Police Return of Homeless Persons

Police return of homeless persons

On 29th March 1911, The Globe newspaper ran a headline announcing ‘Police as census officers’. The accompanying article outlined a new role for the police, that of recording individuals ‘they find sleeping or walking in the open.’ The police were asked by the Home Secretary, a certain Winston Churchill, not to make the object of the exercise an excuse for the persecution of the homeless.

In preparation for the new duties, the census authorities sent out to every chief constable the schedules for the “Police return of homeless persons” to record individuals, who on the night of Sunday, 2nd April, 1911 were found sleeping in ‘a barn, shed, kiln, etc., under railway arch, on stairs accessible to the public, or wandering without a shelter.’

The Globe states this was the first time the census of the homeless was undertaken by the police and that ‘the ordinary enumerators having done it hitherto.’

I have been a genealogist for many years and have never seen it and certainly not on previous census returns as indicated by the newspaper. Could it be that the enumerator recorded the homeless as part of his usual schedule rather than in a separate return? Seems that must be the answer.

So why the police in 1911, why change it? The reason may have been partly political. It seems that the authorities were concerned about ‘suffragettes who propose to escape the census by walking the streets in parties’ and that with the police roaming public areas recording those at large, the suffragettes ‘will have a new obstacle to overcome.’

I will leave the last few words for author Clare Wright who observes, ‘These meandering suffrage campaigners were officially tallied as homeless.’


The Globe. (1911) Police as Census Officers. The Globe. 29 March. p. 4e. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 27 May 2020.

Wright, Clare. 2018. You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World. Melbourne, Vic: Text Publishing. p. 397.

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