Interpreting British Isles Census Records

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Congratulations, you have finally found the people you were looking for! So now what? Now you need to interpret the information and combine it with what you already know. Understanding what questions were asked and how the answers were recorded will help you apply the information correctly.

Numbers and Tally Marks

The first columns on most census forms are for the schedule number, street name, and address. The schedule number indicates the order in which the enumerator copied the records and does not usually correspond to a physical address. The street name and address may reflect the actual address but is not always exact (see Using British Isles Census Records). This information can help you place neighbors together.

The clerks who tallied the numbers for the census’s original purpose made heavy marks through valuable information. While most of the marks made by the census officials appear to be random and written through important information, some marks can be very helpful. On the line forming the left border of the Name column, you will often see a series of hash marks. The marks actually serve a useful purpose. Each new house or building is indicated by a slash (\) and each double slash (\\) indicates the start of a new family. Because relationships were not recorded in 1841, the hash marks are very useful for establishing family groups. In 1851, clerks underlined the last member of the family, rather than using the hash marks.


The name column is one of the most exciting columns on the form since the name is what gives identity and personality to the individual. Names are also the main point of linking people together. Given names may be repeated in different generations of the family, and an ancestral surname might be used as a middle name. If you see a middle name that shows up as the neighbor’s surname, you may want to investigate a possible connection. You can also use other records to make connections with names. Check the names of witnesses on marriage certificates or wills. Even if they are not related, it is interesting to see which neighbors played a role in your ancestors’ lives.

Names are also maddeningly inconsistent. In 1841, the enumerators were not required to give full Christian names. Enumerators often recorded only the first name and middle initial or only initials. It is also very common to find only initials listed in institutions. Name variations must always be considered when searching in the census.

Another thing to remember about names is that the name recorded on the census can depend on who answered the questions. For example, a parent may enter nicknames for children or a person might use a middle name instead of given name. On the other hand, a person may use a nickname for most of his life, but record his full given name on the census. For instance, Aunt Dotty may have given her name as Dorothy on the census.

Nicknames, or alternate names, are not always obvious, so do some investigations to see what possible variations there might be. Nicknames can be derived from rhyming words, physical traits, shortening a name or exchanging letters in the name. Polly, for example, can be a nickname for Mary. In Scotland, you may even find names in Gaelic, which look nothing like the English version of the name. Some good reference books are Dunkling’s Scottish Christian Names: An A–Z of First Names as well as The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names by Elizabeth G. Withycombe.

Spelling rules were not as rigid as they are today. Your ancestor may have not been literate and could have written his name phonetically, or the enumerator could have made an error in the copy. Given names and even family names may be spelled differently from one census to the next.

Surnames can be just as variable as given names. There may be more than one family with the same surname within the same location. Occasionally, women, especially widows, might be listed under their maiden names. It is even possible that the surname is completely incorrect, either because of a clerical error, or it was just reported differently. The change may be as subtle as Whitehead one year and Whitehall the next, or as dramatic as Freeman on one report and Raymond on another. Whether there are many families with your surname, or one that doesn’t have the right surname, but is otherwise correct, check all possibilities, comparing addresses, ages, and birthplaces and so on, against other sources to determine if the family is “your” family.


The 1851 to 1901 censuses include relationships of individuals to the head of the house, which is extremely helpful when constructing family units. Some of the terms used in the relationship field may be misleading if they are not applied in context with other known facts. For example, the relationship son-in-law may be used in modern terms, but it could also indicate that the child is a stepson. Other, more subtle, differences are found in relationships. For instance, a boarder is someone who dines with the family while a lodger does not. Occasionally the answers may even describe a relationship as friendly. Note as well that common abbreviations for relationships include

  • Daur. for Daughter
  • S. for Son
  • Serv. for Servant

Because the recorded relationships are to the head of the house only, use caution when inferring relationships between other people in the house. Take clues from the ages and birthplaces of family members to determine the possible relationships. For example, a woman who is recorded as the wife of the head of the house may not be the mother of all the children in the home. If there is a large gap between the ages of the children, or if the children are too old to have been born from that woman, this may indicate that she is a second wife and some or all of the children are her stepchildren. The relationship column only indicates the head of the house has sons and daughters, but not how they are related to the wife.

Occasionally you find that the enumerator was confused as to which person was the head of the house, especially when families live together, and marked a woman as wife when she was really the wife of the son and should be listed as daughter-in-law. You might also find an individual listed as a child one year but as a grandchild in the next. Such inconsistencies are one of many reasons why there is such value in looking at every census.

1891 census page from Wales (RG12\4675, f.69, p.3).

Relationships in some returns from Wales are written in Welsh. Some common relationships include the following:

  • Penteulu (Head)
  • Gwraig (Wife)
  • Mab (Son)
  • Merch (Daughter)
  • Brawd (Brother)
  • Chwaer (Sister)
  • Gwas (Servant)

Marital Status

The answer regarding marital status is usually abbreviated as follows:

  • Mar. for Married
  • S. for Single
  • W. or Widr. for Widowed or Widower

These status indicators can help you identify life events that happened between census years. An example of this would be a woman listed as single in one census and as a widow in the next census. One conclusion might be that she was married and widowed between census years, leading to further research for marriage and death records.


When trying to match someone’s age, you should always allow a difference of several years on either side of the reported age. In some cases the persons completing the form may not have known their age or the age of others in the household. Others may have hidden their true age.

Ages in 1841 are especially prone to error. Enumerators were instructed to round down ages for individuals over fifteen to the nearest five. Therefore, a person from age twenty to twenty-four would be recorded as age twenty, while a person from age twenty-five to twenty-nine would be recorded as twenty-five.

Ages can be used to gauge family completeness and establish a time line. In an average nineteenth century family, children were generally born about every two years. If there is a gap in the ages of the children larger than two or three years, it may indicate a child in the family who is not listed on the census form. You might also find children who are too old to be children of the woman listed as the wife in the family. Taken together, the pieces of information might suggest that the woman listed as the wife in the family is not the mother of the children. Very young children living with an older couple may actually be illegitimate children being raised by their grandparents.


Deciphering occupations and the abbreviations used for them can be challenging. It seems that occupations are as unique as the people who fill them. Occupations recorded in the census range from “Dowager Empress” to “magician” to simply “boy.” Starting in 1861 children over five years old were given the occupation “scholar” if they were attending school daily.

Occupations can lead to other records with additional information, such as apprenticeship and military records. Unfortunately, occupations are also heavily abbreviated or may be unfamiliar terms even when written out. Table 6.1 includes some common abbreviations for occupations. A list of abbreviations is also given in the enumerator’s instructions and an even more detailed list of possible terms is available in Guide to Census Reports, Great Britain, 1808–1966.

Despite all of their instruction, enumerators must have been at a loss to identify those people who entered magician or the like as their occupation. Descriptions of jobs with unusual or outdated names can be found in occupation dictionaries. Some occupations do not seem unusual at first but actually have a hidden meaning. For instance, dressmaker was a common euphemism for prostitute. This does not mean that every female who gave her occupation as dressmaker is a prostitute, but other clues may lead you to that conclusion.


Birth locations are quite important in family history research since they are helpful for building a time line as well as acting as a first step into other record types. Birthplaces can place the person on the census in a specific location decades before the census was ever taken. The birthplaces of children in a family can show whether that family migrated over time. For example, you might find a family where the parents and the oldest child were born in one location and the rest of the children were born in the current location. This tells you that the family moved at least once, at that you can check in the first parish for the marriage of the parents, as well as other children who may have been born in that parish.

In the 1841 census the only birthplace information is whether the person was born in the county of residence, outside the county of residence, in another country in Britain, or in a foreign country. Countries within Great Britain are recorded using the abbreviations “S” for Scotland, “I” for Ireland, “E” for england and “W” for Wales.

However, enumerators are not known for their consistency when following instructions, so it is always worth checking additional census returns to see if they happened to record more detailed information in other years. Sometimes, not following the rules can work in your favor. For instance, an enumerator may actually record the name of a town in a foreign country even if it wasn’t required.

From 1851 onward, the birthplace is usually listed with the county name first and then the parish within that county. If you are new to English geography some unexpected county abbreviations you may find are Oxon. for Oxfordshire, Salop. for Shropshire, and Hamps. for Southampton.

Unfortunately, birthplaces are often inaccurate. Town names can have a variety of spellings or can be shortened, which leads to confusion about the actual place. This is especially common in Wales where place names are long and can look the same once they are truncated. Place names in Wales may also be written with a Welsh spelling. The good news is that places given are often within the same general area of residence or birthplace. One should check the birthplace in more than one census before referring to the parish records.

For foreign-born individuals, there is sometimes an indication of British Subject, Naturalised British Subject, or Foreign Subject. Instructions on how and when to use these terms were not always clearly understood. As always you should use other records to confirm any leads obtained from the census.

Physical and Mental Condition

Starting in 1851, the final column on census forms indicates physical and mental condition. The 1851 and 1861 censuses inquired whether a person was blind, deaf, or dumb. In 1871, the categories of imbecile, idiot, and lunatic were added. The definition of each of the terms used was not exceptionally clear, and answers reflect the vagueness of the instructions as well as the individual interpretations applied. The information in this column should be regarded with some caution since few people were willing to declare a family member an “idiot.” In 1901, the term “idiot” was traded for the less harsh term “feeble minded,” and the number of people recorded in this category rose significantly.[1]

Check all census years even if you think you know everything about your family, you may find a surprise. Compare the information you find in the census with information you know from other records and from other census years. Many inaccurate answers can be weeded out by taking the most common and persistent information from various records.

Using the census, or any record in family history research, is a continual cycle. First you decide what you are looking for, then you locate and analyze the record, and then compare it to other information to see what agrees and disagrees, which will lead you to another record, and you start the cycle all over again.

Case Study—Interpreting the Records

In this example, I will show a part of my experiences as I tried to locate the parents of one of my ancestors with the help of census records.

My goal was to find the parents of my fourth great-grandfather William Mayfield. I began by examining the various records I had for the William Mayfield family. Those records showed the family as follows:

William Mayfield (b. abt. 1807) = Ann Holmes (b. abt. 1806)
Hannah Mayfield, b. 10 Jan 1825
Rebecca Mayfield, b. 8 Jul 1826
Ann Mayfield, b. 6 Jul 1831
Mark Mayfield, chr. 13 Apr 1834
George Mayfield, chr. 26 Nov 1837
Elizabeth Mayfield, b. 30 May 1839
James Mayfield, b. 28 Jan 1842
Mary Mayfield, b. 29 Jul 1845
George Mayfield, b. 1 Mar 1848
Sarah Mayfield, b. 28 Jan 1852

All family records indicated that the Mayfield family lived in Arnold, Nottingham. My main interest was to see what I could learn about the parents of William Mayfield. Since William married in 1824, I did not expect to find his parents actually living with him in any of the census records, unless they were quite elderly, but I believed the census could still help me make a connection.

William Mayfield died in 1890, so the first census I could find him in was 1881. Working from the known to the unknown, I planned to find him in 1881 and then work my way back to the 1841 census. Because there weren’t extensive indexes online at the time, I used the method shown in chapter 5 and determined that the only finding aids available for the Arnold parish were the surname and place indexes for 1881.

Finding the Mayfield family in 1881 was a simple task of locating them on the correct microfiche index. For the other census years, I located the film I needed by looking up the parish of Arnold in the Census Guide and acquiring all of the microfilm numbers that I needed to view the census records at the Family History Library. Since Arnold is a small place, I was able to locate the family in all other census years by scrolling through the parish page by page. Because I was looking at every page anyway, I decided that I would record all of the census records for any family with the surname Mayfield.

In the 1881 census, I located the family of William Mayfield in Arnold, where William and Ann were living with two grandchildren. William’s occupation was given as Frame Work Knitter (RG11\3336, f.42, p.29). In 1871 the family resided in Arnold and included two children and four grandchildren (RG10\3492, f.42, p.32). Six of the Mayfield children are enumerated alongside their parents in 1861 (RG9\2443, F.38, p.22).

In 1851 the enumerator recorded the surname of the family as Mafield (HO107\2128, f.197, p.34). I’m sure I have the correct family, because it includes wife Ann and children Eliza (probably Elizabeth), age 11; James, age 9; Mary, age 5; and George, age 3. William is still listed as a Framework Knitter.

By the time I got back to 1841, I was feeling confident that William Mayfield was a Framework knitter who lived his entire life in the parish of Arnold, Nottinghamshire. His birthplace is recorded as Arnold on all of the census returns, and his age consistently puts his estimated birth date around 1807.

As I worked my way back through the years, I found lots of interesting information that fueled many other research trips, but I never found a census where William Mayfield was living with his parents. I continued to search the census until I had located every member of the family in every census year. This approach provided the breakthrough I was looking for.

In all of my census research, I had not yet seen William Mayfield’s two oldest children, Hannah (born about 1825) and Rebecca (born about 1826), living with the family. I figured that there were three most likely scenarios: they passed away before the census, they lived or worked away from home, or they were married.

Since the last known record I had for these individuals was their birth record, I decided to start with the census year closest in time to those known dates. The girls would have been about fifteen at the time of the 1841 census. Marriage seemed an unlikely, although possible, option. The girls were old enough to be working outside of the home, and this seemed like a more likely situation.

Since I had been transcribing information for all of the Mayfield families in the parish, it was easy to review my notes without going back to the film. In the 1841 census, I found one Rebecca Mayfield, listed as age thirteen, living in Arnold with a Mark and Elizabeth Mayfield (HO 107/855/2, f.32, p.14). The age was close to the age I expected for Rebecca, and since Mark and Elizabeth were in their sixties, it seemed more likely that they were Rebecca’s grandparents than parents. This was exciting! But before I could come to any conclusions, I needed more information.

Following my theory, I located the family of Mark Mayfield in the 1851 census. According to the census the residents in his home were as follows:

Name Relationship Marital Status Age Occupation Birthplace
Mark Mafield Head Mar 61 Framework Knitter Notts Arnold
Elizth Mafield Wife Mar 62 Framework Knitter wife, Notts Arnold
Rebc Mafield Grandaur U 22 Framework Knitter Notts Arnold
Ann Mafield Grandaur U 19 Framework Knitter Notts Arnold
(Source: HO 107/2128, f.195, p.31)

Again, Rebecca Mayfield was about the right age to be William’s daughter, and this census clearly states that Rebecca Mayfield is Mark Mayfield’s granddaughter. She is also the only Rebecca in the parish. Also, the other granddaughter, Ann Mayfield, looked like she could be the daughter that was living with William Mayfield in 1841, but was absent from the family in 1851. When I added in the knowledge that Mark was an unusual name for that area and that William had a son named Mark, I felt sure that I had found the parents of William Mayfield.

I pursued my theory through other sources where I found evidence that reinforced my conclusion that William Mayfield’s father was Mark Mayfield. The census did not provide absolute proof by itself, but because families are listed together with names and relationships, I was able to get the information I needed to start down the right path.

  1. Higgs, Making Sense of the Census, 75.

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