The national censuses were conducted primarily because of the government’s need for information about population growth and distribution in view of the economic and social changes in the UK and Europe in the late 18th century. They were not intended to provide material for future family historians. So we are very lucky to have such a wealth of detail relating to the greater part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
Although some statistical data was provided in censuses taken in the early part of the 19th century, the collection of important information about people first began with the census taken in 1841. It has continued every ten years since, generally with greater detail being provided each time, apart from the war year of 1941. In the past, the returns have been closed to the public for 100 years. However, the 1911 was made available for research in 2009 although some limited information from this census, such as that recording infirmities or conditions, will be withheld until 2012.
The census documents, up to 1901, which we see are usually not the original forms. Schedules were taken round to each household in advance and details of all the people in the house on census night were filled in by the householder. The forms were then collected by the census enumerator, who might also have to assist in recording details if the householder had difficulty in doing so. The information was copied into an enumeration book by the district registrar. These were sent, together with the original schedules, via the superintendent district registrar, to the General Register Office in London. It is microfilmed copies of these books which we now have access to. The original books are kept at the National Archives at Kew and are not generally available to the public. The schedules were usually destroyed after clerks had checked them against the enumeration books, had extracted statistical information and made certain notes and ‘corrections’.
The returns for each decennial census have a reference number which reflects the Government Department responsible for it and the year in which it was taken. So the first two are labelled HO for the Home Office and the remainder are prefixed with RG for the Registrar General’s Department. Earlier census returns from 1801 to 1831 were largely the responsibility of Overseers of the Poor and the local clergy. 1841 was the first attempt to collect information about every individual in the country and a whole new organisation structure and process was established, becoming incorporated with the local and central government structure responsible for General Registration. Clerical staff and local enumerators were appointed and the country was divided into more than 30,000 enumeration districts, based on the old hundreds structure, later the Poor Law Unions formed in 1834 and under the auspices of Superintendent Registrars. The 1911 census, in contrast to the earlier returns, is comprised of the original householders’ schedules and census enumerators’ summaries.
Each census from 1841 contains basically the same type of information which is a valuable building block in the creation of family trees. Details include the address for each scheduled household; the name and an indication of the sex of each occupant; his or her age and occupation.
Except in 1841 the relationship to the head of the household is given and so is the place and county of birth and marital status. In English and Welsh censuses, birth places outside England and Wales are usually shown as the country only, e.g. Scotland, Ireland or Australia. In 1841, these would be abbreviated to S (Scotland), I (Ireland) & F (Foreign Parts).
As well as the basic information about family relationships, which may cover more than two generations in the same household, the census also provides vital knowledge about place and approximate year of birth. This helps to identify the right birth details for obtaining certificates and baptismal records which may be researched further. Knowledge of a wife’s forename can help to pinpoint a correct marriage partner. Occupations may also help to provide back up evidence of identity. The benefits of using census information in building up a family structure are greatly increased if the family can be tracked over the full 70 years for which records are available.
Apparently unrelated household members noted as visitors or lodgers, and sometimes servants, may in fact be members of the extended family. Their surnames may give clues to in-laws or marriage partners. This is also the case when in-laws are specifically recorded. Extended families may well inhabit houses in the same locality and it is often worthwhile doing a search of a whole neighbourhood. In this way, migrant communities can be identified and may hold the answer to questions about why people moved from their birthplace. It was not uncommon for married children to live in the same street as their parents and young children are often found in the care of their grandparents or aunts and uncles - who may or may not have the same surname.
Common Census problems
There are many reasons why census information may not be 100% accurate and details found on one census return should always be viewed in conjunction with those from other years, as well as with knowledge gained from other sources, to ensure the best possible standards of evidence. Reasons for inaccuracy include: lack of knowledge of the informant - especially when accounting for visitors and lodgers; lack of proper understanding of the process e.g. people away from home enumerated in two different places (or neither!); people who lied for reasons of vanity, (im)morality, social standing e.g. tradesmen declaring themselves to be gentlemen, or shame e.g. about illegitimacy; interpretations provided by the enumerator or clerks, or personal bias or assumptions made by the enumerator. Spellings of names of people and places will often be those of the enumerator and as he (or she) heard them.
Although households were usually listed in descending order from the head of the household to the youngest child, in the 1841 census, in particular, relationships cannot be assumed for those with a common surname. An elderly man and woman with the same surname may be brother and sister rather than man and wife. Younger people in the household may be nephews and nieces or even grandchildren.
People missing from the census, and not just missing from an index, may have been away from home for a variety of reasons, legitimate or otherwise. They may have been abroad in the services, at sea or travelling overnight. They may have been leading a double life. It is always worthwhile checking workhouses, hospitals and other local institutions, prisons, barracks and ships in port. Often people in institutions like asylums were recorded by initials to give inmates a degree of privacy.
There is a general problem in that women‘s occupations may often go unrecorded reflecting, amongst other things, the importance Victorian society placed on the role of women in the home and the status attached to men as breadwinners and sole providers.