In my professional work as an historian I frequently use census returns. Theologians well know the role the census played in determining the place of Jesus’ birth some 2000 years ago. For genealogists and social historians, the census has long been a key tool of research for understanding the nineteenth century – at least in those nations which retain original census returns.
The advent of the digital age has seen most available censuses published on line, usually for a fee, and this has transformed our ability to interrogate the past. One can subscribe to sites such as ancestry.co.uk or findmypast.co.uk and actually discover how many blacksmiths there were in England in 1861, or how many farmers had slaves in the United States of America in 1850.
Sadly, the only complete census which Australians can access is the 1828 Census of New South Wales, as the convict stain and the fear of our ancestral doings has long restrained colonial, state and commonwealth governments from retaining more than statistical summaries of population data.
The new search engines allow me to pursue individuals in the past as never before. A paper I am currently writing on Australia’s first Anglican deaconess (hi Marion) has allowed me to identify facts about her upbringing and religious life in England solely because of the decennial census which tells me where she was and what she was doing in 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871. The picture these returns have painted is one I could never have uncovered by any other means.
So when it comes to census night, 9 August 2011, I relish the opportunity to record for posterity who I am, where I live, and with whom I share my life. (If you haven’t done so, for heaven’s sake tick the box that allows the Australian Bureau of Statistics to record your details. The future will thank you.)
Paradoxically, the census is the only way I can say to the Australian people that I live in a same-sex relationship, and the only place where I can record the longevity of that relationship. We laugh about census night, which seems to bring a moment of extraordinary privilege in the form of wealth and happiness each quinquennium.
In 1996 we had just moved into the same dwelling, and could celebrate the relative prosperity of tax-free postgraduate scholarships after years on Austudy.
In 2001, we were freshly reunited after two years living in separate countries. I was in the middle of the only 12-week period of full-time work I had for the surrounding five years, and we were living in what must be Melbourne’s most luxurious curate’s flat.
In 2006, we were living in Melbourne’s second-most luxurious curate’s flat, and both working full-time.
This year, our fourth census, we are again reunited after three years on opposite sides of the globe, and I am now in a permanent full-time job that I love.
Still, the census brings regrets. First, it doesn’t count our faithful companion Pusey who, I suspect, provides comfort and joy in a form found in households around the country.
Second, why on earth does the census allow us to identify as ‘Anglican (Church of England)’ when the Church of England has never existed in this land? The temptation to identify myself as ‘Other: Episcopalian’ or even ‘Other: Jedi’ was strong.