1851 Census

1851 Census Date – Sunday, 30 March 1851

The 1851 Census was the second decennial census to collection personal information from UK inhabitants. Compared with the 1841 census, new questions were asked and existing questions were covered in more depth.

Personal information collected

Here is a list of the personal details now requested from every householder in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man:

Personal details to be recorded by each head of familyNew question?
(since 1841 Census)
Modified question?
(since 1841 Census)
Name and surname
Head of the family
Relationship to head of familyAfter the name of the head of the family, the names of his wife, children, other relatives, visitors, servants etc. were to be provided by each householder.
Marital status
Age Exact age now required - previously, the age was rounded down to the nearest five years unless aged under 15 years'.
'Rank, profession or occupation' - including second occupation. Second occupations were also to be provided.
If born in England, the county, town or parish of birth was required. Previously, individuals were simply recorded as having been born 'in county' or not 'in county'.
If born in Scotland, Ireland, the British Colonies, the East Indies, or in Foreign Parts, the precise country of birth was required.For those born abroad, the the country of birth was now asked.
If born in 'Foreign Parts', was the individual a British subject.
Whether the individual was blind and/or deaf/unable to speak.
Full address of where the individual stayed on the night of 30 March 1851.In the 1841 Census, the full address was rarely recorded.

Population Recorded

The 1921 Preliminary Report (Census of England and Wales[1]) provided the following UK population figures for the 1851 census:

(or decrease)
since 1841 census
Total UK population27,390,629
Islands of the British Seas143,12615.4%

The Great Exhibition: 1 May 1851 – 15 October 1851
The Census 1851 Report[2] acknowledged that there were approx 2m visitors to the Great Exhibition (and over 6m visits). Despite these figures, the Census Report observed that, in the first three months of 1851, there was no material increase in people from abroad compared to the first three months in 1850.

Where to search?

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

FindMyPast.co.uk holds 1851 census records for England, Wales and Scotland. They also hold some surviving fragments of the 1851 Ireland census:

Ancestry.com holds 1851 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).

Procedure for gathering 1851 Census Records

The procedure for collecting census information was the same as that carried out for the 1841 Census.

  • A [3]‘Householder’s Schedule’ was left with each head of a household a few days before the Census. The householder was instructed to record all people who had stayed in his house on the night of 30 March 1851. The schedule clarified that no one who was absent on the night of the Census was to be included. The Householder needed to complete this form before the ‘enumerator’ called on Monday 31 March. A fixed fine of £5 (plus a conviction) was imposed for non-compliance (although enumerators assisted any householders who struggled with writing).
  • 40,000 enumerators were now employed to visit all the householders in their ‘enumeration district’ and copy the details from the Householder’s Schedules into their ‘Enumeration Books’.
  • These enumeration books were then sent to Registrars (England and Wales) or Superintendents (Scotland). Once checked, they were sent on to Superintendent Registrars (England and Wales) or Sheriffs/Sheriffs-Substitute/Provosts (Scotland).

It is the enumeration books that family historians consult because, in almost all cases, the original householder’s schedules were destroyed after their information had been copied.

Voluntary Censuses on Religious Worship and Education

A unique feature of the 1851 Census was the two voluntary Censuses on religious worship and education, resulting in two separate Census reports: the Census of Great Britain, 1851: Religious Worship in England and Wales and the Census of Great Britain, 1851: Education. England and Wales.

The questions relating to religion and education were not directed at the householder but at the schools and places of worship; participation was voluntary because these censuses were not actually provided for in the enabling Census Act of 1850.

Victorian Britain at the time of the March 1851 Census

Prime Minister

Lord John Russell, 1st Earl Russell (1846 to 1852)

Government of the day

The Whigs.

Foreign Secretary

Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston (1846 to 1851)
Replaced by George Leveson Gower, Earl Granville in December (1851 to 1852)

Chancellor of the Exchequer

Sir Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax (1846 to 1852)

Historical Snapshot – Victorian Britain in the decade up to the 1851 Census

Domestic Affairs

The Potato Famine – 1845 – 1852

Also known as The Great Famine or the Great Hunger. The failure of the potato crop, upon which the peasants of Ireland were so heavily and fatally dependent, was the most significant domestic event of the period. It resulted in the death of an estimated one million people, either by starvation or disease, and caused a similar number to emigrate, mainly to England or North America. By the time the famine had ended, it is estimated that a quarter of the population of Liverpool was Irish – a demographic trend that was replicated in many cities in North America. If you have Irish ancestry which dates back to the Victorian period, it is highly likely that your ancestors left Ireland during this period as a result of the Potato Famine.

Irish potato famine 1845 - 1852

By Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849 (Image, Caption) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Sketch of a Woman and Children represents Bridget O’Donnel. Her story is briefly this:– ‘. . .we were put out last November; we owed some rent. I was at this time lying in fever. . . they commenced knocking down the house, and had half of it knocked down when two neighbours, women, Nell Spellesley and Kate How, carried me out. . . I was carried into a cabin, and lay there for eight days, when I had the creature (the child) born dead. I lay for three weeks after that. The whole of my family got the fever, and one boy thirteen years old died with want and with hunger while we were lying sick.” By Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849

Income Tax ‘temporarily’ introduced in 1842

Within a year of becoming Prime Minister, Peel had introduced one of the most ground-breaking budgets of the century. Significant strides were made towards free trade but, on the downside, income tax was ‘temporarily’ reintroduced. This was the first time income tax had been introduced during peacetime.

1843 – The assassination attempt of Sir Robert and rules for ‘criminal insanity’ established

A failed attempt to assassinate Peel resulted in the House of Lords developing the first legal test for criminal insanity – known as the ‘M’Naghten Rules‘. Daniel M’Naghten, an insane Scottish woodsman, was acquitted on grounds of criminal insanity despite Peel’s Personal Secretary being accidentally killed in the assassination attempt.

The pursuit of Social reform

Lord Ashley (later named Lord Shaftesbury), together with the reformer John Fielden, continued to battle for social reform and the elusive ‘ten hour working day’.

  • The Mines and Collieries Act (1842) had banned all women and boys under ten years old from working in the mines. Lord Ashley had successfully appealed to Victorian morality; women had to work bare breasted and wear trousers in the mines which “made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers”.
  • The Factories Act (1844) is now regarded as the first ‘Health and Safety’ Act because it actually addressed the need to fence off dangerous machinery. It also reduced the working day to 12 hours for women and young people (6.5 hours if they were under 13 years old – although they had to attend 3 hours schooling with all that free time!)
  • The Factories Act (1847) fleetingly introduced the ten hour working day but, following the exploitation of a loophole, it was finally pegged at ten and a half in the Factories Act of 1850.

The Free Trade Revolution – 1840s

The suffering caused by the Potato Famine bolstered support for the anti-Corn Law movement, the proponents of which argued that import duties on grain kept food prices high and disproportionately affected the poor. The Corn Laws were eventually repealed by the Importation Act of 1846 but they dragged down the Conservative Government and ended Robert Peel’s career.

By the 1840s, the battle for unilateral free trade against the forces of protectionism had been largely won in Britain. On the continent, a more violent storm was brewing…

Foreign Affairs

In 1842, Britain had successfully concluded the first ‘Opium War’. The Chinese had to cede Hong Kong and pay reparations to the British. The Chinese also had to agree a ‘fair and reasonable’ tariff.

In the same year, Britain very unsuccessfully concluded the Anglo-Afghan War. The result was a disastrous defeat and the annihilation of the British and Indian army.

In 1843, freed from the wars with China and Afghanistan, Britain proceeded to annex both the Sind (now part of Pakistan) and the Natal (now part of South Africa). Referring to the annexation of Sind (or Sindh), Sir Charles Napier from the British East India Company wrote in his diary; “We have no right to seize Sind, but we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful, humane piece of rascality it will be”.

The people’s spring – ‘the Revolutions of 1848’

Whilst Britain was having its quiet economic revolution, the continent was having its ‘People’s Spring’ (aka the ‘Revolutions of 1848’) – a series of revolts in over 50 countries which led, amongst other things, to the overthrow of the French monarchy (again) and the foundation of the second French republic. 1848 also saw the first publication of the Communist Manifesto by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Sources – Census information

[1] Please see Census Records page for sources relating to population numbers.
[2] Census of Great Britain, 1851, Population tables, I. Number of the inhabitants in 1801, 1811, 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851. Vol. I BPP 1852-53 LXXXV (1631) p.xxiv
[3]Source: 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.