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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

From the Archives: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2018

The latter part of the phrase attributed to Benjamin Disraeli (probably erroneously), “lies, damned lies and statistics”, might usefully be changed to “sometimes revealing, often unclear” in the case of waterways statistics. This article considers traffic information collected by the government in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This comes from a single file, MT52/224, now in the National Archives; there are many others. Traffic downturn trends The Statistics & Intelligence Division collected information in order to discern trends. Often, traffics were regular and seemingly stable. For instance, totals of “tonnages originated” from 1921 to 1940 demonstrated a limited variation from just over 11m tons annually in 1940, to a record amount of 16m in 1924, but with nearly 12m in 1921 and under 13m each year throughout the 1930s. Much lies behind these aggregates and their precise scope: for instance, a note for 1940 states that this (and 1939) incl…

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