As well as causing excess mortality in cats, idle curiosity is a great source of unlooked-for discoveries. Grazing the online 1911 census again recently, I tried searching the “infirmities” column under “More search options”. This is the section of the return where individuals were to be described as “Deaf and Dumb; Dumb only; Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; Or Lunatic”. The aim, one presumes, was to collect medical statistics, and the nature of the afflictions chosen implies interest in heredity. With hindsight, this looks like the beginnings of eugenics.
Inevitably, a large number of people filling out the form misunderstood its purpose, and saw this section as an invitation to tell the government about their health. All of these returns can be retrieved simply by choosing “Other” in the “Specified Illnesses” search box.
In the midst of the cheerful lists of “All right” and “No infirmity”, and the rather less cheerful “Bad Corn” and “Cold in Chest” and “Want of Money”, one return stood out. As their infirmity, Ellen Barry of Churchill Terrace in Sandymount and her two daughters had entered “unenfranchised”. Further investigation showed a number of similar returns, including a Kathleen Shannon of Lower Leeson Street who entered the wonderfully tart “Not naturally [infirm], but legally classed with imbeciles on account of my sex”.
The description of census day on the National Archives website, part of the fascinating and underappreciated contextual material, points out that the suffragette movement throughout the United Kingdom had called for a boycott of the census. Evidently, some suffragettes decided to be visible to history (and the census enumerators) by protesting on the form, rather than simply refusing to fill it out. Further idle grazing even shows a number of women recording their religion as “Militant suffragette”.
This is history in wonderful personal detail, and it is only possible because the National Archives has positively insisted on idle curiosity by making every single aspect of the censuses searchable.