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ENGLISH & WELSH ROOTS - Census Records 1841-1891 - Part II
Article posted: July 11, 1999
By: Fawne Stratford-Devai   Biography & Archived Articles

The census is one of the key sources for the family historian. This issue of English and Welsh Roots is the second of a two part article that examines the importance and use of 1841-1891 census records. Part two will discuss some of the problems encountered when working with the census records and a few hints and reminders as well.

Part one of this article discussed the importance of census records; the date each census was conducted; the information contained in the census records at different time periods; how to access census records as well as online and printed resources available for researchers to use when working with census records. A section was also devoted to discussion of the 1881 census on CDROM available from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).

The previous part of this article also explained the process used to create the census records we view today. To review: A pre-printed census schedule was left with a household and later collected by the enumerator. If there was no one in the house who could write, the enumerator helped to record the information. The census enumerator then copied the information on the schedules into their official books known as census enumerators' books. These books and the schedules were then sent to London where clerks who were hired specifically for the census, copied and extracted information in the books in order to calculate various local and national statistics. Unfortunately, the original census schedules have been destroyed and it is the census enumerator's books that researchers see on the microfilm. Because the information in the books is a COPY of the information on the schedule, there were often mistakes made in transcribing the information. The May 1999 issue of the magazine Practical Family History includes an article on how the census was conducted in 1861. As this process demonstrates, problems with transcription and interpretation were inherent.

Problems to keep in mind when using the Census:

Accuracy: As noted previously, the process of enumerating the population created problems of accuracy long before any official statistics were compiled or modern researchers try to interpret the information. In addition, enumerators would have found it difficult to read the poor hand writing of those who could write, which have created problems of transcription errors and spelling variations or even missing information. Unfortunately, since the individual schedules do not survive for comparison, we will never know what exactly was recorded, whether our family member wrote the information themselves, whether they were able to spell, or even whether the enumerator missed information completely.

Illiteracy: Unfortunately the censuses were conducted at a time when up to half the adult population were illiterate or at best, semi-illiterate. Many people would have found it difficult to read and interpret the instructions on the pre-printed schedules and would have led them to either record or verbally provide inaccurate and incomplete information.

Identifying the address of a household: Identifying the address of a household is often a problem. In towns and urban areas, few houses were numbered until the end of the nineteenth century. In many areas street names and house numbers were periodically revised. In rural areas addresses are vague or not provided at all.

Trying to Read the Census: One of the greatest problems for researchers is trying to read the census enumerator's books. For example, in 1841, the books were completed in pencil. In later censuses cheap ink was used that has since bled and/or faded. The access to these books on microfilm only makes the challenge of reading the information greater.

Recording of Names: Census records are no different than any other research tool containing poor writing coupled with mis-interpretations and mis-spellings of names. Nonetheless, researchers should always use their imagination when attempting to link households and families across various censuses. Surnames only very gradually became standardised after the government registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1837. Coupled with problems of illiteracy and poor hand writing, researchers must always use their imagination when searching for variant spellings of their surnames. Was the surname written recorded phonetically - that is, spelled as it sounded? A classic example given in an earlier article was my own experience with the recording of the surname Retherop as Etherop. There are many other such examples.

Understanding Relationships: Although usually straightforward, the recording of relationships between members of a household can sometimes present problems when trying to identify stepchildren, relationships among lodgers, boarders and visitors. As noted in the first part of this article, the LDS have a research outline on using the 1881 census available at their FamilySearch website: The outline lists the standardised set of abbreviations for the relationships to the heads of households. Despite this information, the term "Daughter-in-law" can sometimes mean a step-daughter as well as the more recognized meaning "son's wife". This is also true of interpreting son-in-law and mother-in-law. Tracing Your Family Tree by Jean Cole and John Titford includes an excellent chapter on using census records as well as a glossary of terms and abbreviations. The GenDocs website provides researchers with a very long list of British Genealogy Abbreviations and Acronyms at: . Family Tree Magazine, February 1999 features a discussion of relationships in census returns in Pauline Litton's always helpful Pitfalls and possibilities in family history research [page 17].

Marital Status: The marital status of householders is usually pretty clearly documented. The problem arises in trying to identify the spouse of a second marriage and common-law relationships. Yes, common law relationships did exist but are often hidden with relationship designations such as ‘visitor', 'servant' or 'lodger'.

How old? The Age recorded on the census: The general rule in the 1841 census was to round down the age of adults to the nearest 5 years. This general rule was not always followed. Some ages were rounded down to the nearest 10 years, while others were recorded exactly. On the other hand, some people simply did not know their exact age. When the age of consent was 21, it was not unusual to find people lying about their age in order to rent accommodations, get married or similar adult privileges. At the same time, the age of a child may be falsified if that child was a worker and did not want to loose their job. For these reasons, the age recorded for an individual should always be treated with some caution.

What does the information mean?
Definition of a room: Although available to the public on the 1891 census (and available on later census but not yet released to the public), the information on the Number of Rooms in a household is not always clear. Exactly what constituted a room on each census? No instructions defining "a room" are provided on the census schedule and the exact instructions given to enumerators is not readily available to researchers either. For example, was a large cupboard that contained a small indoor toilet a room? There are instances where an enumerator recorded a 1 next to the address of a householder/family living in a house that still stands to this day that is clearly at least 4 or 5 rooms large.

Definition of a Household: What exactly constituted a household? This problem is particularly evident in relation to how lodgers, boarders and different families renting rooms in the same houses were enumerated. In some instances families of lodgers appear to have been treated as occupiers in their right. In other instances it would appear multiple families sharing the same address were recorded as lodgers.

Occupations: What job did they perform? Job titles recorded in the census are often vague with no hint given to the industry they were employed in or the actual job they did. In addition, while people were asked how many others (if any) they employed it is usually quite difficult to tell who the employers are from the those who are self-employed those who are employees. In terms of the actual occupation recorded, researchers would do well to visit the GenDocs web site for a large list of occupations. The web site is located at:

Birth Place: there is an example in my own family research were an individual gave a different place of birth in every census [not only in England but in Canada too!]. Usually, the place of birth information is fairly accurate, however, as with any sound research - only a preponderance of other evidence will determine for certain the accuracy of the birthplace recorded on the census.

Medical Disabilities: The recording of medical disability is probably one type of information on the census researchers should be very suspicious of. Or at least weigh with caution in their overall analysis (this includes people who are seemingly recorded as being of sound mind also). The information recorded was based on the following definitions: (1) Deaf and dumb (2) Blind (3) Imbecile or Idiot (4) Lunatic. Aside from being poorly worded and inconsistent across different censuses, the stigmatism attached to the label "idiot" was common even in the 19th century. Many families then, as now, were reluctant to admit another member was an 'idiot'. In the 1989 edition of the book Making Sense of the Census, E. Higgs noted the numbers of people recorded as mentally ill rose markedly when the definition of medical disability was changed in 1901 to include 'feeble-minded'.

Additional Hints:

  • Before you can locate your family/families in a particular census, determine the area they lived and the corresponding registration district. Census records are filed based on registration districts. Resources for locating the registration district were discussed in part one of this article.

  • If you are using other sources such as records of birth, marriage and death and cannot find the area the family resided in, try looking for the records of other family members (siblings) to determine if the family had moved or were residing/visiting a different area when the event was registered.

  • Gazetteers and other listings have been published for every census year which clearly show all the places covered by the census for that particular year. Always remember that the place name or street name/number could have changed or simply disappeared. Online resources can be very helpful in this respect. For example, the GENUKI website includes a searchable database of places in the 1891 census. The database covers England, Wales and the Isle of Man and returns the County, Registration District, Registration Sub-District, PRO Piece Number and LDS Film Number. It can be found at the following URL:

  • Once you know the location of the family, check with the local Family History Society or Genealogical Society for your area of research in England/Wales to determine if they have already created an index or transcription of census records for the county.

  • Before starting to record census information from microfilm make up or use a pre-printed extract form to record your individual family information on.

  • Do not accept all information recorded on a particular census as absolute fact. Practice sound research. Use the census as one source of many in learning about your family history - only a preponderance of other evidence will determine for certain the accuracy of the information recorded on the census.

  • Whenever possible, try to trace your family/families on every census between 1841-1891. If they suddenly disappear because they immigrated to North America or elsewhere, be sure to follow them in the census for the country they emigrated to. It is only by following families through the records over time that any pattern can be established.

  • Make sure that when you have found the family or a possible family you are searching on the census that you carefully and very slowly rewind the microfilm to the beginning of the section for the complete description covered by the enumerator. Write down all such information as well as all the steps you took to find the record including the full reference numbers for not only the microfilm but the original record (the PRO reference number). Even if the census was filmed by the LDS, the full PRO reference will still be available.

  • Can't find a particular ancestor in the census records? Perhaps he was a soldier or in the Royal Navy? Or, maybe they were travelling or did NOT want to be enumerated. The January 1999 issue of Family Tree Magazine includes an article by Pauline Litton on census returns and ancestors who may not be recorded found in the regular Pitfalls and possibilities in family history research column [page 5].
The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man:

As Jean Cole and John Titford report in their book, Tracing your Family Tree: Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Sark and the Isle of Man census listings can be found at the end of the class of records that make up the census returns for England and Wales, and are featured in a separate section of the 1881 census index on microfiche. The 1891 census of Jersey: an all-island listing was published by the Channel Islands Family History Society in 1994.

The 1901 Census - January 2002

In January 2002 the 1901 census will be open to public inspection. The first part of this article noted the proposed plans of the Public Record Office to digitise this census. If you want to know what to expect, here is a list of the information collected:

Enumerated on Sunday, March 31st, 1901 the actual census records are filed at the Public Record Office (PRO) in Class Reference RG13 but remain closed until January 2002.

Information collected on the schedule:
Column 1: Number (No.) of schedule, numbered from 1 consecutively per book
Column 2: Name of street, place or road, and name or number of house
Column 3: Houses; separate columns for inhabited, in occupation, not in occupation, being built.
Column 4: Number of rooms occupied if less than five
Column 5: Name and surname
Column 6: Relationship to head of family
Column 7: Condition - Marital Status
Column 8: Age last birthday with separate columns for males and females
Column 9: Rank, profession or occupation
Column 10: Employer, worker, or on own account [self employed]; answer to be written
Column 11: If working at home; answer to be written
Column 12: Where born; county/place
Column 13: Whether 1 Deaf & dumb, 2 Blind, 3 Lunatic, 4 Imbecile, feeble-minded

In Wales and Monmouthshire only, the 1901 schedules and enumeration books had provided an extra column for 'Language Spoken' which recorded either 'English', 'Welsh' or 'Both'.

When looking for Census records on microfilm, do not forget that the LDS Family History Catalog is now available online at the Family Search Website: . At the main Family Search page, choose the CUSTOM SEARCH option. From the Custom Search page, choose FAMILY HISTORY LIBRARY CATALOG. Now you can search for the microfilm numbers or other census information based on place or in the entire catalog. To walk through an example, If you were to choose the PLACE option and search under England you would be shown a number of topics/records/publications available related to England. A few more simple clicks through the topic Census, leads to any number of resources. For example, did you know that the British Reference Unit of the LDS Family History Library has created a Surname index to the 1861 census returns of ships at sea. It is available to your local Family History Center on 8 microfiche under call number: FHL BRITISH Fiche 6025598.For a more detailed discussion of the resources to be found through the LDS, read the earlier English and Welsh Roots article devoted to this topic

Online resources:

Part one of this article included an extensive list of links to a variety of online census resources - including aids, indexes and actual data. This final article will not repeat those links, but will merely highlight the important online resources that deal with census records in general and their problems in particular.

Public Record Office: readers/frcleaflets/censusmain.htm For additional information about English census records written by the institution that is responsible for taking care of surviving census records and making them available to researchers this site is a must for all researchers. The Public Record Office has provided a wonderful collection of leaflets and other handouts and information online. To learn more about census records, visit their main census leaflet page at: readers/frcleaflets/censusmain.htm

The Census Enumerators' Books: census/cebs.htm. This site is a university sociology site but offers all researchers information about the Census Enumerator's Books, including their accuracy.

Using the 1881 Census - Background information on the 1881 Census:
The new LDS Family search site includes many of the guides and printed resources provided for many years in local Family History Centers of the LDS for researchers. Their source guide for using and understanding the 1881 Census gives extremely important background information about the census. When reference is made in the guide to fiche - please remember the guide was written before the modern days of CDS - when use was made of pink, green and other coloured fiche. Most importantly, the guide includes the list of standardised abbreviations for the relationships to the heads of households, and the 3 letter "where born" abbreviations. Check out the guide at:

British Genealogy Abbreviations and Acronyms: This extensive list of abbreviations and acronyms found in British genealogical research is provided by John Hitchcock of GenDocs.

Ranks, Professions, Occupations and Trades: This large list of ranks, professions, occupations and trades encountered by researchers when searching British records is provided by John Hitchcock of GenDocs.

List of Occupations: Ever wondered what an ADVERTISEMENT CONVEYANCER was? How about a sandwich board man! This is a great website listing occupations of which many are archaic. This list is a must for those of us trying to understand changing occupations and their labels over time.

Searchable Database of Places in the 1891 Census: uk/big/census_place.html This database covers England, Wales and the Isle of Man and returns the County, Registration District, Registration Sub-District, PRO Piece Number and LDS Film Number.

Published resources:

The Censuses 1841-1891 use and interpretation: A McLaughlin Guide by Eve McLaughlin. The 7th edition has been fully revised. This absolutely invaluable guide explains what a census is, how they were compiled, where to find them and how to interpret them. A must for those working with the various census from 1841-1891. More Information

Tracing Your Family Tree by Jean Cole and John Titford Chapter 3 of this excellent book describes in detail National census returns, where to find them and much more. It also includes a great list of hints and reminders More Information.

The Family Tree Detective- Tracing Your Ancestors in England Wales (3rd edition) by Colin D. Rogers. The book includes extensive information about census records, how to find addresses, why your search may not be successful and ways in which to re-examine the records. More Information.

Your English Ancestry, A Guide for North Americans - revised edition by Sherry Irvine. Chapter 3 discusses census records in detail...from their content and availability to research strategies and a simple step-by-step summary at the end of the chapter. More Information.

Making Use of the Census: by Susan Lumas. An expanded version of the Public Record Office Readers Guide No1. How to use the British censuses, easy to understand and well laid out, with plenty of illustrations of documents. Researchers will find the tips on how to avoid some common problems most useful when researching census records. 3rd edition 1997, 112 pages.

A Clearer Sense of the Census: the Manuscript Returns for England and Wales, 1801-1901 - by Edward Higgs. This extensive book details the census in its historical context and is filled with solid background information cleaned from many years of research on the census by the author. London: 1996 226 pages.

Surveying the People, edited by Kevin Schruder & Tom Arkell. This 308 page book offers a solid guide to document sources and how to interpret them. It deals extensively with demographics and demographic issues in a scholarly context. A very useful book to some of the more difficult sources. 1st edition Oxford:1992.

The Analysis of Census Returns, by P.M. Tillot in, Local Historian, Volume VIII (1968-69).

The Interpretation of the Census Enumerators' Books for Victorian Towns by W. A. Armstrong, in, H.J. Dyos, editor, The Study of Urban History (London: 1968).

While the focus of this article has been on problems encountered with census records, finding your family on a census can be a virtual goldmine. Today, with online sources, many published sources and indexes combined with the resources of the LDS and the help of numerous surname and street indexes produced by family historians, genealogists, and societies - English and Welsh census records are all the more accessible.


Popular History Topics:
Take a broader view of history with the new Popular History Topics website at the PRO. Favourite Subjects in the PRO [National Archives] include: the Titanic; World War One Information; Secret Agents in World War Two; Nazi Gold and British Secret Services: MI5. The Popular History Topics website can be found at:

Did you know? In Wales and Monmouthshire only, the 1891 census included an extra column for 'Language Spoken' which required either 'English', 'Welsh' or 'Both' to be entered.

Public Records Office Leaflets:
Great information for researchers to learn about the collections at the PRO whether you are able to visit the PRO or not, these leaflets are filled with information about a host of records. Visit the main index site to these important information leaflets at:

The Commission on Historical Manuscripts: The Commission was set up by Royal Warrant in 1869 to enquire and report on collections of papers of value for the study of British history in private hands. In 1959 a new warrant enlarged these terms of reference to include all British historical records, wherever situated, outside the Public Records and gave it added responsibilities as a central coordinating body to promote, assist and advise on their proper preservation and storage. The Commission has published 239 volumes of reports. It also maintains the Manorial Documents Register on behalf of the Master of the Rolls, and ARCHON, the gateway for archivists in the UK and repositories with manuscript material for British history.

Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England: The Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England and English Heritage united on 1 April 1999 to form a single lead body for the conservation, management, enjoyment and understanding of England's historic environment. The National Monuments Record is the public archive of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. It holds over 12 million items including old and new photographs, maps, reports and surveys as well as complete coverage of the country in aerial photographs. Visit the Royal Commission site and learn more at:

About Fawne Stratford-Devai
Fawne Stratford-Devai's work on Land Records and early Ontario records is well known in the genealogy community. A published author of several Canadian and UK research books, she has also contributed articles to the Ontario Genealogical Society's newsletter "Families" as well as writing for the online family history newsletter the "Global Gazette". Biography

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