The 1841 census was the first census which is of use in family history research being the first to provide actual details of households rather than statistical information. It was also the first census to be the responsibility of the General Register Office and the Registrar General rather than the Home Office, following the creation of the General Register Office in 1836.
When considering how useful this census is for family history research, the first thing to consider is how it was prepared, organised and conducted.
The household schedules were prepared rather hastily by the Registrar General, Thomas Lister. The Population Act 1840 which enabled the census to be conducted was only given Royal Assent on 6 April 1841, the census was then conducted only two months later on the 7 June.
The administration of the census was the responsibility of each registration district, which were divided into sub-districts then enumeration districts which varied in size depending on the location (rural/urban/number of properties etc). The enumerators distributed a household schedule to each house in their district during the week leading up to the 7 June which the head of each household then had to complete. The enumerators then collected the completed schedules on the 7 June.
This method of distribution and collection had its drawbacks. Particularly in larger enumeration districts, it would have been easy for enumerators to miss houses, both in distributing and collecting. In fact enumerators often had to return to some houses on a number of occasions to find someone in to collect the schedule.
What was a house in itself was not straight forward. In 1841 the definition was a “dwelling house”, which included every building where someone was sleeping. The difficulty was where families were living in outhouses, barns etc. due to their poor circumstances. Were these to be included as houses? They wouldn’t normally be described as dwelling houses. This caused some confusion with enumerators.
There was another problem – there may have been more than one household living in a house. It was not uncommon for more than one family to live in a property, with each family living in perhaps only one room of the property. Did each room therefore class as a “dwelling house”? Enumerators were given instructions on how to separate different households living in the same property (// separated a house or property; / separated households living in the same property) but these were not always used correctly or at all.
In the 1841 census no addresses were provided, only street names, with the occasional house name. In smaller places, it may even only be the village or parish name that is provided. This was largely because it was not until the early 1850’s when systems for street numbering were introduced following the Town Improvement Clauses Act 1847 resulting from a rapid expansion of towns and sub-dividing of properties in the early 19th century which left addresses in chaos. By the 1851 census enumerators were instructed to provide house numbers but this still depended on the existence of a proper address for a property.
Who was included in the household? This was a source of much confusion. Many households included members of the family who were not actually present in the house on census night, such as children staying with grandparents or unborn children. On the contrary there are others who did not include members of the household who should have been included, for example, a household member who ordinarily lived there but was working away that night and would be returning the next morning. In 1841, census night was a harvest night with fine weather which meant it was a good time for hay making. This meant many agricultural workers were missed because they were sleeping outside or possibly recorded twice because they were working in a neighbouring village. It was also Ascot races which meant there were more people in the Ascot area than usual. ‘Lodgers’ or ‘boarders’ were often either missed recorded twice depending on the interpretation of “household”
Due to low literacy levels in some areas, many returns were in fact completed by enumerators when they returned to collect them. For this reason, each enumerator carried a desk and ink when collecting them!
Other reasons for inaccuracy include:
- Illiterate households not been able to check the details entered by the enumerator were correct;
- They would not be able to spell their name and/or surname and therefore the enumerator would spell the name phonetically leading to different spellings in later censuses and other official documents;
- If the householder providing the information had a strong accent the enumerator may have had difficulty understanding what was being said which could lead to completely wrong information being recorded!;
- Also those who were sick may have been difficult to understand;
- The enumerator’s handwriting is often illegible.
As this was the first census of its kind, many householders were very suspicious and sceptical about the census, believing it to be a vehicle for government to impose more taxes and “trace” people who were otherwise perhaps “avoiding” the authorities. This resulted in inaccurate, false and incomplete information, in particular place of birth, children of the family, children’s ages.
The old Poor Laws meant that some feared they may be “removed” to their legal place of settlement if they provided their correct place of birth. In the 1841 census householders were not asked to detail their place of birth but simply to answer yes or no whether they were born in the county in which they were living, or in Scotland, Ireland or abroad. This is therefore not helpful to the genealogist; if the answer is “no” the census does not provide any further assistance as to where they were born to help trace birth/baptism records.
One essential piece of information which was not provided in the 1841 census was the relationship of each individual to the head of the household. Assumptions should therefore not be made as to what the relationship is. Later censuses however should clarify this as they were provided from 1851 onwards (I will come back to this later).
If a daughter had an illegitimate child, that child may be passed off as a child of its grandparents either by mistake in completing the information or in order to avoid a scandal and shame on the daughter.
A child’s age may be increased. In the poor working class families, children were often passed off as older in order that they could go out and work to help the family’s income. This would be reflected in the household schedule to avoid the possibility the employer may find out.
Further on ages, in the 1841 census, if older than the age of 15, ages should have been rounded down, so a person aged 33 should have been recorded as 30. This means that when trying to calculate when someone was born a period of five to ten years would need to be searched as the age is unlikely to be accurate. However as the instructions were lacking, actual ages were sometimes recorded and the ages of children may have been rounded down. For the elderly, ages were sometimes rounded to the nearest ten years rather than five.
Only one occupation could be provided in the 1841 census, however many, especially amongst the working class, may have had two or three or more jobs in order to meet the family’s financial needs so this does not provide a full picture of the family’s life and different occupations may appear on later censuses and other civil registration documents, which could cause some confusion. Women’s occupations were rarely recorded in 1841. In later censuses all occupations could be provided and women’s occupations were better recorded.
I have stated above that names may be misspelled by the enumerators. Forenames may not necessarily be there given first name. Only first names were recorded in the 1841 census and it is possible that householders gave the name they were commonly known by rather than their given first name; that could be a nickname, a middle name or even an assumed name.
There were no schedules completed by “problem groups” such as those working off shore in the merchant navy and on fishing vessels, those living on inland navigable water and those in the armed forces but outside of the UK. The enumerators were however required to complete a summary table setting out the number of males and/or females:
- On vessels on inland navigable water, in mines or pits, in barns or sheds, in tents or in the open air or otherwise not enumerated for in a dwelling house;
- Temporarily present or absent from the district and the reason why;
- Emigrated to the colonies or a foreign country since 31 December 1840.
This of course does not help in terms of family history as no names are provided. Neither were there for the Royal Navy, only a head count of those on board vessels was carried out. Those onshore should be enumerated in household schedules or the institution returns which would have been completed by the Royal Navy barracks.
Enumerators to this census were required to be more than just transcribers, transcribing the household schedules into the Enumerator schedules which we have access to today (as they did in all censuses until 1911), they were also expected to edit the household schedules so as to “comply” with the instructions. Many of the drawbacks detailed above are a result of this transcribing and editing. For example the rounding down of ages, reducing forenames to one name, abbreviating or even changing occupations to more “standard” terms or reducing to one occupation, and changing the order of family members into birth order (which may not be accurate given the rounding down of ages).
In all censuses there are missing schedules and damage caused by lack of care and maintenance of the records over time but the 1841 census has perhaps been the worst damage. There are some districts where only small parts of pages survive and the returns for Paddington and Kensington have been lost. A list of missing censuses can be found on The National Archive website or on the findmypast website.
Despite these drawbacks, these early censuses provide invaluable information in researching family history in “bridging the gap” between parish records and civil registration records and as a cross reference to civil registration records.
They provide invaluable information for those ancestors born and married before civil registration to help trace ancestors in the parish records although as has been demonstrated above, the information should be used with caution and alternative names, age ranges, occupations for example should be considered in any searches, especially if they only appear in one or both of these early censuses.
The information in these early census should also be cross referenced with later censuses. As many censuses as were conducted during an ancestors life should be checked (up to the 1911 at present) to get the most accurate and detailed information from them. Together with later censuses they provide a “picture” of ancestors’ lives, their movements, neighbours and neighbourhood.
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