. 

I use, as my definitive guide,  the documentary evidence of a birth record i.e. a birth certificate or,  if before 1837 (1855 in Scotland), a church baptism record - though  neither are infallible.   

In my own research. Andrew Brotherston, a blacksmith, his year of birth was assumed from the census records,  and his gravestone,  to be  1800-1803;   his birthplace Westruther in Berwickshire,  Scotland. 

However on ScotlandsPeople, his baptism  was traced  in the Westruther Old Parish Records  to 1796. 

"Andrew, son of William Brotherston, herd in Flass, was born 29th of August 1796 and baptised 18th instant." 
Andrew's  death certificate of 1867 identified his parents as William and Isabella - both Christian names which continued down the family through children and grandchildren, so I am confident I had the "right" document. 

So what date do you go by,  in deciding between different years of birth in the various records on your ancestor's lifetime?  



  1. I'd be a bit wary of assuming that the 1796 son was the same Andrew. Often if an older child died a younger child could be named after them. And many, many births are missing from the Church of Scotland parish registers, even if families where other children are recorded. Demographers have estimated it may have been around 30% missing circa 1800.

    One of my families that highlights that were farmers in East Lothian and had lots of children in the 1790s and early 1800s, until the mother died after childbirth. Almost all the children are in the parish registers of baptisms. But 2 aren't. One, who died very young, I only found out recently from the family bible that survives (wow!) in Westminster Abbey Library, because it was collected as an example of Scottish bookbinding. But even children who lived can be missing. The other one in this family is my 4xg-grandfather Francis, who later farmed at West Morriston near Earlston. No sign of a baptism at all, though his older and younger siblings are recorded in the register.

    So yes, the 1796 Andrew may be the right one, but I don't think you can assume that. Unless, for example, you ruled out the later birth, by finding the mother had already died and was buried before he could have been born.

  2. Thank you for your detailed comment, Vivienne. You make a very valid point that I had not considered. A century later I have an example of two Albert’s being born in the family with the first Albert only surviving a few months. Unfortunately so far I have been unable to trace the date of William and Isabella’s marriage or deaths.


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