The census is one of the key sources for the family historian. This issue of English and Welsh Roots is the first of a two part series examining the importance and use of 1841-1891 census records. Ever wondered the date when the census was taken (enumerated) or; the latest news on the release of the 1901 census (in 2002)? In addition to valuable information about and important source of English and Welsh information, this issue includes both online and printed resources with a few unexpected "extra bits" as well.
Census records, like records of civil registration and parish records are one of the key sources for the family historian. A census reveals who was living at a particular address in a particular place on census night. Every ten years, the census provides researchers with a snapshot of individuals and families across the nation. The census shows each person's name, their relationship to the head of household, age, and much more. It places family members together and offers a bridge to a previous century. More importantly, the various census provides a critical link between government registered births, marriages and deaths (after 1837) and parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial.
A census is a complete population count for a given area or place taken on a specific date. In the United Kingdom, the first census to include people's names was the 1841 census. However, there has been a National census every ten years in England and Wales since 1801, excluding 1941. In 1941 instead of a census, a national registration took place and national identity cards were issued. The census returns for 1931 were destroyed, along with many other important records, during the intense fighting of the Second World War.
The first four censuses were little more than simple head counts of the population. In addition, the administration of the early census returns was quite different. From 1801-1831 the census was the responsibility of the Overseers of the Poor and the clergy. These early census records will be discussed in later issues of the Gazette.
The first modern census is considered to be the 1841census when each householder was required to complete a census schedule giving the address of the household, the names, ages, sexes, occupations and places of birth of each individual residing in his or her accommodation. More importantly, the administration of the census passed into the hands of the Registrar General and the Superintendent Registrars, (who were also responsible for the registration of births, marriages and deaths). It is not surprising then that civil registration and census taking became inter-connected and any change in local boundaries or districts affected them both. This is a very important point because if you can find the boundaries of the civil registration district where your family resided, you will also know the boundaries of the area where they are recorded on a census.
There are maps available of the registration districts in England and Wales including separate maps for the period before and after 1851. In the 19th century there were more than 600 registration districts in England and Wales. An excellent online resource is the Index of Places in England and Wales provided on the GENUKI website. This resource will show for each place listed, the county and registration district in which the place was situated during the years 1837-1930. The website is located at: www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/civreg/places/ . There are a number of resources to help researchers find these boundaries which have been discussed in detail in previous issues of English and Welsh Roots. In particular readers may want to revisit the first of a two part discussion on Civil Registration at: The Global Gazette, issue 26.
The actual books used by the enumerators from the 1841 census onwards have been preserved. Theses books contain names, ages, occupations and addresses, and from 1851, place of birth, marital status, the relationship of each person to the head of the household and the nature of any disabilities from which they suffered. Apart from a few minor changes the basic structure of the census schedule did not change until 1891. In 1891, householders were then asked how many rooms (if less then five) their family occupied. Additional occupational data was collected and, in Wales, people were asked to say if they spoke the Welsh language.
After information was recorded on pre-printed census schedules. A schedule was left with a household and later collected by the enumerator. If there was no one in the house who could write, the enumerator helped to record the information. The census enumerator then copied the information on the schedules into their official books known as census enumerators' books. These books and the schedules were then sent to London where clerks who were hired specifically for the census, copied and extracted information in the books in order to calculate various local and national statistics. Unfortunately, the original census schedules have been destroyed and it is the census enumerator's books that researchers see on the microfilm. Because the information in the books is a COPY of the information on the schedule, there were often mistakes made in transcribing the information. The May 1999 issue of the magazine Practical Family History includes an article on how the census was conducted in 1861.
Date census conducted and information requested:
The 1841 census was taken on June 6, covers midnight on June 6th and 7th. (The midnight time period also applies to each following census). The census is filed at the Public Record Office in group code HO 107 (HO=Home Office)
(street name, house number or house name)
Houses (inhabited, uninhabited or a building)
Age and sex of each person, males were in one column, females in a separate column. Ages up to 15 are listed exactly as reported/recorded but ages over 15 were rounded to the nearest 5 years (below). So, a person aged 63 would be listed on the census as age 60 years. Someone aged 69 would be recorded as 65 years
Occupation/profession or trade. Some people are simply listed as being "of independent means"
Birthplace but only if the person was born in the county where the census was taken (usually recorded as a yes or no) If they were not born in the county there would be an entry such as S - for Scotland or even an F for "born in foreign parts"
The end of each building is shown with two
slashes //. Likewise the end of each household in a building is shown with one
1851 census was taken on March 30/31. Public Record Office (PRO) reference HO 107.
1861 census was taken on April 7/8. PRO reference - Record Group (RG) 9.
1871 census was taken on April 2/3. PRO reference - RG10.
1881 census was taken on April 3/4. PRO reference - RG 11.
1891: census was conducted April 5/6. PRO reference - RG 11.
Information requested included:
Name of Street, place or road
Name - First and last name of each person in the house on midnight on the 30/31 March
Relationship of all persons listed to the head of the household
Marital Status (condition) - married, unmarried, widow, widower
Age and Sex - was supposed to be listed as the exact age of the person at the time of the census. Many researchers will know that ages were not always reported accurately. Many people did not like the idea of such detailed information being collected to start with!
Rank, Profession or Occupation. This information was supposed to be included for everyone and reveals a diverse range of occupations - many of which no longer exist today. Ever wondered what an ADVERTISEMENT CONVEYANCER was? - How about a sandwich board man! There is a great website for a List of Occupations at: cpcug.org/user/jlacombe/terms.html. This list is a must for anyone trying to understand changing occupations and their labels over time.
Where Born. Place of Birth
Medical condition (blind, deaf, dumb, imbecile, etc.)
In 1851, in addition to the census of the population, a Census of
Places of Worship was taken on March 30th. Although this was purely voluntary,
most places of Worship made returns. The census shows the name and denomination
of all places of worship - Anglican, Catholic and all forms of non-conformist
and dissenting churches. Although this census is not widely used by family
historians, it is an important resource for determining if a non-conformist
chapel was located near your family and perhaps that is the reason they are not
showing up in other parish records! A number of counties have transcribed these
returns. Visit the web site for the Family History Society or Genealogical
Society for your county of interest to determine if they have transcribed this
In 1881 the age question was asked as "Age at last birthday". To view a sample of a census form online, visit the website of David Roles at: www.ualberta.ca/~droles/gen/cen.html.
The LDS have been providing research outlines on a variety of topics for family historians for many years. These outlines are now available online at their main family search website. In particular visit the following web page: www.familysearch.org/sg/USING_1881_Brit_Cen_ind.html for the research outline on using the 1881 census. The outline was originally written in the days when the census was accessed primarily on different coloured fiche. However, this outline lists the standardised set of abbreviations for the relationships to the heads of households, and the 3 letter "where born" abbreviations.
How to access census records:
The Family Records Centre, Myddelton Street, London EC1R 1UW, holds microfilm copies of the census returns for England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891. The original books are held by the Public Record Office in London and the information is released by the Public Record Office after a hundred years. The last census to be released occurred on January 1, 1992 when the 1891 census returns were released on microfilm.
The census microfilm is also available to researchers at a distance through the local Family History Centres of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).To find the location of a Family History Center near you, visit the following website of the LDS: www.lds.org/en/2_How_Do_I_Begin/4_Where_is.html. For a much more detailed discussion of the resources to be found through the LDS read the earlier issue of English Roots which was devoted to this topic, The Global Gazette, issue 25.
The LDS Family History Library Catalog is now online and searchable at the following website: http://www.familysearch.org/. Researchers can now search the catalog online to determine the microfilm number(s) of particular census to order the film from your local Family History Center.
Local Family History & Genealogical Societies have been working for many years to index or transcribe completely various census for their areas. These transcriptions are available in many forms: on microfiche, as printed indexes or even as a searchable database held by the local society which can be searched for a fee. A good starting point for finding the society for your area of England/Wales is the Family History and Genealogical Societies web page at the GENUKI web site: www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/genuki/Societies/England.html#anchor1848710.
Census Records on the net and on CDROM:
Increasingly the transcriptions and indexes created by genealogists are making their way into a variety of electronic formats, including CDROMs. This is also true of census records. The following list is meant to highlight many of the records currently available either online or on CDROM:
Excerpts from English census records for specific family surnames for the 1851-1891 census:
CD-Rom - 1851 census for the counties of Devon, Norfolk and Warwickshire:
Produced by the LDS Church as a pilot project to the larger 1881 census project. The CD is available from them centrally and from distribution centers in a number of countries. See earlier article on LDS for contact information The Global Gazette, issue 25 .
1851 Census Index on CD-Rom - a great explanation:
1881 Census Available on CD-Rom
After 11 years and more than two-and-a-half million hours of volunteer labour, the largest census ever to be automated is now available on CD-ROM for home use. The automated 1881 British Census, which contains information for over 30 million individuals, was announced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The data comes from England, Wales, and Scotland. Begun in September of 1987, the automated index is the result of a collective effort of volunteers from the Federation of Family History Societies in the United Kingdom and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Every effort was made to reproduce the information as it was originally recorded by the British census takers in 1881.
The census has is available on twenty-five compact discs, including an eight-disk national index and viewer that allow users to quickly search across the entire database of 30+ million names. To make the census indexes more manageable and easier to use, the data has been divided into eight regions: East Anglia, Greater London, Midlands, North Central, Northern Borders and Miscellany, Southwestern, Wales and Monmouth, and Scotland.
Users will be delighted to find that the census includes enumerations for the Royal Navy in 1881. That means it lists all people living, working, or travelling on a boat or ship at the time the census was taken. The Miscellany Region even includes people who lived in poorhouses, mental institutions, workhouses, schools, hospitals, and other nontraditional residences when the census was counted.
previous part of this article also explained the process used to create the
census records we view today. To review: A pre-printed census schedule was left
with a household and later collected by the enumerator. If there was no one in
the house who could write, the enumerator helped to record the information. The
census enumerator then copied the information on the schedules into their
official books known as census enumerators' books. These books and the schedules
were then sent to London where clerks who were hired specifically for the
census, copied and extracted information in the books in order to calculate
various local and national statistics. Unfortunately, the original census
schedules have been destroyed and it is the census enumerator's books that
researchers see on the microfilm. Because the information in the books is a COPY
of the information on the schedule, there were often mistakes made in
transcribing the information. The May 1999 issue of the magazine Practical
Family History includes an article on how the census was conducted in 1861.
As this process demonstrates, problems with transcription and interpretation
Problems to keep in mind when using the Census:
Accuracy: As noted previously, the process of enumerating the population created problems of accuracy long before any official statistics were compiled or modern researchers try to interpret the information. In addition, enumerators would have found it difficult to read the poor hand writing of those who could write, which have created problems of transcription errors and spelling variations or even missing information. Unfortunately, since the individual schedules do not survive for comparison, we will never know what exactly was recorded, whether our family member wrote the information themselves, whether they were able to spell, or even whether the enumerator missed information completely.
Illiteracy: Unfortunately the censuses were conducted at a time when up to half the adult population were illiterate or at best, semi-illiterate. Many people would have found it difficult to read and interpret the instructions on the pre-printed schedules and would have led them to either record or verbally provide inaccurate and incomplete information.
Identifying the address of a household: Identifying the address of a household is often a problem. In towns and urban areas, few houses were numbered until the end of the nineteenth century. In many areas street names and house numbers were periodically revised. In rural areas addresses are vague or not provided at all.
Trying to Read the Census: One of the greatest problems for researchers is trying to read the census enumerator's books. For example, in 1841, the books were completed in pencil. In later censuses cheap ink was used that has since bled and/or faded. The access to these books on microfilm only makes the challenge of reading the information greater.
Recording of Names: Census records are no different than any other research tool containing poor writing coupled with mis-interpretations and mis-spellings of names. Nonetheless, researchers should always use their imagination when attempting to link households and families across various censuses. Surnames only very gradually became standardised after the government registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1837. Coupled with problems of illiteracy and poor hand writing, researchers must always use their imagination when searching for variant spellings of their surnames. Was the surname written recorded phonetically - that is, spelled as it sounded? A classic example given in an earlier article was my own experience with the recording of the surname Retherop as Etherop. There are many other such examples.
Understanding Relationships: Although usually straightforward, the recording of relationships between members of a household can sometimes present problems when trying to identify stepchildren, relationships among lodgers, boarders and visitors. As noted in the first part of this article, the LDS have a research outline on using the 1881 census available at their FamilySearch website: www.familysearch.org/sg/USING_1881_Brit_Cen_ind.html The outline lists the standardised set of abbreviations for the relationships to the heads of households. Despite this information, the term "Daughter-in-law" can sometimes mean a step-daughter as well as the more recognized meaning "son's wife". This is also true of interpreting son-in-law and mother-in-law. Tracing Your Family Tree by Jean Cole and John Titford includes an excellent chapter on using census records as well as a glossary of terms and abbreviations. The GenDocs website provides researchers with a very long list of British Genealogy
Marital Status: The marital status of householders is usually pretty clearly documented. The problem arises in trying to identify the spouse of a second marriage and common-law relationships. Yes, common law relationships did exist but are often hidden with relationship designations such as ‘visitor', 'servant' or 'lodger'.
How old? The Age recorded on the census: The general rule in the 1841 census was to round down the age of adults to the nearest 5 years. This general rule was not always followed. Some ages were rounded down to the nearest 10 years, while others were recorded exactly. On the other hand, some people simply did not know their exact age. When the age of consent was 21, it was not unusual to find people lying about their age in order to rent accommodations, get married or similar adult privileges. At the same time, the age of a child may be falsified if that child was a worker and did not want to loose their job. For these reasons, the age recorded for an individual should always be treated with some caution.
What does the information mean?
Definition of a room: Although available to the public on the 1891 census (and available on later census but not yet released to the public), the information on the Number of Rooms in a household is not always clear. Exactly what constituted a room on each census? No instructions defining "a room" are provided on the census schedule and the exact instructions given to enumerators is not readily available to researchers either. For example, was a large cupboard that contained a small indoor toilet a room? There are instances where an enumerator recorded a 1 next to the address of a householder/family living in a house that still stands to this day that is clearly at least 4 or 5 rooms large.
Definition of a Household: What exactly constituted a household? This problem is particularly evident in relation to how lodgers, boarders and different families renting rooms in the same houses were enumerated. In some instances families of lodgers appear to have been treated as occupiers in their right. In other instances it would appear multiple families sharing the same address were recorded as lodgers.
Occupations: What job did they perform? Job titles recorded in the census are often vague with no hint given to the industry they were employed in or the actual job they did. In addition, while people were asked how many others (if any) they employed it is usually quite difficult to tell who the employers are from the those who are self-employed those who are employees. In terms of the actual occupation recorded, researchers would do well to visit the GenDocs web site for a large list of occupations.
Birth Place: there is an example in my own family research were an individual gave a different place of birth in every census [not only in England but in Canada too!]. Usually, the place of birth information is fairly accurate, however, as with any sound research - only a preponderance of other evidence will determine for certain the accuracy of the birthplace recorded on the census.
Medical Disabilities: The recording of medical disability is probably one type of information on the census researchers should be very suspicious of. Or at least weigh with caution in their overall analysis (this includes people who are seemingly recorded as being of sound mind also). The information recorded was based on the following definitions: (1) Deaf and dumb (2) Blind (3) Imbecile or Idiot (4) Lunatic. Aside from being poorly worded and inconsistent across different censuses, the stigmatism attached to the label "idiot" was common even in the 19th century. Many families then, as now, were reluctant to admit another member was an 'idiot'. In the 1989 edition of the book Making Sense of the Census, E. Higgs noted the numbers of people recorded as mentally ill rose markedly when the definition of medical disability was changed in 1901 to include 'feeble-minded'.
can locate your family/families in a particular census, determine the area they
lived and the corresponding registration district. Census records are filed
based on registration districts. Resources for locating the registration
district were discussed in part
one of this article.
If you are using other sources such as records of birth, marriage and death and cannot find the area the family resided in, try looking for the records of other family members (siblings) to determine if the family had moved or were residing/visiting a different area when the event was registered.
Gazetteers and other listings have been published for every census year which clearly show all the places covered by the census for that particular year. Always remember that the place name or street name/number could have changed or simply disappeared. Online resources can be very helpful in this respect. For example, the GENUKI website includes a searchable database of places in the 1891 census. The database covers England, Wales and the Isle of Man and returns the County, Registration District, Registration Sub-District, PRO Piece Number and LDS Film Number. It can be found at the following URL: www.genuki.org.uk/big/census_place.html
Once you know the location of the family, check with the local Family History Society or Genealogical Society for your area of research in England/Wales to determine if they have already created an index or transcription of census records for the county.
Before starting to record census information from microfilm make up or use a pre-printed extract form to record your individual family information on.
Do not accept all information recorded on a particular census as absolute fact. Practice sound research. Use the census as one source of many in learning about your family history - only a preponderance of other evidence will determine for certain the accuracy of the information recorded on the census.
Whenever possible, try to trace your family/families on every census between 1841-1891. If they suddenly disappear because they immigrated to North America or elsewhere, be sure to follow them in the census for the country they emigrated to. It is only by following families through the records over time that any pattern can be established.
Make sure that when you have found the family or a possible family you are searching on the census that you carefully and very slowly rewind the microfilm to the beginning of the section for the complete description covered by the enumerator. Write down all such information as well as all the steps you took to find the record including the full reference numbers for not only the microfilm but the original record (the PRO reference number). Even if the census was filmed by the LDS, the full PRO reference will still be available.
Can't find a particular ancestor in the census records? Perhaps he was a soldier or in the Royal Navy? Or, maybe they were travelling or did NOT want to be enumerated. The January 1999 issue of Family Tree Magazine includes an article by Pauline Litton on census returns and ancestors who may not be recorded found in the regular Pitfalls and possibilities in family history research column [page 5].