1841 Census

The 1841 Census – The First ‘Modern’ Census – taken on 6 June 1841

Prior to 1841, censuses were taken in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831. However, the 1841 Census was the first ‘modern’ census to record personal information such as ‘the exact age, occupation, and place of birth of each person’[1]. It is, therefore, the first UK census to be of real use to family historians and genealogists.

Personal information collected for the first time

The following personal information of the inhabitants of England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man was collected:

Personal details recorded by enumeratorsNew question?
(since 1831 Census)
First name and surname
AgeUnless aged under 15 years' old, the age was rounded down to the nearest five years. Fortunately, enumerators sometimes did record the exact age.
(Previously, a headcount only)
(Previously, a headcount only of a restricted number of predetermined occupations e.g. agriculture, trade/manufacturing, other)
For occupation abbreviations, please see table below.
Were they born in the same countyThis was answered: 'Y' or 'N'.
Were they 'born in Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts'.This was answered: 'S', 'I' or 'F' as appropriate.
Where the individual stayed on the night of 6 June 1841.Rarely was the house number recorded by the enumerator.

The Scottish Census, was undertaken separately but followed largely the same format. Unfortunately, most Ireland Census records were destroyed – see our Ireland Census Records page for more information.

Population Recorded

The 1921 Preliminary Report (Census of England and Wales[2]) provided the following UK population figures for the 1841 census:

CountriesPopulationIncrease since 1831 census
Total UK population26,730,929
Islands of the British Seas124,040

Householders were only responsible for recording those people who were staying at their house on the night of 6 June. The census records for 1841 show that 5,016 people were recorded as ‘travelling on the night of the 6th of June 1841’.

Where to search?

There are a number of subscription based companies that hold 1841 census records:

FindMyPast.co.uk holds 1841 census records for England, Wales and Scotland. They also hold some surviving fragments of the 1841 Ireland census:

Ancestry.com holds 1841 census records for the English Census, Scottish Census, Welsh Census, 1841 Isle of Man Census and 1841 Channel Islands Census.

You can also view records free of charge at the National Archives, Kew, Richmond Surrey TW9 4DU.

Local and county record offices, and family history societies, often hold copies (usually in microfiche or microfilm format).

For online Scotland census records, visit ScotlandsPeople.

For online Ireland census records, visit the National Archives of Ireland website, although records for Ireland are scarce (see below).

Major Improvements to Census Collection Introduced

The 1841 census was also significant because the Population Act 1840 totally overhauled the system of census collection.

Responsibility for collection given to General Register Office

In England and Wales, the newly formed (in 1837) General Register Office, was now responsible for conducting the Census, which had previously been handled by the Home Office. The structure recently set up for the registration of births, marriages and deaths was now applied to census collection. Previously, the Overseers of the Poor and the Clergy had shared census collection duties. It was felt that this system had run its course and a more professional system was required.

In Scotland, a process of civil registration was not established until 1855. As a result, the ‘schoolmaster’, continued to be responsible ‘as no one could be better qualified for the task’[3] and the Sheriff Substitute was responsible for checking and signing the schedules (a role carried out by the Superintendent Registrar in England).

Regarding Public Institutions (including ‘barracks, gaols, and workhouses’ and hospitals) the ‘actual description’ of each resident on the night of 6th June 1841 was to be recorded by the officials in charge of these institutions.

The need for speedy collection recognised

The Preface to the Enumeration Abstract[1] stressed the importance of collecting census information in one day:

“the business of numbering the people should be completed “in one day”, in order to obviate the chance of inaccuracy from omissions or double entries to which the extension of the inquiry over a greater period might have given rise.”

This marked a significant departure from earlier censuses in which information was collected in a rather desultory manner “day after day….till answers to all the queries were obtained.”

Systems put in place

To ensure that census information could be collected ‘in one day’ the following systems were put in place:

  • A Householder’s Schedule. This was supplied to each householder a few days before the Census. These schedules were forms which had to be completed in advance of the enumerator’s visit on Monday, 7 June. The Householder was instructed to include anyone who ‘abode or slept in the House on the Night of June 6’. Fines for non-compliance ranged between 40 shillings five pounds.
  • Enumerators. At least 35,000 enumerators were to be employed. An enumerator was an salaried officer tasked with delivering the Householder’s schedules and collecting them on the day of the census.
  • A Census Enumerator’s Book. This was used by the enumerator for copying the information supplied in the Householder’s Schedule. A ‘Specimen of Enumerator’s Schedule’ was published in the Preface to the Enumeration Abstract of the 1841 Census: 1841 census form[4]
  • Enumeration Districts (ED). These were established in England and Wales by sub-dividing the existing 2,193 Registration Districts. The enumeration districts were to ‘contain not more than 200, and not less than 25 inhabited houses’ or, in thinly populated areas, not more than ‘an active man could travel over between morning and sunset on a summer’s day’.
  • The Census date was fixed in the summer for ease of collection.
  • Occupation abbreviations were used to help speed up the completion process.

Improved recording of occupations

To emphasis the Government’s growing interest in occupation statistics, a separate Occupation report (‘Occupation Abstract’) was published.

In earlier censuses, the enumerators recorded occupation numbers from a preset list of limited occupations. Now, they were to record the actual occupation of each individual, and various occupation abbreviations were introduced to aid census collection. For a full list of ‘occupation’ abbreviations, please visit census abbreviations.

The most frequently recorded occupation was domestic servant. (The least recorded occupation was ice dealer – of which there were five). The following groups of people were not recorded as having any occupation or profession: wives, sons or daughters living with and assisting with their husbands/parents but not apprenticed/salaried.

Regarding Public Institutions (including ‘barracks, gaols, and workhouses’ and hospitals) the ‘actual description’ of each resident on the night of 6th June 1841 was to be recorded by the officials in charge of these institutions.

1841 Census publications

The 1841 Census comprises three main volumes:

  • Enumeration Abstract
  • Age Abstract
  • Occupation Abstract

Each abstract contained two sections:

  • Part I – England and Wales (‘and Islands in the British Seas’)
  • part II – Scotland.

The Parish Register Abstract

As mentioned above, prior to 1841, the Clergy and Overseers of the Poor shared responsibility for supplying census information in England and Wales. This is because the Clergy had access to parish records which provided details of baptisms, marriages and burials. A separate ‘Parish Register Abstract’ detailing births, marriages and deaths was still published but it had ‘lost much of its interest’ because the reports issued by the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths, and Marriages had ‘greater correctness’[5].

For more details on the 1841 Census, visit our sister site: 1841Census.co.uk.

Victorian Britain at the time of the June 1841 Census

Prime Minister

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1835 to 1841).
Replaced by Sir Robert Peel in August (1841 – 1846).

Government of the day

The Whigs under Viscount Melbourne.
Replaced by the Conservatives in September.

Foreign Secretary

Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston (1835 to 1841)
Replaced by George Hamilton Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen in September (1841 to 1846)

Chancellor of the Exchequer

Francis Baring (1839 to 1841)
Replaced by Henry Goulburn in September (1841 to 1846).

Historical Snapshot – Victorian Britain in the decade up to the 1841 Census

Domestic Affairs

The misery of the workhouses

Oliver Twist

“Please, sir, I want some more” from “Oliver Twist”. Illustration by George Cruikshank, ca. 1837.George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Working conditions in Victorian Britain were unbelievably harsh and the authorities made sure that being out of work was even worse. By the 1830s, poor relief payments (which were first introduced in Elizabethan times) had reached around £7m – a huge sum in those days. In an attempt to reduce these payments, the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) ended ‘outdoor relief’; able bodied people were no longer entitled to poor relief unless they were willing to enter the workhouse.

To act as a disincentive to entry, the Poor Law Commission recommended that these workhouses be less attractive than ‘the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class’. In 1830s Britain, this was a tall order but the institutions made a decent attempt at meeting their obligations: husbands and wives were separated (to prevent them having more children), children were often separated from their parents, visitors forbidden (unless supervised) and inmates were rarely allowed outside (unless they discharged themselves, at the risk of starvation). For good reason they were nicknamed ‘Bastilles’.

The miseries of the workhouse were soon brought vividly to the public’s attention in Charles Dickens’ novel; Oliver Twist (serialised in 1837 and published as a book in 1838).

Faltering steps towards social reform

By the 1841 Census there was a growing awareness of the need for social reform, vigorously pursued by such figures as the evangelical Christian Lord Ashley (later known as Lord Shaftesbury). There were many catalysts, including the the horrors of the workhouses and the anti-slavery movement. Two reforming acts of the 1830s illustrate just how grim working conditions in Victorian Britain were for the working classes:

  • The Factories Act (1833). The ‘Ten Hour Movement’ led by Lord Ashley was a campaign to reduce the working day to ten hours (initially just for women and children). The Factories Act was a modest step in that direction.
  • Applicable to most textile factories, this act banned the employment of children less than 9 years old. Those aged 9–13 years could ‘only’ work 9 hours a day and were to receive a compulsory 2 hours of education (if they could keep their eyes open!). Those aged 13-18 years could ‘only’ work 12 hours a day. No children were to work at night. Four factory inspectors (for the whole country) were appointed so that the law would actually be enforced.
  • Although campaigners were unhappy with aspects of the act, it actually represented a significant improvement to the working conditions of children.
  • ‘The Climbing Boys Act’ (1840). Lord Ashley was again the prime mover in the ‘Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act’ which banned children less than 16 years old from being employed as apprentice chimney sweeps and banned anyone less than 21 years old from climbing chimneys.
  • The act was largely ignored; boys as young as six were still employed to ‘carry the brushes’ because housewives felt that small boys made less mess.

The first grant of public money for education

The first state education grant was approved by Parliament in 1833: £20,000 (increasing to £30,000 in 1839). To put this amount into context, the grant for the royal stables in 1833 was £50,000. Nevertheless, it was a significant first step towards state education.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (w.e.f. 1834)

Whilst the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had only outlawed the slave trade, this act abolished slavery altogether throughout most of the British Empire. This was the final triumph of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian who had devoted his life to campaigning against the slave trade. He lived just long enough to witness the fruits of his labour – he died three days after the passing of this act.

The agitation for political reform

This period saw an agitation for political rights amongst the population at large. The Reform Act of 1832 had extended the vote to the middle classes and, in 1838, the newly formed Chartist Movement published the ‘Peoples’ Charter’ which demanded the vote for every man over 21 years of age and secret ballots. However, they failed to win any support in Parliament. A year later, 5,000 armed Chartists marched on Newport, Wales in what came to be called the ‘Newport Rising’. This was the last large-scale armed rebellion in Britain and resulted in 22 men losing their lives when troops opened fire on them. In the 1841 General Election, only 3.7% of the population voted.

Queen Victoria becomes Queen and gets married

For Queen Victoria, the decade preceding the 1841 census was to be her most eventful and certainly her happiest.

  • 20 June 1837. Alexandrina Victoria became Queen Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She succeeded her uncle, William IV whose only legitimate child (Princess Charlotte) had predeceased him.
  • May 1839. The Bedchamber Crisis. The first crisis of Queen Victoria’s reign occurred when she resisted the demands of Sir Robert Peel (Conservative) that she dismiss her ladies in waiting (who were Whigs).
  • 10 February 1840. She married her first cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg at St James’s Palace. (Albert was later given the title ‘Prince Albert’).
  • 10 June 1840. She fell victim to the first of seven assassination attempts that occurred throughout her reign. (Surprisingly, not one of her would be assassins were executed.)

Foreign Affairs

At the time of the 1841 Census, Britain was involved in two wars.

  • The First Opium War against China (1839 – 1842) broke out when Britain, objecting to China banning opium from India (which Palmerston considered protectionism), bombarded Canton.
  • The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839 – 1842) broke out when Governor-General of India Lord Auckland, fearful of Russian influence, attempted to replace the Amir of Afghanistan – with disastrous consequences.

Sources – Census information

Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to acts 3 & 4 Vic. c.99 and 4 Vic. c.7 intituled respectively “An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain,” and “An act to amend the acts of the last session for taking an account of the population.” Enumeration Abstract. M.DCCC.XLI: p. 1 – 9.
[1]Preface p. 1
[3]Preface p. 4
[5]Preface p. 6

[2] Please see Census Records page for sources relating to population numbers.
[4] Office for National Statistics licensed under the Open Government Licence v.3.0.
Further reading:
Great Britain: Office of Population Censuses and Surveys General Register Office (1977) Guide to Census Reports: Great Britain 1801-1966 ISBN: 0116906383. PART 2 Significant developments in the scope and organisation of the census.