Where there’s a Will…..

Wills and Administration records can be another great source of information for family historians. A Will, will often name family members and their relationships along with property both real and personal. Such records can be used for research from today in the 21st century and can survive back many centuries.

Where to find Wills and Administration records and what you will find depends on the period in which you are researching, in particular whether before or after 1858 when the jurisdiction for the probate changed from Ecclesiastical jurisdiction to the civil jurisdiction of the newly created Court of Probate, the Principal Probate Registry.

National Probate Calendar

Basic details of Wills and Administrations since 12th January 1858 can be found in the National Probate Calendar (NPC). This is a central calendar (or index) compiled annually of all Wills and Letters of Administrations since 1858 when the Principal Probate Registry (PPR) was introduced, the PPR holds the national annual Calendar indexes from Probate Registries in England and Wales. It is therefore a central record and it is no longer necessary to search individual probate courts. 

Page and Extract from the NPC for my maternal Great Grandfather

The NPC can be searched online at http://www.gov.uk and can also be found at commercial websites such as http://www.ancestry.co.uk and http://www.findmypast.co.uk.

The calendar will provide the name of the deceased, occupation, date of death, place of death, date of probate, the registry in which the probate was granted, the value of their estate and who probate was granted to.

They can be searched where a death record cannot be found, although of course not everyone made a will and a grant of administration may not have been required in all cases (such where the estate was limited to jointly owned property or only had no real property). 

Copies of Wills or Administrations can be obtained from the probate service website “Find a Will” https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/#wills for a small fee of £1.50.

Before the National Probate Calendar

As stated above, before 1858, Wills and Administrations were the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts, most commonly either the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or York; the Bishop’s Consistory/Commissary Court; or the Archdeacon’s Archdeaconry Court. But they could also be proved in Deaneries presided over by the Rural Dean or in Peculiars (a parish or groups of parishes which were outside the usual ecclesiastical jurisdiction such as a Lord of the Manor, Abbeys and Monasteries and anyone who had acquired ecclesiastical jurisdiction when they purchased land from the Abbeys and Monasteries following their dissolution.

The court in which Wills were proved depended on the value and location of land held by the deceased.

In theory a will should have been proven in the lowest court however, over time, as the value of property increased[i] and the bona notabilia £5 rule (which was set in 1604) remained the same, it became increasingly common for wills to be proven in the PCC or PCY. It was also the case that the PCC and PCY were often more efficient, discreet and looked after their records with more care.  Probate therefore may not have been granted in the expected lower court! Searching for an ancestor’s will may not therefore be straight forward!

During the civil war and interregnum between 1650 and 1660 the lower ecclesiastical courts ceased to operate. The PCC was replaced in 1653 by the “Court for the Probate of Wills and the Granting of Administrations” (CPWGA). This court ceased in 1659 and in 1660 the PCC and ecclesiastical court system were restored. The records of the CPWGA were then merged with the PCC records

Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are held at the National Archives (TNA) and can be found online at www.ancestry.co.uk, www.findmaypast.co.uk and other commercial websites. Wills provide in the Bishops or Archdeaconry courts are usually held in local archives, many of which may be available online at sites such as www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk.

Who could make a Will?

Before 1882 only males, spinsters and widows over the age of 21 years could make a will, married women could only make a will with the consent of her husband. Wills can provide family relationships often naming wives, children, siblings, aunts, uncles amongst other relations. They also provide an insight into the wealth of the family and location of a property they held.

Will and Testament

Today we use the term Last Will and Testament referring to one document which more commonly is simply referred to as a Will in which an individual can leave both real and personal property on their death. However, originally these were two separate documents dealing with different types of property. A Will dealt with real property (realty) such as houses (tenements and hereditaments) and any land or buildings etc was associated with it. It also included rivers, hedges and woodland. A Testament dealt with personal property (personalty), often referred to as “goods and chattels”, which could include personal goods, clothing, bedding, furniture, crockery, plate, jewellery, livestock, grain, tools etc.

Before the Statute of Uses of 1535, only land which had been “purchased” could be left be Will, land which had been inherited could not, inherited land had to pass under the laws of inheritance. Purchased land would also pass under the laws of inheritance if no Will had been made, i.e., the owner had died intestate. If there was no heir, the land would revert to the Lord of the Manor. It must however be remembered that at this time all land was owned by the Crown and those who “purchased” property held the freehold tenure to the property that is that they held it free from any services to the Lord of the Manor or Crown, other than an annual rent.

The Statute of Uses stopped the practice whereby one person could own the property but another had the right to use it, meaning that anyone who had the right to use property also had the right to hold the freehold tenure and had a right of possession. The Statute paved the way for the development of Trusts.

The Statute of Wills 1540 enabled those who held freehold land to devise all their land by Will and those who held land under military tenure (i.e., they performed military service in return for land) to devise two thirds of their land by Will (military tenure was abolished in 1662). Those who held land by other means, such as copyhold, could not devise the land by Will until 1815 and land held in fee tail (that is to a specific line of heirs) could not be devised by will until 1925 when the manorial system and copyhold tenure was abolished by the Law of Property Act. Copyhold land however could be surrendered to the use of a tenants Will with the agreement of the Lord of the Manor and such entries will frequently be found in Manorial Court records. This meant that a tenant could leave by Will the use of the property usually to themselves and then their heirs.

Types of Will

Sworn Will – this is the more common type of Will which would have been handwritten (typed today) and sworn by the testator (person making the Will) and confirmed by two or more witnesses.

Nuncupative Will – this was an oral will, which up until 1838, could be made for personal property (a Testament) in the presence of reliable witnesses, their wishes would be written down by the witnesses who swore to its contents in a probate court. They were often made by those who believed they were dying and had not previously made a valid Will. This practice is now usually limited to combatants on active service.

Holographic Will –  is a will written entirely by the testator him/herself and not witnessed by others. This kind of will was usually presented to the probate court by witnesses who could swear to its authenticity.

The records

Original Wills made be found at local archives amongst family or estate papers. Many records of Wills and Testaments before 1858 can be found online at commercial websites such as www.ancestry.co.uk and http://www.findmypast.co.uk. These Wills are usually not the original Wills but the copies created by the relevant probate court. Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) registered Wills are available in PROB 11 at the National Archives discovery website and can be downloaded for a small fee (currently £3.50 each).

For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices, some of which may have also been made available online such as Wills proved in the Surrey Archdeaconry Court which are held at London Metropolitan Archives but are available at www.ancestry.co.uk under their “London, England, Wills and Probate, 1507-1858” collection, such as this Will of Henry Roake of Horsell for which probate was dated 17th September 1746:

Ancestry.com. London, England, Wills and Probate, 1507-1858: original data: London Metropolitan Archives and Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section, Clerkenwell, London, England; Reference Number: DW/PA/5/1746; Will Number: 82

Probate Act Book 1526 – 1858

These are registers of the grants of probate (wills proved in court) with separate Books for each probate court. For the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) these can be found in series PROB 8 at TNA also at http://www.ancestry.co.uk; for Prerogative Court of York (PCY) they can be found at the Borthwick Institute and at www.findmypast.co.uk.

For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices.

They record each probate granted and include the name of the deceased, occupation, date of grant of probate, and the executor’s name. They can include facts about a deceased which are not given in his will such as his parish, whether he died married, unmarried, widowed etc, his trade, profession or status or that he belonged to one parish but died in another. It may also tell us that an executor died before him. They will include renunciations, when an executor does not wish to act the court would appoint a successor. They will also include details of a successor in the event of an executor’s death.

The books often contain unregistered wills (wills not proved in court) and vital additional information not found in the will itself.

Extract from Vol III. Probate acts in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, anno 1641; Ancestry.com. Abstracts of probate acts in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury; Original data: Abstracts of probate acts in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. London: unknown, 1902-1926.

Inventories

From 1529 to 1782 executors and administrators were usually required to prepare a probate inventory, which was a list of the deceased’s personal or moveable goods, assets and chattels, not including real estate or land.

They would include cash (‘money in his purse’) and clothes (‘his wearing apparel’) and then proceeded around the house from room to room listing and valuing the deceased’s movable goods, before moving outside to list the contents of agricultural buildings, livestock and crops growing in the fields. Anything that was not movable was omitted, so even things like cooking utensils and curtains and goods would often be identified by room, thus providing evidence of both rooms and room use. However, it is impossible to tell whether all the rooms in the house have been listed, unless there are internal inconsistencies (e.g., a ‘chamber over the buttery’ but no ‘buttery’). They provide an excellent insight into an ancestor’s life and status.

The objective of the exercise was to ensure that any unpaid debts owing at death could be paid.

They are likely to be found attached to the will at county record offices. Inventories filed with wills proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are housed at The National Archives and those filed between 1660 and 1782 are searchable online via TNA’s Discovery Catalogue.

Letters of Administration

These were granted, usually to the next of kin, to allow the administration of a deceased’s estate when they died intestate. They provide the deceased’s name, address, occupation and date and place of death, the name address, occupation, relationship to the deceased of the administrator. The value of the estate will also be given. The details of beneficiaries are not provided. They therefore contain less information genealogically than a Will.

Before 1858 they will be found in the records of the relevant ecclesiastical court, usually in local record offices, or the records of the PCC (at TNA) or PYC (at Borthwick Institute, York). Gibson’s guide and Phillimore’s Atlas and Index to Parish Registers should be consulted to find the relevant ecclesiastical court and record office.

Administration (Admon) Act Book

These are registers of the grants of administration (where a person had died without a will) covering the period from 1559 to 1858. There are separate Admon Act Books for each probate court. For the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) these can be found in series PROB 6 at TNA also at http://www.ancestry.co.uk; for Prerogative Court of York (PCY) they can be found at the Borthwick Institute and at http://www.findmypast.co.uk. For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices.

Vol. I. Index of acts of administration in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. 1649-1654; Ancestry.com. Index to administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury; Original data: Index to administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury : and now preserved in the Principal Probate Registry, Somerset House, London. London: British Record Society, 1944-1954.

They record each letter of administration granted and include the name of the deceased, parish of residence, occupation, date of grant, the name of the administrator and their relation to the deceased, and the dates on which the inventory and accounts are to be returned. They will also include renunciations, when an administrator no longer wished to or was able to act (e.g., died) the court would appoint a successor.

Records for Wills and probate can provide details of several generations of a family and relationships between local families. They are particularly useful where real property is being passed through the generations and there are a number of people with the same name. Identifying the property in a Will can identify the correct family members. The contents of the Will can also provide an insight into the relative wealth of the family.

Wills and probate records are one of the documents that really must be examined if they can be found for your family members. They were not restricted to the wealthy land owners as they would be used by those less well off to ensure personal property passed to whom they wished it to be, particularly important if passing property to females (wives, daughters etc) as they were often restricted in their rights to property and inheritance until the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act.

Manorial records and Wills and probate records leads nicely to my next blog topic, that of title deeds.

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Parish registers of Baptism

Early baptism registers can vary significantly in the information provided. The usual form only records the name of the baptised and the date of baptism, but simpler forms do exist for example:

“1588 June 9th The childe of a poore vagrant woman bapt”

((Broughton-under-Blean) Bradbrook, W, The Parish Register, 1910, page 26)

“1556 Jan 27th A child of Robert Welshe bapt”

((Bruton) Bradbrook, W, The Parish Register, 1910, page 26)

Later registers are more likely to  include the name of the father (and even later the mother) and the sex of the child for example:

“John Deene the sune of Henere Deene bap September 27 (1687)”

(Shere, St James, Surrey, England, Surrey History Centre; Woking, Surrey, England; Surrey Church of England Parish Registers; Reference: SHER/1/1 available on Ancestry.co.uk, Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812)

(Shere, St James, Surrey, England, Surrey History Centre;
Woking, Surrey, England; Surrey Church of England Parish Registers; Reference: SHER/1/1 available on Ancestry.co.uk, Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812)

“[born] Feb 11 Charles Son of Mattheas and Sarah Williams March 11 [baptised]”

(St George, Bloomsbury, Camden, Middlesex, England; London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: P82/GEO1/003 available on Ancestry.co.uk, London, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812)

In the 16th Century ‘sponsors’ or god parents were sometimes included in the baptism register and in fact in 1555 Carinal Pole ordered that ‘sponsors’ were to be included in every baptism entry however this was infrequently obeyed and thus disregarded after only a few years.

During these early years, because the book/register was to be completed on a Sunday, it is not difficult to understand how some incumbents may have forgotten names leaving blanks, or forgot an event completely thus there may be missing entries.

Over the years, often due to the need to be able to distinguish individuals with the same name, the occupation of the father or residence of the parents may be provided. There are also rare examples of baptism entries mentioning three generations of a family such as

“1640. Jan 5th. John S. of Jo. Hutcheson wch was ye sonne of Richard Hutcheson & Elizab. his wife

 ((Bishop Middleham) Bradbrook, W, The Parish Register, 1910, page 28)

The baptism register will also record if a child was “half baptised” or “privately baptised”. This often occurred where midwives were permitted to baptise babies at risk of dying before a clergyman was available. Such baptisms occasionally include mistakes as to the sex of the child where the child was baptised in haste following the birth for fear of its imminent death. For this reason, many such baptisms do not include the name of the child but refer to the child as “Creatura Christi”, essentially meaning “child of god”.

It was also the case that during the civil war period, many children were not baptised and the baptism registers are therefore full of adult baptisms in the years following 1660.

Following the Act for Tax on Marriages, Births and Burials 1694, because paupers were exempt from paying a fee, there was a noticeable increase in the baptism registers of paupers being baptised. However, there were also many children not registered or baptised as many parents wished to avoid paying the required fee, hence the reason for the further enforcement in 1696 for the registration of births.

It may be that there was an increase in baptisms following the end of the imposition of these taxes with the baptism of those children whose parents had wished to avoid paying the 2s fee.

There would usually be some comment in the baptism register if the child was illegitimate with descriptions such as ‘base-born’, ‘illegitimate’ and ‘bastard’. It was more common to find the mothers name than a father’s name in these circumstances although sometimes the fathers name may be included or may be included discreetly, in that the fathers name may be used as a middle name for the child.

If there was anything unusual about the baptism, the incumbent may include those details in the baptism register, for example where there was choir present at the ceremony

“May 26 Baptized Mrs Alice, daughter of Sir Robt. Eatan, Secretary to King Charles I. The Quire attended: the boys had £3, 16s. 8d”

(Cox, J. C., The Parish Registers of England, 1910, page 47)

or where noble men stood as ‘sponsors’ for a ‘commoners’ son “1638 May 12. John, sonne of Edwarde and Cisley Davies, of Albrighton, sawier, was baptized the 12th of May, being Whitsunday even. Sir John Corbett Knight barronett, and his kinsman Mr Thomas Riton coming from London accidentally being ye two godfathers who desired to doe good unto a poore man and so baptized his childe”

(Cox, J. C., The Parish Registers of England, 1910, page 55)

Dade Registers

Are parish registers found in some parishes across North Yorkshire, East Lancashire and Durham from around 1765 to 1837 developed by William Dade, a Yorkshire Curate. The Archbishop of York ordered that they should be used across his diocese from 1777.

There were no universal changes to baptism or burial registers during this period however from about 1765 Dade Registers, as they became known, began to be used in some parishes in the northern counties of East Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Durham. These were the result of a growing recognition that parish register entries were inadequate and William Dade began more comprehensive parish registers for baptisms and births. Baptism registers included:

•              Date of birth

•              Date of baptism

•              Position of the child in the family

•              Occupation of father

•              Place of origin of father and mother

•              Often details of the grandfather (provide details of three generations)

Thus such registers record more information than other registers of the period. In particular baptism registers can be full of genealogical information such as mother’s maiden name in baptism registers; parentage of both the father and mother of the child being baptised (thus providing details of three generations of the family) along with their occupations, place of birth or residence; the child’s date of birth as well as the date of baptism; the position of the child in the family.

Published in Family Tree UK in February 2014 from https://www.barbarajstarmans.com/portfolio-items/how-to-use-dade-registers/

A burial entry often may record an age; cause of death; occupation; information on parentage of children; for a married woman, the name of her husband may be given.

The use of such registers however was somewhat haphazard and many clergymen, particularly in more populated areas, resented the extra work involved in making these lengthy entries. The thought of duplicating them for the Bishop’s Transcripts put many of them off and some refused to follow the new rule, so when the Archbishop indicated there was no punishment for vicars who failed to comply the scheme began to flounder.

The next significant change to parish registers came in 1812 when Rose’s Act was introduced. From 1813 separate parish registers where to be printed and bound in a standard form for baptisms, marriages and burials. Of course separate marriage registers were already in existence and the Act concentrated on baptism and burial registers.

Bishops’ transcripts continued, with the Act ordering that copies of the entries be sent to the registrars of each diocese each year with existing ‘old style’ parish registers to be sent to the Bishop of each diocese.

Rose’s original proposals were more detailed than the final Act which was ‘watered down’ by “the more conservative elements of Parliament”. Rose had included allowing non-conformists to send their registers to clergymen.

The Act was badly drafted, particularly in relation to penalties for those making false entries or altering or damaging or destroying registers. The Act states that anyone who informed of such acts should receive half of the fine or penalty imposed (with the poor of the parish or other charitable purpose as the Bishop chose, receiving the other half), yet the Act did not provide for any fine being imposed, the only penalty was fourteen years transportation!

Because the registers were now in standard form providing sections for the information required, there was little or no space for extra information which may previously have been found in parish registers (as discussed earlier). However the standard form has the advantage that in many parishes more information (particularly that which is of use to the genealogist) had to be provided than had previously been the case.

Baptism registers were now set out in columns, with a column for each of the following:

  • Forename of Child
  • Forename and surname of parents
  • Where the family lived (usually only the village in rural areas whereas the street name may be provided in a town)
  • Occupation of the father
  • Name of the officiating clergy

Dates of birth were sometimes entered by the most diligent incumbents and particularly if there were multiple baptisms in a family simultaneously to show that the children were of different ages, or possibly to show they were the same age and thus twins.

An illegitimate child’s baptism record most often only includes the name of the mother, but may include the name of the alleged father.

Parish registers did not ‘die out’ with the introduction of civil registration in 1836, and Rose-style registers are still used today for baptism and burial registers although are no longer the “official” records of a person’s existence, those now being the birth and death records introduced by the General Registration Act 1836 and maintained by the Registrar General. Baptism and burial records have therefore largely remained unchanged since 1812.

As a consequence of this, Bishops Transcripts ceased with the introduction of civil registration, in that clergy were no longer required to send copies of parish records to the bishop of the diocese, although some did continue until into the 20th century.

Where are parish registers now? Under the Parochial Register and Records Act 1978 (which came into force in 1979) clergy were encouraged to transfer their parish registers to the county records office for safe storage. Where clergy did not wish to do so, strict conditions were set for their safe storage.


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The 1841 Census and common early census problems

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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The 1921 census: Taking your 20th century research further

The release of the 1921 census for England and Wales, the 13th census to be conducted in the UK, taken on 19th June 1921 has been much anticipated and caused a good deal of excitement amongst genealogists and family historians. Why? Because it was the first census to be conducted following the end of both the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic and following the right to vote for women. This will be the last census to be released for 30 years. Whilst the census was conducted in 1931 the records were destroyed during World War Two and with no census being conducted in 1941 in the middle of World War Two the next census to be released to the public will be the 1951 census which will not be released until 2052.

Unlike many of the other census returns where there are gaps due to records been lost or damaged, the 1921 census returns are almost complete with only 0.35% of the collection being so severely damaged they could not be transcribed and there are no known missing volumes. The records should therefore provide an almost complete picture of the population on census day and may help fill in the details of where your ancestors were following World War One and what they were doing. The records being released, much like the 1911 census, are the household schedules completed by our ancestors and therefore provide us with evidence of their handwriting and thus their literary skills.

But what else will the 1921 census tell us about our ancestors?

The census will provide greater detail than any other census published. It includes those questions asked in the 1911 census:

  • Postal address
  • Name and surname
  • Relationship to head of Family
  • Age and sex
  • Marital status and length of marriage
  • How many children born alive, living and have died
  • Occupation, industry or service connected to
  • Whether an employer, employee of self-employed (own account)
  • Whether working at home
  • Birth place
  • Nationality
  • Infirmity
  • Signature of person completing the form (usually the head of the household)

but in addition, people were asked to provide:

  • Age in years and months – in previous census this has just been years
  • Marital status is expanded to include divorce (D) for those aged fifteen and over
  • Orphanhood was included for those under the age of fifteen recording if both parents were alive, their father was dead, mother was dead or both were dead
  • In respect of children, rather than being the number born living, alive and died, the total number was to be given followed by a cross in a box (numbered 1 to 15) representing the age of each child
  • For occupation/employment, those out of work were required to record such along with the details of their last employer; for those in work, the employers address (except for those in private employment such as domestic servants) was required

The additional questions asked in the 1921 census return provide an insight into the impact of World War One on one families and the population: 730,000 children were listed with “father dead” and 260,000 children with “mother dead”. Many more of these children would have also still been in education, the Fishers Education Act of 1918 extended free compulsory education to the age of fourteen.

It was the first census to acknowledge divorced as a marital status with 16,600 people describing themselves as such.

Our ancestor’s employment status and employers’ details may provide further insight into the economic status of the country. In 1921 the country was in economic turmoil with unemployment standing at 927,000 in January rising to 2.2 million by June. A miners strike began on 31st March 1921. Following the government’s decision to return the coal industry to private hands, having been under the control of the state drawing the First World War, had led to a reduction in wages for miners and coming out on strike which lasted three months, ending on 28th June, nine days after census day. The strike had failed to gain the support of the Transport and Rail Unions on what became known as Black Friday, the 15th April 1921.

Those ancestors working in agriculture would not have escaped economic turmoil, with 1921 suffering the worst drought on record up to that year, since 1788 when there was no rainfall for one hundred days, the drought ending with rainfall on 25th of June 1921.

This census will see many more women for the first time taking on traditionally men’s roles in the work force, a result of women needing to take on those roles during World War One when the men were away fighting. According to Find My Past’s “life in 1920’s Britain” blog (https://www.findmypast.co.uk/blog/history/life-in-1920s-britain) “The 1921 Census features the first female policewomen, as well as significantly more female barristers, medical professionals and architects than recorded a decade earlier in the 1911 Census”.

Those with military personnel ancestors at this time, may be interested to find where they were serving in the 1921 census. England was still fighting a war, a war much closer to home. At the time the census was taken, the Irish war of independence was continuing with a truce not being declared until almost a month after census day on the 11th of July with the Anglo Irish treaty being signed in London to give independence to the Irish Free State on the 6th of December 1921. With access to military records after 1921 being limited, the 1921 census which also holds information on those living in barracks and naval bases may provide the key to their ongoing military service at this time.

What if your ancestor is not found with the rest of the family? The 1921 census also holds information on those living in hospitals, workhouses and prisons and with more than 185,000 people listed in workhouses, 80,000 patients recorded in hospitals and over 11,000 inmates listed in prisons across England and Wales, your ancestors may be found here which may lead to further clues and records to explore your ancestor’s life further.

Below is a small insight into what else was happening in 1921.

The First World War was gone but not forgotten and on 15th May 1921 the British Legion was founded, followed on 11th of November 1921 by the very first official Poppy Day held in memory of all those who lost their lives serving in World War One.

The 1920’s are often described as ‘The Roaring Twenties’ despite the economic turmoil. Why? Because of advancing technology. In June 1921 the result of the horse race “The Derby” was announced live for the first time on the radio and a year later in 1922 the BBC began broadcasting and it was only five years later that the first public demonstration of television took place. Our ancestors may have been looking to the future and the excitement of being able to fly to other parts of the world – the first commercial flight (with one passenger) took place on 25th of August 1919 and by 1924 Imperial Airways Ltd (know British Airways) was formed although the seaside ‘staycation’ would have been the norm for the majority of our ancestors in 1921. This was also the era in which plastic surgery began to develop for cosmetic procedures following its development to treat injuries during World War One.

In entertainment, The golden age of cinema was beginning. 1921 saw the release of Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Kid”, the first film to exceed an hour with Charlie Chaplin himself visiting London on the 9th of September 1921 to be met by a crowd of thousands. 1921 also saw the opening of England’s first inland amusement park at Wickstead Park in Kettering. How many of our female ancestors would go on to become flapper girls as the 1920’s progressed?

With the above knowledge in hand, who are you looking forward to finding in the 1921 census?

For me it is my grandparents, in particular, my paternal grandmother because she was born only eight days before census day. My paternal grandfather was four years of age with my maternal grandparents being seven (grandfather) and six (grandmother) years old at the time of the census. Whilst I do know something about their lives around this time having found alternative records for their parents, such a trade directories, electoral rolls, first world war service records and family oral history, other then their birth records the 1921 census return will be the first official record in which they are listed.

I am also hoping it may solve a mystery of what happened to my maternal grandfather’s biological father (no father named on his birth certificate), confirmed through DNA and found living with my maternal grandfather and his mother in 1901 (she listed as his housekeeper!), in the 1911 census he is no longer with them and no further trace has been found. Was he listed with them again in 1921?

The census returns will be officially released on the Find My Past website on the 6th of January 2022 on a pay-per-view basis at a cost of £2.50 per transcribed record and £3.50 for an original record image. There will be a 10% discount for all 12 months ‘pro’ subscribers to Find My Past. The census returns will also be available for free to view at the National Archives.

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