Using British Isles Census Records

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This article originally appeared in Finding Answers in British Isles Census Records by Echo King, AG.


The census is one of the most used record groups in family history research. Unlike other records that show a single event for two or three certain people at any given time, the census is a picture of the entire population taken at one point in time. This “snapshot” of history is like opening a window into the lives of our ancestors as it shows us where they lived, with whom they associated, and what they were doing with their lives.

From the census, we get a picture of what entire households looked like. In all but the 1841 census, we even get specific relationships. This not only helps us put family groups together, it can also help us place individuals in a certain location at a specific time. The census can also place individuals and families at various locations at times in life prior to the census. For instance, discover where and when an ancestor was born or track a family’s movement by the birthplaces and approximate birth dates of children. Information from the 1841 census can take you back into the late eighteenth century. Census returns include other information, such as language spoken, occupation, or housing situation. Few, if any, other records can provide such a wide range of information. Census records are some of the most detail-rich and interesting records available.

Details in the census may lead you to other record sources beyond the census, including probate records, immigration records, military records, or apprentice records. The second biggest record group used in research in England and Wales is civil registration. Since the census uses the same administrative regions as civil registration, there is a direct link between the two record types. Use the registration district listed on a birth certificate to get started in the census, or use the registration district where you locate an individual in the census as a clue of where to find the correct birth or marriage certificate.

Although the census is a very valuable source, we should not forget that every source has certain flaws. Understanding how the records were created and what problems occurred at that time helps us understand and work around the weak points in the census.

People make mistakes, whether intentional or not. One of the most likely times for errors to occur is when a copy is made. As mentioned in the previous chapter, enumerators made copies of the household schedules they collected. The data that you see when you view a page from the census, whether it is digital, microfilm, microfiche, or even the original paper documents, is already at least one copy away from the information reported by your ancestors. Some of the more common copy errors include people who were skipped or added as well as simple transcription errors.

Missing or Additional Records

One might easily assume that everyone in the country was counted in the census. In reality it would be impossible to find and count every single person. Some individuals were traveling, either out of the country or within the country, and not at an enumerated establishment. Others chose to avoid the census taker for personal reasons. Enumerators simply missed others in the crowded areas of large cities. The following letter to the editor describes a situation where a householder’s schedule was missed:

Sir, I live in a large house in a broad and very lengthy street in the [South West] district, and in the mansion I and my family and servants inhabit there are five sets of apartments, each occupied by families, numbering several persons, young and old, and their domestics. Observing in The Times of to-day a letter from a gentleman in Peckham that his census paper had not been called for, it occurred to me to inquire about the fate of the similar document, which, fully and carefully filled in according to direction endorsed thereon, I had given to my butler on Monday morning early for the collector or enumerator who was to call for it, and I was informed that no one up to present time had been for it (it is now noon April 3); and I have moreover ascertained that there has not been the least evidence of any inquiry having been addressed to the families who are handier to the Census Office then Peckham, and who have more than 200 ft of frontage in one of the chief streets of western London. I have written to report as requested to the Registrar-General’s Office, Millbank, but to make assurance doubly sure, I also write to The Times.[1]

As many as five families were possibly missed according to this account.

Locating “Missing” Individuals

Sometimes there is an assumption that a family has been missed because they do not appear “in order” on the returns. Before assuming this, examine the facts to make sure you understand how the returns are ordered. Enumerators did not carry the Census Enumerators’ Book with them and they did not always copy the entries into their books in order by address. In some cases, it appears that the enumerator tried to arrange the families in his district so that they fit neatly onto a page rather than keeping them in any certain order. You may need to examine an entire district if families are not listed according to street address.

An enumerator did not always cover both sides of the street. The other side of the street might not be in the enumeration district you are looking in. If an enumerator did canvass both sides of the street, it is unlikely that he crossed back and forth across the street to get each house. Most enumerators were more likely to walk down one side of the street and then turn at the end of the street to come back up the other side in the shortest route possible. If the house numbers seem to be all even or all odd, this is the possible case.

A map drawn on the description page for one enumerator’s district. The map shows that only parts of certain streets were included. (RG10\112, f.19).

Even in cases where the families are listed by street, consider that streets could be called by different names at different times. Parts of a street may appear as named terraces, cottages, or courts. House numbers were often erratic; they might not have even been in sequential order on the street, and they may even be duplicated. Review the entire street if you do not find a family at the address you expected to.

There are many other reasons why you do not find individuals where you expect them. They may be listed with a name other than the one you expect. If an ancestor remarried, you may find children listed under a new surname. If you are using an index, the name may have been transcribed incorrectly. Your ancestor may not have been present on census night. Families may have moved, and you may need to use additional resources to locate a new address. Exhaust all possibilities before presuming an individual or family was skipped by the enumerator.

Duplicate and False Entries

On occasion, you may find duplicate entries for an individual, although missing or skipped names are more common. If an individual visited two different households on census night, you may find him or her recorded in both places. Travelers or night laborers are sometimes recorded in multiple locations.

Census Enumerators’ experiences (The Times [London], 20 May 1871).

On rare occasions the enumerator may have added false entries. The work was difficult, and many enumerators completed their assignment feeling inadequately compensated. At least one enumerator filed suit against the Home Secretary after completing his work on the 1851 census. The enumerator was supposed to have been paid 18 shillings for the first 300 names and 1 shilling for every 60 over the first 300. He had counted only 50 extra people and wanted to be paid the appropriate fraction of the fee for 60 additional people.[2] It is not hard to imagine that some enumerators would simply add in ten additional people rather than take the issue to court.

Lost Information

Even if individuals were properly enumerated, some of the information may have been lost over the years. This could be due to age and general wear and tear, copy errors by the enumerator, or skipped pages when the microfilm or digital copy was made. Pages skipped during filming or digitizing can sometimes be located in the originals. If you suspect that a page is missing, check the folio numbers.

Although all of the schedules have printed page numbers on them, all of the returns for England and Wales were stamped with a folio number before they were filmed. A folio number appears in the top right corner on the front side of each schedule and refers to both the front page and the back page of that schedule. One way to check to see if a page is missing is to make sure that all of the folios are there. If one side of the folio appears to be missing, a page may have been missed when it was microfilmed or digitized. You can contact The National Archives in Kew, England, to see if it is possible to check the original manuscript or have it checked for you. If the printed page numbers are out of sequence, but the folio numbers are in sequence, the page is most likely missing from the originals and cannot be replaced.

Clerical Errors

Enumerators had the tedious task of copying poorly written responses from householder schedules or copying their own notes taken from verbal responses. Many factors can influence the quality of the resulting copy. Enumerators struggled to read poor handwriting, just as we do today, and some made mistakes in the process. If a person gave a verbal response, the enumerator may have misheard it and in turn spelled it wrong.

The copy process is prone to errors. As mentioned above, some people that may have been recorded correctly on the householder’s schedule were dropped in the copy made by the enumerator. In some cases, the forms themselves led to errors. For example, on the householder’s schedule there were two separate columns for gender and age. The Census Enumerator’s Book has two columns as well; however, one is for male age and one is for female age. It is not unusual to find individuals whose gender is recorded incorrectly in the CEB.

As a researcher, you need to use some creativity to locate phonetically spelled place or personal names. Literacy rates were low, and spelling standards were not rigid. Local accents have some influence on how a name may have been pronounced or understood. For example, a place name that begins with a vowel may written as if it started with an “H.” On the other hand, a place name that starts with an “H” followed by a vowel may be recorded as though the name began with a vowel and without the “H.”

Misleading Answers

Even when the information is clear and legible, not all answers are exactly accurate. Some individuals purposely gave misleading answers or no answers at all. Members of the poorer population, especially older individuals, may have lied about their birthplace out of fear of being returned to their original parish under the Poor Law.

Others may have given the best response they could and still have been less than accurate. A person may have moved into a parish when he was small and given that place as his birth location, not knowing the truth to be any different. Even today, it is common practice for people to say they were born in the nearest large town rather than a smaller town or village. Since you do not know the circumstances, verify all information against another source when possible.

As with birthplace, individuals may have been ignorant of their exact age or reluctant to divulge such personal information. In fact, it is quite possible to find people who have aged only a few years since the previous census according to their answers. People are notorious for fudging on that detail of their lives.

In a letter to the editor of The Times, one woman expressed her concern about stating her age:

There are thousands of both sexes who will bear me out in saying that as we advance in years the necessity of putting down our age in the Census paper becomes a trying thing. Our neighbors probably know our age approximately, but that is different from writing down the exact number of years for them all to scan at their pleasure. . . . While the mind is slightly calmed by the assurances in the newspapers that the enumerator is bound to secrecy, and that the disagreeable fact will be at once sent away to a distant collector.
Vain delusion! This very day I discovered that, instead of the Census papers being delivered on the Monday evening last to the collector for the district, all those belonging to this parish still lie in a drawer in the enumerator’s house, and on calling there this afternoon I was even invited to look at them . . . the good lady of the house had no idea the papers were not intended for the public gaze.[3]

A fine was levied against those who lied or refused to cooperate, but some people would rather pay the fine than give out their personal information. In 1891, one Mr. J. Morgan appeared before the superintendent registrar of his district for failing to complete the form left at his house. On the householder’s schedule, he had entered “Myself, my wife, and three children slept under the roof of this house on April 5. All other questions are of an inquisitorial nature and I absolutely refuse to answer any of them or allow any one in my house to do so.” At the conclusion of the session with the superintendent registrar, Mr. Morgan had been persuaded to complete the form. However, he also went to prison for seven days rather than pay the fine to complete his punishment.[4] Looking at the CEB from this district, it appears that the enumerator squeezed that additional information provided by Mr. Morgan into the CEB that had been completed prior to Mr. Morgan’s hearing.

Census return for J. Morgan, 1891 (bottom three lines) (RG12\436, f.82, p.42).

In institutions, the warden or other head official was responsible for completing the form. In many cases, the residents of hospitals, asylums, and homes for the aged were unable to provide personal information, and the staff may not have been able to answer for them. In some institutions, limited information was entered either to protect privacy or to save time.

Geography and Boundaries

Understanding the relationships between places and the various ecclesiastical and civil jurisdictions in the British Isles can be a bit of an obstacle, especially for researchers who are not native to the area. Familiarity with good maps and gazetteers is essential for thorough research.

The main geographic divisions used by researchers of the census are county, civil parish, ecclesiastical parish, and registration districts.


The county names used in the 1841–1901 censuses were those in existence before the changes made to the size and names of some counties in 1974 in England and Wales and in 1975 in Scotland. Maps of the counties both before and after the re-organization are available at

There are fifty-one ancient counties in England and Wales. The one major change to what are called the ancient counties was in 1889 when the administrative county of London was created from the City of London and parts of Middlesex, Kent, and Surrey. Family historians often use a list of three letter codes, known as the Chapman County Codes, when referencing these counties (see List of Chapman Codes).


A parish is a geographic unit used as the basis for many census indexes and finding aids. In Scotland, the parish is the fundamental administrative organization. To see where a parish is located within a county, or relationships between parishes, consult a good map, such as Cecil Humphrey-Smith’s The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers.

In England and Wales, the most common place of residence in the census is the civil parish. Civil parishes are relatively new and have grown out of the older administrative units of ecclesiastical parish and township. In 1889, guidelines established a civil parish as the lowest level of local civil government.

In southern England, townships and ecclesiastical parishes tend to exist within the same boundaries, while northern parishes tend to cover multiple townships. In the nineteenth century, townships became known as civil parishes as they took on functions of poor relief and other duties formerly administered by the church parishes or townships. Consequently, in the south, the boundaries of ecclesiastical parish and civil parish often coincide, while in the north an ecclesiastical parish may cover many civil parishes.[5] You can determine to which civil parish a town or small place belongs by consulting a good gazetteer.

In Scotland, each parish is assigned a unique number. This parish or district number is often used to reference a particular place in source citations and is often required when using indexes or reference materials. The numbering begins in the north of the country and moves south from east to west. Within each county, the parishes are arranged alphabetically and then numbered consecutively. In 1854, when new registration districts were created, the new districts were provided with a new sequence of numbers. The parish number used in the census will correspond to the parish number used in church records. A list of these numbers can be obtained from the General Register Office for Scotland (and List of UK Libraries and Archives).

Registration Districts

When the civil registration system was created in England and Wales, the country was divided into eleven regions and then subdivided into Superintendent Registrar’s Districts based on the old Poor Law Unions. These registration districts were then subdivided again into sub-districts. Registration districts are administrative areas and can overlap geographic county lines. Since the census was taken according to registration district, you may find neighbors in the same parish and enumeration district but living in two different counties. When Scotland was divided into registration districts, the district boundaries corresponded to parish boundaries, making it possible to have a census return for each parish. Maps of registration district boundaries can be found in the Population Tables or on maps created by and available for purchase from the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. An incomplete set of maps is also available at The National Archives in Kew.

Search across Boundaries

All of this demonstrates that boundaries exist only on maps and for administrators. We cannot limit ourselves geographically. A single town could reside in one registration district but in two counties. Alternatively, it could exist in one county, but in multiple registration districts, as was the case in London. As you search the census, keep the geography of the place in mind. It is helpful to have a map close by. While a possible match for an ancestor found a hundred miles away from where expected might not be the most likely match, it is not completely impossible.


Perhaps one of the biggest challenges with the census is reading the handwriting. Old handwriting can be hard to read and it is even worse when clerks have marked through the very information you are trying to read. A researcher can overcome the challenge of reading older handwriting by taking some time to become familiar with the scribe and by practicing the skill.

Take time to become familiar with the handwriting of a particular enumerator by reading a few pages before and after the page you are trying to decipher. Look for familiar words, such as the names of counties or relationships, and see how the letters are formed. Try building an alphabet by copying readable letters and comparing them to letters that are hard to read. When trying to decipher ages, use numbers that run in sequence, like household numbers, to help you determine unreadable numbers.

If the previous methods do not work, you can try to sound the word out, remembering that accents vary from place to place. Sometimes it helps to get a fresh look. Take a break and then come back and give it another try, or try looking at it from another angle. The List of Phonetic Substitutes and the List of Frequently Misread Letters may be helpful as you sound out and decipher letters. Sometimes another person will have more success. If you are viewing a digital image, you can manipulate the image in different ways to make it more readable. For example, you may be able to adjust brightness and contrast or view the image as a negative.


  1. Quis Custodiet?, “Census Returns,” The Times [London], 4 April 1901, 6.
  2. “Cohen Exparte v. Sir George Grey, Bart.—The Census Enumerator and the Home Secretary,” Daily News [London], 28 May 1851, 6.
  3. An Old Maid of A Certain Age, “The Census,” The Times [London], 8 April 1871, 8.
  4. “Police,” The Times [London], 20 April 1891, 13.
  5. Mark D. Herber, Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1998), 89.

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