Posted by on 22 March 2011 in Record Collections

As a tribute to our recent update to the 1841 census in which many of the schedules from Cumberland and north Lancashire have been added, it is interesting to consider the oddities of the first national census in which every individual was named, and therefore the first to be really useful to family historians nationwide.

Censuses had been taken time out of mind of course for particular towns and parishes, but these were adhoc affairs often connected to tax raising or army business and many have not survived. The state sanctioned nationwide censuses had been taking place since 1801 – parliament had sanctioned them against some opposition, but as the age old parish and church bureaucracies began to creak, the state needed to assess its rapidly multiplying population.

The shaping of the 1841 census was heavily influenced by two men, Thomas Henry Lister, the Registrar General and John Rickman, statistician. It was Lister for example, who insisted that the whole census be taken over only a day or so, that the GRO registration districts should be the basis of the census and that a lot of, not particularly well educated, men would be needed to enumerate it. Lister was brought in after the death of Rickman, who had pushed for and got the first national census in 1801 and later for full enumeration-though he never lived to see it.

1841 is not the easiest census to search what with ages of individuals varying by up to five years , no relationships provided between members of the household and no place of birth, except whether a person was born in or out of county (with squiggles indicating Scots, Irish or other foreign origin). Ages and relationships can be guessed at but the lack of a precise parish of birth is particularly frustrating if you trying to trace the origins of your ancestor. Fortunately, by the time you get that far back in the nineteenth century, people are generally close to where their families were from historically anyway; the impact of the railways had not quite been fully felt. If your family had left and was newly arrived in Manchester or Birmingham though, it would really help to know precisely where they were from, especially if they had died by the time of the 1851 census.

It is also not widely known that many very young children are missing from it, following the widespread belief that the unbaptised children or even those under seven, didn’t really count (literally) or that a family would be penalised if there were too many resident in one place. Then again many enumerators were themselves semi literate and were filling in the forms for the actually illiterate, interpretating badly what they had been told orally. This can lead to some very strange names being recorded, as I am sure many of users can testify to! Have you found any strange names?

The census informed the Victorian government in its military, taxation and medical decisions and continues to be a great boon to statisticians and academics in their discussions about the impact of such things as the Industrial Revolution but it is only recently that it has come into its own as a family history tool. Such a use was totally unconsidered when it was constructed but it is this interest in roots which has really democratised its use and brought its peculiarities and joys to a wide audience, even though the mysteries surrounding many of its entries may never be fully resolved.

For this year’s Census Day on Sunday the 27th March, we’re making census indexes from England, Wales and Scotland, free to search. Click here for further details.

1 Comment

Hilary Gunn 

I hadn’t realised there were gaps in this census in the first place – would explain why I couldn’t find the people I knew should be there!

Is there any way of finding out which places you don’t have available and which in censuses?

24 March 2011 at 10:04 am