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.

Join the Your Family Through Time mailing List

Want to be notified of future blog posts, podcasts and more from Your Family Through Time?

Just enter your email address below and join the Your Family Through Time mailing list!

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.

Join the Your Family Through Time mailing List

Want to be notified of future blog posts, podcasts and more from Your Family Through Time?

Just enter your email address below and join the Your Family Through Time mailing list!