Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

4 posts categorized "Government publications"

31 July 2023

Historical census publications of Africa, the West Indies, and Pacific Islands: 'Unlocking our Hidden Collections'


The British Library acquires material at a rapid rate, and this has resulted in areas where material cannot be catalogued promptly soon after its arrival. This prevents discovery and access by readers, effectively ‘hiding’ the material away. In response to this, the Unlocking our Hidden Collections initiative aims to clear cataloguing backlogs, process donated material, and upgrade already existing bibliographic records, making the material 'visible' once more.


Swaziland 1956 1

Front cover of the Swaziland census 1956. Credits: Swaziland census 1956 shelfmark C.S.D.475/1.

There are several collections being worked on under this umbrella including  Archives by Women Musicians, the Tony Benn Archive: Correspondence and personal papers, Cotton charters and rolls, and the Harley Manuscripts (post 1600).

The Government and Official Information group at the British Library also has a collection joining this exciting line up, the Historical Census Publications of Africa, the West Indies, and Pacific Islands; which is comprised of 18th and 19th century publications and was donated by the Office for National Statistics in the late 1990s. Up to now the material has not been fully accessioned and catalogued.

With the commencement of the Hidden Collections project, these items are being sorted and catalogued, so that readers will now be able to access this intriguing material via the Library's main catalogue Explore the British Library.  The main focus is to process items from Africa, the West Indies, and the Pacific Islands.  

But this work will also reveal and allow us to catalogue material from other areas, because when the material was first accepted it was listed and stored in boxes containing a mix of items, for example the Gold Coast with Canada, or Malawi with Ireland, resulting in a mix of locales. Many of these areas went through periods of upheaval and change during the 18th and 19th centuries  – from world wars and other conflicts, to the end of colonial rule and establishing independence as separate nations.

The first item to be catalogued from these donated publications as part of the Hidden Collections Programme was the Swaziland census of 1956, which was one of the last censuses carried out in the country before it regained independence in 1968.

Swaziland 1956 2

Introductory paragraph of the Swaziland census 1956. Credits: Swaziland census 1956 shelfmark C.S.D.475/1.

During this time Swaziland was governed by a resident Commissioner who worked with the white settlers, the Swazi ruler, and the British High Commissioner to South Africa. Following Swaziland’s involvement in the Second World War, and some unpopular decrees made by the Commissioners, in 1952 the Swazi paramount chief was given a degree of autonomy that had been unheard of in the indirect British rule in Africa.

While the census document itself may look unassuming, inside it is filled with tables that give an insight into the lives of people living in Swaziland in 1956 as the country was being prepared for independence. For example, there are tables that measure the population growth of Swaziland against other regions, before going on to list the demographics of age, sex, residence, occupation, and it also contains comparative tables of the African population compared to the Euro-African population.

As the project has continued it has become evident that this census material is a true mix of cultures, spanning the globe from New Zealand to Lesotho, to Malta to Jamaica, to Argentina to Canada, and everywhere in between.

The mix of material has thrown up different challenges to be met along the way. One of the first encountered was how to approach censuses that had been bound together, whether to catalogue the item as a whole or to treat each census as an individual item.

Gold coast

Spine of an item with three census years listed, culminating in four different documents in need of cataloguing. The 1921 census can also be found at C.S.C.378/4., and the 1931 census at C.S.C.378. Credits: Gold Coast 1911, 1921, 1931 shelfmark OPE.2023.x.59.

Other headscratchers have been about what the correct approach should be for censuses published as a Parliamentary Sessional Paper, or in a Gazette, or in a supplement to that Gazette, or published in a supplement to a bulletin for the census of a completely different country. There are a lot of different ways to publish a census, and not just as a simple monograph.

However, there have been some fantastic finds within the material donated by the Office for National Statistics. Highlights have included additional volumes from the Mauritius 1983 census (CSD.384/63) and the Commonwealth Caribbean 1970 census (CSF.157/60) which have been added to our existing holdings. A census new to our collections was that for Nigeria in 1963. This census was the last taken before the civil war of 1967-70, and the 1973 census was cancelled amid controversy and accusations of inaccuracies in the counting.

There has also been the first census of Malta taken in 1842, which unlike most we have received was conducted not by a Statistics or Census Office, but instead by the Chief Inspector of Police. Another item of note was a very interesting census for the Western Pacific Islands in 1911. While geographically expansive, it was incredibly short – with most of the islands having a single sentence census: “Island was empty at this time.”

Labuan 1881

The first page from the handwritten census of Labuan in 1881. Credits: [Report on the census of Labuan and its dependencies taken in 1881], shelfmark OPG.2023.x.8 (1)


Some of the best finds though have been the handwritten censuses, such as the Gambian census of 1901, or that of Norfolk Island in 1891. There was also the census of Labuan in 1881, a tiny island near the coast of Borneo that was uninhabited until it came into the hands of the British who constructed a port there, although how it came to be under British control is a matter of some debate. Some stories involve pirates, and others hostage taking and cannon fire. Later the censuses of this island became folded into that of North Borneo, and were published in the Official Gazette.

As the Hidden Collections Programme progresses, more of this material will become accessible.  Its eclectic mix of locales and publication methods serves to highlight the incredibly varied census publications already in the collection, as well as some great new additions.


Vikki Greenwood

Cataloguer, Hidden Collections Project


28 April 2020

Finding Emmeline Pankhurst

In this blog post, Katrina Georgiades, in our Government and Official Publications team, explores our collections of Electoral Registers to find information relating to a key figure in the fight for women's right to vote.

image of title page for Electoral Register for Aldersgate Within and Without

The modern UK electoral register is published on an annual basis and provides a list of all those eligible to vote in local government and parliamentary elections. As the British Library is home to an extensive collection of registers (as well as the nation’s only complete collection of electoral registers from 1947 onwards) our holdings provide a unique starting point for anyone looking to discover more about how the democratic process has evolved over time and adapted to changes in the cultural and political climate. Inspired by the preparations for our exhibition on women’s rights activism “Unfinished Business “ I decided to learn more about how the registers can be used to demonstrate the changes in women’s rights through the knowledge they preserve about individuals and their private histories. My goal was to trace the whereabouts of one of the most famous women’s activists of all time: Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).

The first standardized form of electoral registration in the UK was introduced with the Reform Act of 1832. Its introduction in effect conferred the right to vote upon those whose name was included within its pages, explicitly barring all women from electing members of parliament (see Johnston, 21). From 1903 onwards Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow campaigners in the WSPU fought for the parliamentary franchise to be extended to women. It wasn’t however until the Representation of the People Act in 1918 that the parliamentary franchise was granted to (some) women over the age of 30 and the names of women began to appear on the registers as evidence of their right to vote for MPs.

Electoral registers are arranged by polling district and published separately for individual parliamentary constituencies. Entries for voters are recorded in order of address. During the First World War Ms Pankhurst established a nursery and adoption home for orphaned children near her house at 50 Clarendon Road, Holland Park. 50 Clarendon Road remained Ms Pankhurst’s dwelling until 1919 when she departed for Canada. My search therefore began with a hunt for her address. Parliamentary constituencies are by no means static and are continuously updated to include changing areas and demographics. During Ms Pankhurst’s period of residence 50 Clarendon Road in fact straddled the division between two constituencies that now no longer exist: the boroughs of North Kensington and South Kensington in London - neither register is included in the British Library’s holdings.

After the war Ms Pankhurst undertook a significant amount of travelling, lecturing and touring within the USA and Canada. Upon her return to England in 1926 she moved in with her sister Ada Goulden Bach at 2 Elsham Road Kensington. At this point she began campaigning on behalf of the Conservative party for the constituency of Whitechapel and St George’s in Stepney (again no longer in existence). By 1927 she and her sister were living at 35 Gloucester, Pimlico and by March 1928 she had moved to lodgings within her prospective constituency at 9 High Street Wapping. Sadly her health failed her before she could face the electorate and she moved to a nursing home in Hampstead less than three months later. Despite being present in the ladies’ gallery at its second reading, (see Purvis, 348) she did not live to witness the 1928 Reform Act (which granted the franchise to both sexes on an equal basis) become law later that year.

Given the substantial amount of relocating that Ms Pankhurst undertook during this time I imagined that finding a record for her in any of the registers during this period would prove a challenge. Luckily the library holds a substantial collection of electoral registers on microfilm and I was able to locate a copy of the 1928 register for Whitechapel & St. George’s Stepney Division. Instead of Emmeline Pankhurst I found entries for a Mr and Mrs Chipperfield. A letter written by Ms Pankhurst to one Esther Greg helped to explain my discovery: ‘You will be amused at my quarters over a hairdressers shop. His wife is my landlady and their name is Chipperfield. It sounds like Dickens. They are a nice couple and are good Conservatives …’ (Pankhurst quoted in Purvis p.350).

Beyond preserving print copies, the Library is actively involved in digitising its holdings of Electoral Registers, many of which are now accessible through databases such as FindmyPast. The database (which is accessible in the Library reading rooms) did not however return any results and it became necessary to expand the search beyond our collection. On the morning of the 10th March I took a trip to the London Metropolitan Archives. On their premises I was able to access digitized records from a 1918 register. Under the entry for 50 Clarendon Road, Holland Park I finally found what I had been searching for: evidence of Ms Pankhurst’s right to exercise the democratic privilege the suffragettes had campaigned so long for.


English Heritage, “PANKHURST, Emmeline (1858-1928) & PANKHURST, Dame Christabel (1880-1958)”, Web. 06 March 2020.

Johnston, Neil, “The History of the Parliamentary Franchise”,, 2013. Web. 29 Feb 2020.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “Pankhurst [nee Goulden], Emmeline”, Web. 28 April 2020.

Purvis, June, Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography, London: Routledge, 2002.

The British Library, Parliamentary Constituencies and their Registers since 1832, 2015. Web. 27 Feb 2020.

01 May 2018

Archiving Activism Website

PhD placement students, Rachel Tavernor and Catherine Oliver, in collaboration with the British Library, are launching a new website. In this post, Rachel discusses her work encountering stories of housing activism in the British Library. Later this year, Catherine will launch a new section of the website on food activism and will discuss a new British Library acquisition of the Richard Ryder archive. We hope this collaborative initiative will grow with new sections added showing the diversity of our British Library Collections.

The brief for my time with the British Library was to investigate 20th and 21st Century anti-poverty activism in the the British Library Collections. In particular, to make connections between archives and to explore the value of the British Library’s holdings as a whole. I am not a historian, nor an archivist, so my approach to working with the collections was informed by my background in the arts, as well as my own involvement with institutional and grassroots activism. Having worked with smaller archives, I was interested in exploring how radical and rebellious voices are preserved in a large scholarly institution. Before working with the British Library, I had wrongly assumed that institutional voices would be the focus of the collections. While these voices are dominant, and at times privileged, the rebels in the archives are also there to encounter.

After a preliminary mapping of the collections and available material (there was lots), I narrowed the focus of my research to housing activism in the UK. Struggles for decent and affordable housing, with secure and fair tenancies, are at the forefront of many anti-poverty movements today. The decline of social housing, rises in private rents and poor living conditions, are a catalyst for many forms of activism (demonstrations, squatting, housing cooperatives and rent strikes).

One of the greatest strengths of researching activism in the British Library Collections is the diverse range of materials, from personal papers to government documents. Housing activism, as with many political struggles, stretches across institutional, community and mediated spaces. The Library’s collections offer ways to explore the everyday experiences of activism, preserved in oral histories, diaries and letters. Alongside examining how campaigns are shaped by, or in reaction to, housing policies. Researchers can trace these differing, and at times contradictory, narratives throughout the collections. By exploring these stories in tandem, the public have the opportunity to listen to these voices, and explore them alongside one another, to weave new histories, and perhaps new stories of housing activism.

While exploring the different collections archived at the British Library, I also conducted a small research project on ways to archive contemporary forms of activism. It was a privilege to conduct this research, which included interviewing archivists at feminist libraries, housing activists and academics that engage with archives of activism. You can read a section of the report on our new website. One of the themes that emerged in these interviews was that archives are a living resource, which can inspire and influence contemporary forms of activism. However, many people may experience different barriers to accessing materials archived at institutions like the British Library. It was these conversations that inspired Sarah, Catherine and I to collaborate on a website that would act as a guide to materials archived at the British Library. We hope that the Archiving Activism website may inspire people to further engage with some of the histories of housing activism, as well as the British Library Collections. If you have an idea for a new section or would like to contribute, please email: [email protected].

With thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding my placement at the British Library and to all the copyright holders for granting us permission to publish images of the items archived in the Collections.