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Exploring the data

We found over 3,000 women in London born outside the UK in the 1911 census who ran their own business. Around a third of them employed others in their business, the other women ran their business on their own.

A key component in defining a migrant is the leaving or breaking away from one place and crossing of borders into another place. In creating this definition of the migrant it is the disconnection from a place that is left behind that is emphasised; the connection to the new place into which the migrant moves is rarely acknowledged in contemporary readings.

Census data collects individual level data, that can be compiled to produce a picture of the households. Historically, censuses (or types of surveys) have not specifically aimed to answer migration related questions. The explicit focus on gathering data on migration is relatively recent both in the UK and globally across other census and other household level surveys (Castaldo et al 2009). Hence when using historical census, specific variables need to be identified that can tell of the disconnections. In the 1911 UK Census data we identifited migrants using the birthplace data. Since the data is collected at the level of the individual, the census holds data on birthplace of each indivdiual recorded in the census. Additionally, those born somewhere in the British Empire had to give the name of the colony or dependency; and those born in any other foreign country were asked to give the name of the country and whether they were a ‘British subject’, ‘naturalised British subject’ or ‘foreign subject’ followed by their nationality (‘French’, ‘Russian’, etc.). Hence, we drew on several variables to construct the migrant.

In addition to the migrant, we disaggregated the data by gender, using the sex variable. To identify the business propietors, we drew on the British Business Census of Entrepreneurs (BBCE) which used each individual’s employment status to determine whether they were employers, workers, or worked on their own account (Bennett et al 2020, Smith et al 2019, Van Lieshout et al 2019).


There are some issues to allow for when using census data to study migration. Census data will only identify first-generation migrants and thus underestimates the size of migrant communities. Furthermore, it can give only limited information about the characteristics of individual migrants at the moment of travel and whether they were newly arrived or long-term residents at the moment of the census in question. British subjects born elsewhere who moved to England or Wales appear as immigrants.

Before 1991 the census did not ask questions about ethnicity, which obscures Black and Asian presences in the 1911 Census. Migration data doesn’t capture ethnicity either: many Black and Asian people would have been born in London and thus counted as part of the England-born population, while as shown above many immigrants were of British parentage. Their presences in London however link their lives to the Empire, and reveal the imperial state through their places of birth. 

Selected References

Bennett R, Smith H, van Lieshout C, Montebruno P, Newton G. (2020) British Business Census of Entrepreneurs, 1851-1911. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 8600, https://beta.ukdataservice.ac.uk/datacatalogue/studies/study?id=8600

Castaldo A, Gent S, Sondhi G, and Whitehead A. (2009) Child Migration in National Surveys:    Working Paper T28. Migration DRC Working Paper series T28. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/research-for-development-outputs/working-paper-t28-child-migration-in-national-surveys#citation.

Smith H, Bennett RJ and van Lieshout C (2019) Immigrant business proprietors in England and Wales (1851–1911). Continuity and Change 34(2): 253–276. DOI: 10.1017/S0268416019000171.

Van Lieshout C, Smith H, Montebruno P and Bennett R. (2019) Female entrepreneurship: business, marriage and motherhood in England and Wales, 1851–1911. Social History 44(4): 440–468. DOI: 10.1080/03071022.2019.1656929.

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Contact Gunjan.Sondhi@open.ac.uk

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