Click here to return to the main site entry page
Click here to return to the previous page
Greville Watson 2007, revised 2012

Introduction to the Censuses

A national census of everyone living in this country on one particular day was first taken in 1801 and thereafter every ten years, but until 1841 no names were recorded and very few of those early censuses survive.  Originally it was simply a statistical survey to assist government planning and was intended to provide information relating to manpower available for military service during the Napoleonic Wars and a count of the population that would need to be fed.  Detailed data about individuals was only taken from 1841 onwards.

There are no “original census records”.  What were called “Household Schedules” were delivered to each household before the census date and a person called an Enumerator later collected the schedules shortly after the census date.  The schedules were then copied by the Enumerator into his “enumerator’s book”, now called the Census Returns, and assigned a “Schedule Number”.  These were intended to be in sequence but in some instances Enumerators appear to have been distracted and sequences may have gaps or have duplications.  In the latter case our transcribers have resorted to adding an ‘A’ (and sometimes even a ‘B’) suffix to the original number.

Other than with small villages, the censuses of larger villages, parishes and towns, etc, were divided into “Enumeration Districts”.  These were assigned official numbers sequentially – but not always starting at number 1.  Our transcriptions therefore use a letter suffix to identify each district and which follows each Schedule Number.   Schedule numbers were not used in 1841 and our transcribers have typically used the ‘break in household’ mark used by the Enumerator to separate the households.  These may or may not truly represent separate families, but provide a logical means of splitting up the censuses to facilitate our indexing.  As these ‘Household Numbers’ are therefore arbitrary, we have started to include a column showing on which page they appear in the appropriate Enumerator’s Book, to enable our users to find the correct original page.  Our district letter suffix is also applied to the number in our Page Number column.

The 1841 Census was taken on 6 June 1841, and for the first time recorded details about every person living within a house.  The information it contains is limited compared to later census returns and the actual entries can be difficult to read as they were written in pencil.  Only the precise age of children under the age of 15 was recorded and often down to a number of months, weeks or even days if the child was under one year of age.  (The suffixes ‘m’ or ‘mos’, ‘w’ or ‘wks’, and ‘d’ or ‘dys’ [according to our transcribers’ preferences] have been used in our transcriptions to indicate such ages, and the prefix ‘<’ [less than] has been used where an age has been recorded as “under” a particular figure).  Everyone else normally had their age rounded down to the nearest five years.  The place of birth of individuals was restricted to Y or N for ‘Yes’ of ‘No’ depending on whether they were born in or outside the county in which they lived, and S, I or P indicated if they were born in Scotland, Ireland or foreign parts.

Subsequent censuses were written in ink and taken on the following dates: 30 March 1851, 7 April 1861, 2 April 1871, 3 April 1881, 5 April 1891, 31 March 1901 and 2 April 1911.  These recorded far more information and are usually easier to read.  Not only did they list the relationship of each family member to the head of the household but also people unconnected through family ties but living with the family on the night the census was recorded.  This included friends and visitors, lodgers, residents in hotels, and servants living with a family.  The marital status of adults is also listed – either married, unmarried or single, or widow or widower – and the status of children was usually left blank.  The age of every person living in the household was recorded, accurate to their last birthday [allegedly].

In the 1901 census extra detail was recorded regarding work status,
and has been included in some of our transcriptions.
Worker at Home
Own Account
Own Account at Home

Often the householders would be illiterate, in which case the Enumerator had to write what he was told, giving ample scope for misunderstandings and errors as surnames and place names would be spelled as the Enumerator heard them pronounced.  It is therefore suggested that where a name cannot be found in any transcriptions that all variant spellings should also be checked.

Whilst every effort has been made to ensure our transcriptions are correct, by the very nature of how the original documents were compiled, together with the interpretation of the Census Enumerators’ handwriting, the accuracy of the information cannot be guaranteed and should only be used as a guide.  It is always recommended that copies of the original documents should be viewed whenever possible to verify the data.

At this time there are no plans to tackle the transcription of the 1911 census.

Click here to return to the main index of features
Click here to return to the Genealogy index
Click here to e-mail us