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UK Census: my vicarage doesn’t exist

26 March 2021

Nicholas Cranfield waited for his Census code. It did not come

WITH mounting excitement, I had waited for my Census form to arrive. Would it ask this year if I prefer Sugar Puffs to Cornflakes or whether I have ever holidayed in Wales? Such excitements. But nothing came. The neighbours had their form delivered ten days ago, but I could not claim to live there.

The helpful local Census officer, who has been giving me information to publicise in church over several months, suggested I should phone the helpline for census.gov.uk.

Eventually I found why I have not been sent a form: my address does not exist. Even though my address appears clearly among those in the listing for my postcode, along with several neighbours in the street, when clicked it says: “Not Known”, and refers to the helpline number.

Easier said than done. There followed three-and-a half-hours (cumulatively, over two days) of call-waiting. Interspersed with a poor choice of band music, a recorded voice advised me of a high call-volume and a waiting time of more than six minutes. Then, at the end of each working day, it cut out with a crisp command to call back the next day — not much help, two days before the cut-off.

The next day, I tried at 8.01 a.m., waiting for 28 minutes before Morning Prayer. I tried again later, and after 48 minutes, I finally got to speak to an adviser.

She was helpful, but found that, because my address did not exist for Census purposes, she could not send out the magic code.

I assured her that the house has been here since 1886, and that I had seen the returns for 1891 and 1901. I had filed my own returns in 2001 and 2011. I also had received an electoral mailing at this address the previous week.

She explained that new listings had been drawn up in November 2020. Possibly, I suppose, but I see that two neighbouring properties are still listed as each containing three flats, even though both were converted back to single occupancy before 2011.

She could still not give me the all-important code, but suggested I download the 32-page form, and then gave me the wrong directions of where to find that on the ONS website. But all was finally well.


I HALF-wondered whether the Romans were quite so incompetent back in the day. I recalled how cleverly The Life of Brian exploited a census mistake. Having read about the birth of Jesus at mass that morning (St Joseph’s Day), I felt all was right with the world, after all.

Unusually on a government form, I saw nowhere to indicate my “satisfaction level”, or “how likely I would be to recommend the Census to a friend”; but I have written to the local officer to explain the palaver.

To his credit, he offered me ten out of ten for persistence, noting: “It is just as well that we do not have to return to the city of our birth for the census, as lockdown would have a major impact on the outcome.” How true.


Canon Nicholas Cranfield is Rector of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

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