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Business, Women and the Census

The census is a snapshot of a moment in time. Our data counts migrant women who self-reported as operating a business on 2 April 1911, regardless of how small this business was, its longevity, or success. Our data includes many women who people may not immediately think of as running their own business, such as foreign language teachers, artists, and masseuses. This post follows from our earlier disucssion examining the definitions which aided our search for migrant business women in the 1911 census.

Since its inception, the UK Census has been first and forement a population census to collect data on demographics of the population, rather than one that counted industries or business. However, as the 19th Century census administrators were interested in occupation-specific mortality rates, occupation became one of the key variables collected (Higgs 2005). By the end of the 19th century economists, social statisticians such as Charles Booth, and the Treasury put pressure on the census administrators to use the census to collect more information on the economy. As a result, from 1891 onwards the census has asked people in some way or another to distinguish whether they are 1) employees or workers, 2) employed others, or 3) are self-employed freelancers without employees (Bennett et al 2020).

Our data for this project is extracted from the British Business Census of Entrepreneurs (BBCE) database, which contains all people who self-identified as categories 2 and 3 as outlined above. In other words, business owners who ran their business either by employing others or on their own (in 1911 the latter was called ‘working on own account’). These are people who receive their income from their business profits after deducting costs, as opposed to employees who receive a wage. As such, they had to balance income and expenses, acquire new business, and generally run the risk of owning a business, but also had greater potential for independence and control over business decisions than employees drawing a wage. A foreign language teacher, for instance, had to find paying pupils and either travel to their houses or find a space to teach, but also had the relative independence of negotiating her hours and rates.

Many of the businesses we identified were small enterprises. About two-thirds of migrant businesswomen in 1911 London ran their business on their own. However, business size is very sector-specific and not always a direct indication of profit or success, even today. People with creative businesses such as performers or music teachers often operated on their own, but were able to sustain long careers that way. Conversely, certain industries could only be run using many employees and employing these was no guarantee of a long-term profitable business.


Bennett, RJ, H. Smith & P. Montebruno (2020) The Population of Non-corporate Business Proprietors in England and Wales 1891–1911, Business History, 62:8, 1341-1372, DOI: 10.1080/00076791.2018.1534959

Higgs, E. (2005) Making Sense of the Census Revisited: Census Records for England and Wales 1801−1901. London: Institute of Historical Research, National Archives.

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