Using 1841 and the First British Nominal Census

Tower Bridge, London, England (photo courtesy of Robert Szucs)by Sherry Irvine

There has been a spike in activity within the UK data at Ancestry, and the reason is the arrival of 1841 census data. The excitement is understandable; the set of census returns for England and Wales, 1841 to 1901, is complete. Genealogists should be excited for other reasons too, and I will tell you more about why in this article.

Why 1841 is Important
In England, Wales, the Isle of Man, Channel Islands, and Scotland, a nominal census was enumerated in 1841. This was not the first census of mainland Britain and the surrounding small islands, but it was the first that directed enumerators to list every name and record personal details.

It was a remarkable undertaking for its day. The census of 1841 differed in three ways from its predecessors (1801 through 1831):

  • It was taken all at once in the shortest possible time.
  • An account had to be made of each and every individual.
  • The full returns, rather than statistical summaries, were sent to the General Register Office for analysis.

The Familiar Difficulties
Most descriptions in books and articles include comments on the shortcomings of the census information. For each person enumerated you see full name, occupation, approximate age, and vague birthplace details, in addition to the information about location. There is no indication of relationships among people in a household which, combined with the vague ages and birthplaces, makes it difficult to pick out individuals, particularly when a surname is common.

Unreadable pages can be another problem because the census was written in pencil. Many of us have struggled to read faint microfilm images. The least fortunate among us find nothing at all as chunks of the 1841 census are missing.

Overcoming the Problems
The first comments I heard about the Ancestry version of the 1841 census for the UK were about the image quality. Many formerly unreadable sections have been enhanced and the background information (found on the database search pages for England, Wales, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, and Scotland) lists the sections that have been enhanced.

The aforementioned background information also includes a detailed listing of missing sections. I recommend you check this information before doing your research, particularly if you have details of where a family or individual was residing at the time. Technical innovation won’t bring the details back, but Ancestry has done us all a service in making clear the facts about what is missing. We are prepared for the necessity of taking alternative action.

Eleven counties in England and four in Wales have some missing bits, with the longest list of them being for Wiltshire. In Scotland the county of Fife has significant gaps.

Bonuses of Online Resources
The England and Wales returns for 1841 have an every-name index, and the images of the enumeration registers are available for viewing. The Scotland returns are indexed, and a full transcript is available. From the main UK census page, it is possible to search at one time across all of mainland Britain, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. Alternatively you can search England, Wales, Scotland, Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man one at a time.

I use the county-level search to look for people living close to the borders between England and Scotland, and England and Wales. With a map handy I can choose the counties that should be searched. Scots connections, for example, are among my Westmorland ancestors. I have searched Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, Dumfries, and Roxburghshire for them. Being able to do this in one place, going back and forth between adjacent counties, is an advantage.

Other bonuses are the features of the search tool. In Scotland some surnames are very common–compared to other locations where the number of surnames within the population is low–and it is a help to be able to search by given name only. I use both the ranked search and the exact search because they behave differently. By the way, exact search may be a slightly misleading term; remember your search can be made somewhat less precise through the use of wild card symbols. It really helps to read the instructions, found in the Help Center.

Conclusion-It Was a Good Year
As far as genealogists are concerned, the timing of this enumeration was good. 1841 is four years after the start of civil registration records (1 July 1837), nine years after the first reform bill began to expand those records in lists of voters, and it was a period when trade and local directories are appearing in print in ever increasing numbers. In other words, there are several resources that can be checked, one against the other, before research moves beyond the informative resources of the 1800s. Make the most of the 1841 census.

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Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998) and Researching Scottish Ancestry (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study-tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two-year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Online Classes
Sherry Irvine has teamed up with Helen Osborn for a new series of online courses. For more information, visit


4 thoughts on “Using 1841 and the First British Nominal Census

  1. Dear Sherry

    Thanks for this article but I am far from as sanguine as you as to the quality of the 1841 Ancestry census offering. It’s not good enough that Ancestry produces a lovely interface and then does the transcription on the cheap with huge numbers of obvious and unforgivable errors. Whole Hundreds are missing (such as the Hundred of East in Cornwall) which are available elsewhere. The quality is far lower than the free Cornwall Online Census Project. I have already submitted over 80 corrections to names – and received no sensible reply to my complaint to Ancestry asking why should we pay for a subscription to Ancestry when a free service does a better job and what are they going to do to improve the quality of their transcriptions?

    Regards Joe Flood Melbourne

  2. I am fairly new to genealogy and have found censuses a great help. I have found most of my family – but – after that, other than using the information to fill in family members and their information in my software ( I use PAF), what do I do with them? I have saved them all and transcribed them onto census forms – now what? Do I just file this information away for reference? Do I transcribe an abbreviated narrative in ‘Notes’ in my PAF? What do other genealogists do? Also, I have the same questions for other documents – birth, marriage, death records, wills, obituaries, etc? How and where – if you do – do you transcribe these documents?
    Thanks, Deana

  3. True there are a number of problems and errors with the 1841 census, but I am so delighted to have it available. I have worked extensively with the film versions of the 1841, particularly in Cheshire and London, and I assure you it was no happy task. I appreciate the difficult job it must have been to do this for the whole of the country. In Macclesfield Cheshire, which I have come to know quite well, I can go from house to house in certain areas looking for people, and after a fashion finding most of them. But in London, it was a different manner. If I knew their exact address, I had a chance, but if I didn’t I was lost. Now with the Ancestry version, I am locating folks again. It is great, no matter what its faults. Beverly

  4. I am curious where the squib addressing permission to reprint has gone? I would like to reprint this article. There used to be a notice at the bottom of the Ancestry messages that we could copy along with the article. I cannot locate that anywhere….in the message, nor on the website. Please point me in the right direction. Thanks!

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