Inhabitants’ Lists Before the Census, by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

In England and Wales, modern census records used by genealogists start with the enumeration of 1841. There were earlier official counts of the population in 1831, 1821, 1811 and 1801, but very few lists of names survive.

Before 1800 there were no government census returns but there were records that can be regarded as genealogically useful lists of inhabitants. You will find that early lists had a special purpose such as recording taxpayers, people of a particular religious persuasion, or people who swore an oath of loyalty. None systematically recorded all members of each family or household but some recorded the majority of heads of households in a parish. To make the most of early lists it is important to determine for each type its purpose, date range, and contents. In this article I will summarize two records.

Two Lists
Land Tax: Land tax records, which began in 1692, show the names of owners of land subject to taxation, along with information about the land and the tax amount. The most useful period is from 1780 to 1832 when the style is uniform and the names of occupiers also appear. For one year, 1798, a national list was prepared of all those paying the tax (not tenants) because it became possible at that time to make a lump sum payment and be excused (“exonerated”) from making the payment ever again.

Protestation Returns: On the eve of the Civil War, Charles I and Parliament were at odds. After ruling for eleven years without Parliament, Charles needed its approval of additional taxes to fund his war with Scotland. When Parliament was recalled in 1641, all members voted to support the true Protestant religion, rights of subjects and the privileges of Parliament. Several months later Parliament voted to send the oath round to every parish so all adult men (eighteen and over) could sign it. Some returns survive for about one third of all parishes.
Finding the Lists
Land tax records are usually in county record offices in England and Wales but the 1798 list is in The National Archives. Many have been filmed by the Family History Library. Laborers do not usually appear in land tax records. Most of the original Protestation Returns are held in the House of Lords Record Office. These have been filmed by the Family History Library, and many have been published.

Begin your search with methodology books (see Further Reading) where you will find descriptions of the various tax and loyalty records as well as advice on use and access. Other records from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that fall into this category include hearth tax returns, poll taxes, window tax lists, Association Oath Rolls for those with Catholic ancestors, and records of recusants. (A recusant was anyone who did not attend Sunday services of the local parish church—Church of England.)

Find any lists that coincide with or overlap the dates of your research, read about them, and then find out how to access them. Begin online, use Gibson Guides (see Further Reading), and the Family History Library Catalog. Here are some suggestions:

  • Put a search term into your favorite search engine, such as a combination of place name and record type:
    Wolverhampton window tax or Willenhall hearth tax. 
  • Check for information guides at the website of The National Archives and the appropriate county record office (e.g., the National Archives has a helpful leaflet about the hearth tax and a finding aid to the places found among the surviving records).
  • Search the Family History Library Catalog for the county level tax records or a keyword search for the list (such as Protestation Returns Wiltshire).
  • Check the county page at the Genealogy UK and Ireland website as many offer useful information about published records, where to find what survives, etc.

You may find more information among my articles within the Ancestry Library:

Genealogical Value
Records like these only occasionally provide relationship information; for example, when an owner or tenant dies and is succeeded by a spouse or child. Name, date and place are the facts you learn and perhaps other identifiers such as occupation and religion. The value of this information will vary depending on the nature of your problem. There is no doubt that it is always best to gather these facts and build the fullest picture possible.

Early lists are nowhere near as useful as census returns, but they should not be disregarded. Learning about the records adds to your knowledge of history and finding the records will either reinforce what you already know or guide you to new ideas.

Further Reading

  • Herber, Mark, Ancestral Trails (GPC 2nd ed 2006)
  • Irvine, Sherry, Your English Ancestry. (Ancestry, 1998)
  • Gibson, J.S.W. The Hearth Tax, Other Later Stuart Tax Lists and the Association Oath Rolls. Bury, LAN: Federation of Family History Societies, 1996.
  • Gibson, J.S.W. and Alan Dell. The Protestation Returns 1641-42 and Other Contemporary Listings. Bury, LAN: Federation of Family History Societies, 2004.
  • Gibson, J.S.W., M. Medlycott and D. Mills. Land and Window Tax Assessments. Bury, LAN: Federation of Family History Societies, 1998.

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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 “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 is among the instructors for a series of online family history courses at PharosTutors. For more information, visit their website:

4 thoughts on “Inhabitants’ Lists Before the Census, by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

  1. Very useful and informative article. I confess to being a novice when it comes to before census and this has inpired me. Thank you.

  2. Going back even farther, you forgot to mention the Visitations of 1530/31. 1563/64, 1584/85,1630 and 1664.

  3. hi there
    i’ve been researching my tree , on and of for six/seven
    yrs. i’m just going to have a look on your site now ?
    will let you know what i think .

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