Lunatics and Imbeciles ???

“Thank you to Amy Sell of Findmypast for the following press release.


The ‘infirmities’ column is released online for the first time, detailing people’s health conditions ‘Lunatic’ and ‘imbecile’ popularly used, reflecting a different kind of society Unusual entries: ‘old age’, ‘voteless’, ‘bald’ and ‘short of cash’

The final, missing column of data from the 1911 census, which details individuals’ infirmities is today released for the very first time and,the family history websites which first launched the 1911 census three years ago in 2009in association with The National Archives.

The infirmity column details wide-ranging descriptions of peoples’ health conditions as perceived and hand-written by the head of the household on the night of Sunday 2 April 1911. Under data protection regulations, this sensitive information has remained closed until now.

A less ‘politically correct’ society

‘Lunatic’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘feeble-minded’ are some of the most commonly used entries reflecting an era before such terminology was deemed unacceptable. The census in fact prompts the respondent to record if a person is ‘totally deaf’, ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘totally blind’, ‘lunatic’, ‘imbecile’ or ‘feeble-minded.’

5 most common ‘infirmities’ recorded in 1911:
1.    Lunatic
2     Feeble-minded
3.    Imbecile
4.    Deaf and dumb
5.    Blind

1911 humour
However, not all the entries are negative or insensitive. The 1911 records also reflect the humour and curious family dynamics from a century ago – not too dissimilar to what we know now in 2012. One extraordinary record details a Mr John Underwood from Hastings recording his children as ‘quarrelsome’, ‘stubborn’, ‘greedy’, ‘vain’ and ‘noisy’. He even records himself as ‘bad-tempered’ and his wife as suffering from a ‘long tongue’.

Another unusual entry is from Thomas Wallace Young, who was described as being ‘bald and toothless’, helping us picture exactly what he looked like. William Robert Arnold from Yorkshire commented on his
financial status in 1911 by recording his infirmity as being ‘short of cash’.

Suffragette labels ‘voteless’ as her infirmity

The cause of the suffragettes is also illustrated within the new records, with some women listing their infirmities as not having the vote or not being enfranchised. For example, four women living in the same household recorded their infirmities as ‘voteless, therefore classed with idiots and children’.

Infirmities’ ‘None, thank God’
Some chose to make a note of their good health instead of the health problems the form enquired about, such as ‘well’, ‘healthy’, ‘sane’,'alright’ and even ‘perfect’. Evelyn Baker and her family from Leeds were recorded in the census by their father Addiman Parkin Barker as simply being ‘alive’. Seventy-two entries simply say ‘none, thank

10 unusual infirmities in the records:
Voteless, Greedy, Bald and toothless, Vain, Short of cash, Noisy,
Quarrelsome, Bad tempered, Stubborn and Long tongue

Connections between infirmity and profession
A correlation between infirmity and occupation can also be identified in some cases. The biggest source of employment for blind men and women was basket-weaving. Other trades for blind men were musicians or musical instrument makers. Women who were ‘deaf and dumb’ were often employed within the textile or garment trades, or in domestic service, while men were most likely to be labourers.

Debra Chatfield, family historian at, said:’ The infirmities column is the last piece of the jigsaw completing the 1911 census. This column alone provides a fascinating insight into life a hundred years ago. It not only reflects health conditions, but also a time before society became aware of political-correctness and certain
terminology was deemed acceptable. In the more unusual entries we also get a wonderful sense of post-Edwardian humour, society and family dynamics at this time.

‘Researching your family history is a fascinating way to learn about your ancestors. The 1911 census records include detail about occupations, housing arrangements and social status and you are also able to see a copy of the handwritten record itself.’

Audrey Collins, Family History records specialist at The National Archives, said: ‘The information in the ‘infirmities’ column being released today helps add an extra dimension to the picture of our ancestors’ lives in 1911.We have to remember that the census returns were completed by relatives living in the same house who for the most
part had no specialist medical knowledge. Their descriptions provide us with a clue as to how each individual was viewed by other family members, although many would have been reluctant to admit that their relatives suffered from any defect.’

Please note that neither I nor the JGSGB have any financial interest in Find My Past or the parent company Brightsolid.

Tony Benson – Blog Editor



3 thoughts on “Lunatics and Imbeciles ???

  1. Hi, Will this column also say religion? I have a copy of it with the last column blanked out and am wondering if my ancestors would have put their religious status there?
    I look forward to hearing from you soon :)

    • Hi Sonia

      The Censuses for England and Wales and also for Scotland did not have a category for Religion until the 2001 Census.

      “The question in the 2001 census, ‘What is your religion?’ was the first time that this question has ever been asked in Great Britain. (In Northern Ireland the question has been asked since 1861). Testing of the question had shown that, in general, the topic was acceptable to the public but in response to concerns from Parliament about civil liberties it was agreed that this question would be voluntary. In England and Wales, the census form posed one question only, asking respondents to select their religion. Two voluntary questions were asked in Scotland and Northern Ireland, distinguishing between current religion and religion of upbringing.”

      The above quote comes from the official website of the Census –

      That is not to say that some people did not record their religion on the Census forms. We see many examples of people in the 1911 census writing Jewish or Jew in the nationality column. The 1911 Census records are the original schedules filled out by the householder, so show details that would have been edited out in previous censuses by the enumerator transcribing them to their summary book, which is what we view.

      Mark Nicholls

      • BH
        Thanks so much for your reply. I am trying to trace my ancestry on my mothers side & found the 1911 census of my GG Grandmother & family. They left the nationality section blank & the infirmities section is blocked out. I found the census on under a Jewish priority search…..which was exciting for me, however nothing to place my cards on that she was Jewish. I can’t find any birth, death or marriage listings for her civil or Jewish. Do you have any ideas for me to be able to trace her. I have her date of birth & death (exact that I know of) but her maiden name is not 100%. I also found that if I searched with an alternative name to their English surname, again I found their entries under Jewish searches.
        Kind regards Sonia Levi :)

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