A vivid account by a female enumerator taking the 1871 census highlights the squalor and overcrowding amongst Irish communities in the poorest metropolitan parishes of London.
The Huddersfield Chronicle, 23 September 1871
“Seeing a child (one of the inhabitants of the court) – a little blue-eyed darling of eight years – I gave her a few pence, and told her to run on before me and knock on the doors, which she did, saying – “The lady is coming with the sensure paper.” At the next house I was rather roughly treated, and the room that I went into was filled with men and women. I was told to “stand some gin”, otherwise I should not leave. After some little difficulty, I succeeded in making out the return, then proceeded with my little friend to the lodger’s rooms. On reaching the first floor I was at once surrounded by the whole house. Having spread my papers on the stairs, I asked the head of No 3 room to speak first, and found that he with his wife and eight children lived there; in the next, man, wife, and nine children. Mounting higher up, I took the inmates of the other rooms, still with the stairs as my table. On this flat I found an old Irishwoman with two black eyes, who flatly refused to give me any information. She said the Government never did anything for her but let her starve; and the money they were spending over these papers they had better divide amongst the parish. I tried to explain that if they had done so, I was afraid her share would not amount to a halfpenny. This seemed to surprise her. After spending half an hour in endeavouring to persuade her to give me the required information, I left the house, saying, “I must inform the priest,” who, I knew, had told the people in his church the night before to get the papers made out, and not keep the gentleman waiting. This appeared to take some effect and she sent for me to return. When I got back to her room a number of the inmates came upstairs and began teasing the old woman, who, becoming rather excited, seized hold of an old dirty-looking frying pan, and hit those who were within her reach with it. The stairs leading to her flat were so dirty that I could not put my schedules on them. While in this fix I suddenly heard a voice exclaim, “Look out missus, will this do?” and an old, worn-out blacking brush was thrown into my lap, upon the back of which I managed to make out the papers.
After this all was plain sailing. In one room I found a man of 70, with his wife of 50, and eight children. In an upper room there were seven children, without shoes or stockings, and the place was very dirty; the eldest child – a girl of ten, gave me all the information; all the children were ‘scholars’, even the baby. At the top of the house I discovered a girl mother of 18, with a husband 19; their child was nine months old. In the next room was a woman who endeavoured to make me insert ten children on the schedule, but only four lived with her. She said that if I did not enter all, I should not put any. She told me all the children were born in the parish, and she might want help from it; she knew the parish well, and they would cheat her if they could. Though born in Ireland, she had a grudge against the parish, and would serve them out yet. One room in the next house was being disinfected for the small-pox; I endeavoured to proceed to another room in the same building, but the odour was so fearful that I was forced to turn back, and I was told that the smell made the inmates quite ill.”