1861 Census

1861 Census Date – 7 April 1861

The 1861 Census Records were taken on the night of 7th April 1861. The questions asked and the procedures followed were virtually the same as for the 1851 Census. A Householder’s Schedule was delivered to each household a few days before Sunday, 7 April 1861. On this Schedule, the Householder had to supply the following personal details of himself, his family, other relatives, visitors, servants etc. who were staying with him overnight on 7th April 1861:

Personal details to be recorded by each head of family
Minor amendment: those travelling or out at work during the night of 7 April and who returned home on 8 April were to included in the Householder's Schedule. (Previously, no person absent on the night of the census was to be included).
Name and surname
Head of the family
Relationship to head of family
Marital status
'Rank, profession or occupation' - including second occupation.
If born in England, the county, town or parish of birth was required.
If born in Scotland, Ireland, the British Colonies, the East Indies, or in Foreign Parts, the precise country of birth was required.
If born in 'Foreign Parts', was the individual a British subject.
Whether the individual was blind and/or deaf/unable to speak.

The Householder’s Schedule had to be completed in readiness for the enumerator’s visit on Monday 8 April. The enumerator then copied these details into his Enumeration Book. Householders who failed to accurately complete their schedule were fined £5 and convicted of making a ‘wilful mis-statement’. Perhaps to allay growing fears of intrusion, a new assurance was added to the Householder’s Schedule:

‘The facts will be published in General Abstracts only, and strict care will be taken that the returns are not used for the gratification of curiosity’.

[Source: Office for National Statistics licensed under the Open Government Licence v.3.0.]


The national Censuses of England and Wales had been the responsibility of the General Register Office since 1841. In Scotland, however, it was not until the 1861 Scottish Census that a Registrar General for Scotland took control. Two additional questions were asked in the 1861 Scottish Census: the number of rooms with a window/s; and the number of children (aged 5 – 15 years) at school or educated at home.

‘Increase of the Population of England and Wales since 1651’

For the first time, the Census of England and Wales included an additional ‘General Report’. The 1861 General Report contained a section analysing the ‘increase of the Population of England and Wales since 1651’. The estimates were largely based on those baptism and burial records which had been preserved since 1571 in many English and Welsh parishes.

The findings suggested that there had been a massive population explosion in the last one hundred years. In 1651 the estimated population was 5,466,572 which grew modestly to 6,335,840 by 1751. However, by 1851, it had jumped to 18,109,410; a massive increase of 11,773,570. In the decade to 1861 alone, the population grew a further 2,172,177 to 20,281,587 [Census of England and Wales, 1861, General report. p. 22].

These estimates were followed by a scathing repudiation of Thomas Malthus and his theory of population growth. The ‘Malthusian theory’, put forward at the end of the 18th Century, had argued that population growth would always outstrip food production. The authors’ view was that Malthus had not taken into account ‘human industry’ [p.25]. Ironically, it was the fears surrounding the Malthusian Theory that were largely behind the push for a first national census in 1801.

1861 Census records

Ancestry.co.uk provide direct links to the 1861 National Census which includes the 1861 English Census, 1861 Scottish Census and 1861 Welsh Census. In addition, there are links to the 1861 IOM Census (including Douglas) and 1861 Channel Islands Census (including Alderney, Jersey and Guernsey). Unfortunately, the Irish Census records were destroyed. Links are provided below for all the 1861 British Census records:

When researching your family history, historical context is everything. Please read on to find out what was happening in the decade leading up to the 1851 Census. For a complete timeline of Victorian Britain, please see our Victorian Britain lineline.

Victorian Britain at the time of the April 1861 Census

Prime Minister

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1859 to 1865).

Government of the day

The ‘Liberals’ – a coalition of Whigs, Peelites (free trade Conservatives) and Radicals.

Foreign Secretary

Lord John Russell, Earl Russell (1859 to 1865).

Chancellor of the Exchequer

William Ewart Gladstone (1859 to 1866).

Historical Snapshot – Victorian Britain in the decade up to the 1861 Census

The decade leading up to the 1861 Census witnessed turbulence abroad, new alliances at home and further industrial progress such as the advent of mass steel production.

Industrial and technological developments

The decade began with the Great Exhibition of 1851. Organised by Prince Albert and Henry Cole, the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ (aka the Crystal Palace Exhibition) was the first international exhibition of manufactured products. Running from 1 May – 15 October, it attracted over 6 million visitors. Many of the exhibits became the original exhibits of the South Kensington Museum which was founded in 1857 and is now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Also in 1851, the first successful telegraph cable was laid across the English Channel.

In August 1856, the mass production of steel, so essential for industrial progress, was made possible by Bessemer’s Steel Process (developed by Sir Henry Bessemer).

Domestic affairs

The march to free trade continued

Gladstone was of the view that tax should be as low as possible – because governments never spend money wisely. Gladstone’s first budget of 1853 lasted 4 hours but is still considered a masterpiece. Many duties were abolished and the intention (scuppered by the Crimean War) was to get rid of income tax as well.

The decade ended with the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty (1860) – a beneficial trade deal with France.

1858 – The Fenian Society was established

Its mission was armed revolt against the British to secure an independent Ireland.

1859 – The Birth of the Liberal Party

Lord Palmerston was the first leader of this coalition of Whigs, Peelites (free trade Conservatives) and Radicals. It was the logical conclusion of the new political allegiances forged after the repeal of the Corn Laws over a decade earlier.

Foreign Affairs

The Crimean War (1853 – 1856)

This was considered the first ‘modern’ war; it was documented extensively and used modern technologies such as explosive naval shells. Britain entered the war in 1854, allying herself with France, Turkey and Sardinia, against an expansionist Russia.

Although Britain and her allies won, the war was disastrously managed. The Charge of the Light Brigade, where the wrong position was charged and the wrong set of guns captured, gives a flavour of the general level of competence on display during this conflict. Of the 20,097 British soldiers who died in this war, over 16,000 died from disease. It is, therefore, fitting that the most famous figure to emerge from this war was a nurse: Florence Nightingale.

The Victoria Cross was introduced in 1856 to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War.

The Second Opium War (1856 – 1860)

Britain secured from the Chinese the bizarre twin objectives of a) free movement of Christian missionaries and b) the legalisation of opium imports.

The Indian Mutiny (1857 – 1858)

This occurred when the Bengal Sepoys (Indian Soldiers) rose up against the British East India Company (who effectively ruled India on behalf of the British). The Sepoys had many grievances including British ‘westernising’ policies and the ‘doctrine of lapse’ (a form of annexation). Rumours that new rifle cartridges were greased with animal fat were the final trigger for the outbreak.

Following the siege of Cawnpore (now Kanpur) which fell to the rebels in June 1857, around 200 British women and children were massacred in the Bibighar Massacre. This led to a spiralling of atrocities on both sides, with ‘Remember Cawnpore’ becoming the British Army’s battle cry.

A comprehensive list of recorded inscriptions from tombs and memorials to the British victims of the Indian Mutiny is contained in the List of inscriptions on Christian tombs and tablets of historical interest in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh by Sir Edward Blunt. A free downloadable copy is available at archive.org/details/listofinscriptio00blunuoft . You can download the book in your chosen format and search the place name e.g. ‘Cawnpore’ for research of the Bibighar massacre.

The British eventually quashed the mutiny, abolished the East India Company and brought in direct rule in India; the ‘British Raj’.

Outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861

Within days of the Census, America was plunged into civil war. Palmerston and Russell were surprisingly successful in managing to sit this one out.