Caption: Filling up the census paper. Wife of his bosum. "Upon my word, Mr Peewitt! Is this the way you fill up your census paper? Call yourself the 'Head of the family' - do you - and me a female!" Image Punch 1851 PD
The ten-yearly census returns have become an important source of information for those researching their family history and can often supply information on three or four generations of a family. This article looks at the census returns for England and Wales for the decades 1841 - 1911 and discusses how they were conducted, what they contain, where they can be accessed, and the type of information they supply, and their drawbacks.
How the census was carried out
The first census was held in England and Wales in 1801 and every ten years after that, but it was not until 1841 that the names of all the occupants of the household were taken. The 1841 census and subsequent censuses were administered in census districts which were based to a large degree on the registration districts used in the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages. The districts did not always match the existing parish boundaries.
Each census district was sub-divided into enumeration districts. Each enumeration district contained approximately 200 households, or an area in which an enumerator could visit every household within a day. The enumerator could be faced with visiting a slum area where streets contained tenements which were sub-divided many times into separate households with families often occupying only one room or even cellars; while an enumerator on the Yorkshire Moors had to visit many scattered farmhouses over a large area.
Over 33,000 enumerators were recruited and as the population grew, more were required at each census. An enumerator was required to be "intelligent, trustworthy, active, be able to write well, have some knowledge of arithmetic", and be "temperate, orderly, and respectable, conduct himself in strict propriety and civility in the discharge of his duties" . In 1891 women could become enumerators. The enumerator received payment, but some did complain about the amount of work involved and what they perceived to be the poor remuneration they received.
Apart from 1841, the census was held on a Sunday in March or April. Sunday night when most people would be at home, and March and April before the agricultural season meant many working away on harvests - as was discovered in the 1841 census.
The date of the census were:
Enumerators delivered to each household a Householder's Schedule and written instructions as to how the form was to be completed. The head of the household was required by law to complete the form on the Sunday night detailing all those persons who were sleeping in the house that night. Night-workers who were away working, but would be returning to the household that morning to sleep, were also to be listed.
Special forms were supplied for asylums, hospitals, schools and similar institutions with over 100 occupants.
The enumerator returned the following day and collect the Householder's Schedule. They checked the contents for discrepancies and clarified anything they did not understand, or helped the householder to complete the Schedule.
Once all the Householder's Schedules were collected, the enumerator entered all the particulars in the Census Enumerator's Book 'CEB'. Both sets of documents were then submitted for checking and examination by the district registrar before they were sent to the Census Office in the General Register Office in London (later became Office of Population Censuses and Surveys). There they were again checked, and with a few exceptions for the 1841 - 1901 census, the Householders' Schedules were destroyed. The 1911 census Householders' Schedules have been retained. It is from the CEBs that the various census population statistics were extracted and published.
It is these CEBs which are the family history researcher's resource. Census returns are subject to a 100 years' privacy rule.
Access to the Census Enumerators' Books
Before the advent of the internet it was necessary to visit an archive or a good library to view microfilm/microfiche copies of the CEBs or to read transcriptions of the returns. Now, however, there are many websites which offer the facility of searching indexes of names and addresses, and of viewing digital images of the returns and then storing on your computer - either pay-per-view or on a subscription basis.
These websites include:
Or you can try an internet search, as some family history societies and individual enthusiasts have spent many hours transcribing the returns and making them available for free. For instance, FreeCen, a UK Census Online Project - freecen.org.uk
However, remember that these transcriptions may not be accurate, you should always check with the original document to ensure its accuracy.
Offline sources include:
Information in the Census Enumerators' Books
The information in the CEBs of most use to researchers is:
In the 1841 census ages of people 15 years old and over were rounded down to the nearest fifth year. For instance, a given age of 32 would be recorded as 30. The place of birth was shown as in either in or out of the County. In 1851 and after the exact age is given.
Problems with the Census Enumerators' Books
The census records are not complete. Over time a very small number of CEBs have been lost or destroyed, and although the census was a great undertaking with thousands of enumerators detailing the population, it is possible some individuals were omitted.
It must be remembered that the census return 'is a moment in time' a snapshot of a household and its occupants. It may not be representative picture of the household over a period of time.
Most family history researchers often forget this one fact: with the exception of the 1911 census, returns are not primary sources, they are secondary sources. The information they contain may have been transferred through several people. The individual's details given to head of the house; the head of the house who wrote out the Householder's Schedule which was then handed to the enumerator, who then transferred it to the CEB, which itself was subjected to he rules of the census particularly over the classification of occupations. Finally the Census Office clerks may have made alterations. Clearly, like the parlour game Chinese whispers, mistakes occurred.
The 1911 census is a great improvement for the researcher. Householders' Schedules containing the original handwriting of the householder have been retained and are available for research.
Illiteracy, language or dialect was also a problem; in 1881 an enumerator in London's East End found few forms filled out by immigrant "Irish, Jews, Dutchmen, Germans, Poles" and found himself using a 10 year old girl to translate information required for the schedule . Even a broad Norfolk accent would cause problem for a London enumerator.
There is also evidence that literate people were offering their services to fill out the form for illiterate householders. One person found a "good schollard" who filled out the form for him .
Very few of the names are supplied in full. The absence of middle names or even initials can often mean an over-whelming response to a name search. The spelling of names can also create problems. Despite the requirement for enumerators to be literate and educated, many did not challenge the information they were given and replicated the spelling: Emerly (Emily), Auther (Arthur), Hizzerbeller Issibeller (Isabella), Umfray (Humphrey).
The definition of household and the terms lodger or boarder can cause problems. Even when the census was being taken, enumerators, despite instructions, often imposed their own view as to how the terms should be treated, as were the relationships within the household when it came to stepson, etc.
The place of birth can also be problematic, ranging from the exact to the general - from a village to just the county. Sometimes it is clear that the enumerator would put their own version down as to what they was told. It may be useful to compare it across several returns.
The census imposed occupation categories which makes it rather inflexible if the person had several occupations or trades, or seasonal work. The enumerator would standardise the occupation information given to him. The same problem arises with women's occupation with some listed with reference to their husband's occupation. It is thought that many were engaged in part-time work and/or working at home but this is not revealed on the census.
Addresses can be difficult to identify as in villages house numbers rarely existed, and in towns many street numbers did not exist or changed over the decades because of the rapid growth and development of Victorian towns and cities.
Despite the problems the CEBs raise, careful searching and examination of the census can reveal a great deal of information on your ancestors, and using many other sources, the census information can be confirmed or corroborated.
See our article on famous people in the 1881 census, with links to transcripts of the census, and another on what happened to some of the Victorians who objected to the census.
1. The Times newspaper (London) February 8 1871
2. The Census Office published reports on their findings and these can read on the Visions of Britain website. The reports contain a more detail explanation of the history of the census and the method used to collect the information, as well as the population statistics. It does not contain the CEBs. Abstracts 1801-41, Preliminary Reports 1851-1961, and England & Wales General Reports 1871-1921. Vision of Britain
3. Daily News newspaper (London) 5 April 1881
4. Daily News (London) April 4 1871
5. E. Higgs 'Women, Occupations and Work in the nineteenth-century Censuses' History Workshop Journal 23 (1987), 59-80
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