1871 Census

1871 Census – 2 April 1871

The 1871 Census was taken on the night of 2nd April 1871. As with previous census years, enumerators were employed to collect ‘householder’s schedules’ from each household in the UK. The information extracted from these schedules was copied by the enumerators into ‘enumeration books’. Once again, whilst the household schedules were largely destroyed, the enumeration books were archived and provide a rich source of historical information for family historians as well as social historians.

Personal Information Collected

Since the 1861 census, there was very little alteration to either the personal information recorded or the system of collection. The two new questions asked since the 1861 census were whether a person was an imbecile, idiot or lunatic. Not everyone took these new questions seriously; the Preliminary Report cites a husband claiming that his wife considered him to be an imbecile and a lunatic[1].

Population Recorded

Here are the UK population figures recorded for the 1871 census.

(or decrease)
since 1861 census
Total UK population31,484,6618.80%
Islands of the British Seas144,6380.80%
Rest of British Empire203,173,294
Total Population of British Empire234,802,593
Please refer to our Census Records page for more details.

The population of the British Empire

The 1871 census was the first national census to record the population figures of the British Empire with any real accuracy. (An attempt was first made in the census of 1861 but the bulk of it – India – was an estimate). The 1871 General Report gave a total population figure of: 234,762,593, later increased by 40,000 to 234,802,593 in the 1881 General Report (please see our Census Records page for more information).

Where to search?

There are a number of subscription based companies that hold 1871 census records, such as:

FindMyPast.co.uk holds 1871 census records for England, Wales and Scotland:

Ancestry.com holds 1871 census records for the English Census, Scottish Census, Welsh Census, 1871 Isle of Man Census and 1871 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.

Victorian Britain at the time of the April 1871 Census

Prime Minister

William Ewart Gladstone (1868 to 1874)

Government of the day

The Liberals

Foreign Secretary

George Leveson Gower, Earl Granville (1870 to 1874)

Chancellor of the Exchequer

Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke (1868 to 1873)

Historical Snapshot – Victorian Britain in the decade up to the 1871 Census

Domestic Affairs

14 December 1861. Prince Albert dies, aged only 42

At the beginning of the 1860s, Queen Victoria was plunged into mourning by the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Although Albert struggled to win the affection of the British public (largely on account of his German heritage) he was a positive influence on Queen Victoria and his absence, coupled with Victoria’s prolonged mourning, contributed to the rise of the republican movement.

Three days before the 1871 Census, the Royal Albert Hall was opened; almost 10 years after Prince Albert’s untimely death.

1865. The death of Palmerston from a chill, aged 80

Palmerston died only a few months after winning the 1865 General Election and remains the last Prime Minister to have died in office (two days short of his 81st birthday). He was a rare exception to the rule that all ‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure’ (Enoch Powell). Nevertheless, in his last foray into foreign policy he was hopelessly outmanoeuvred by Bismarck (following the Second Schleswig War).


The 1867 Reform Act extended the vote to most male householders (i.e. ‘respectable men’). It meant that, for the first time, over one million votes were cast in the 1868 General Election (three times the number of votes cast in the previous election).

There were some modest movements in social reform. In 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act gave some rights to married women to retain property. It enabled them to keep their own wages and inherit property (with certain restrictions). In the same year, the the Elementary Education Act (aka Forster’s Education Act) introduced a national system of primary education and is considered to be the first piece of ‘education’ legislation in Britain.


When Gladstone became Prime Minister in the 1868 General Election his stated mission was ‘to pacify Ireland’. A year later, despite being a staunch churchman, he disestablished the Church of Ireland because he recognised the unfairness of extracting church tithes from a mainly Catholic population.

In 1870, the Home Government Association was established by Isaac Butt to campaign for Irish home rule. Later that same year, the Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act gave legal protections to tenants but failed to address what the Irish really wanted: fair rents, fixed periods of tenure or, preferably, outright ownership.

Industry, science and Technology

In July 1866, London became the world’s centre in telecommunications when the first permanent transatlantic telegraph cable was laid. (Although a previous cable had been laid 8 years previously, it had burned out after a only a few weeks.)

However, not all technological progress was encouraged. The Locomotive ‘Red Flag’ Act of 1865 imposed a 2 mile speed limit on steam powered cars (4 miles out of town), plus a requirement that a man had to walk 60 yards in front of a car waving a red flag. The consequences of this act: steam cars were developed in India.

Meanwhile, in the field of medicine, Joseph Lister published ‘Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery’ (1867) in the Lancet. Lister was roundly mocked when he used carbolic acid as an antiseptic on his accident ward, but attitudes rapidly changed when the mortality rate on his ward plummeted from 45% to 15%.

Another long reaching development was the patenting of the first typewriter by Christopher Scholes in 1867 (USA). The problem of keys jamming was solved (partly) by the introduction of the QWERTY keyboard a year later. Although the QWERTY layout is far from ideal, we’ve stuck with it ever since.

Foreign Affairs

Two events dominated the decade leading up to the 1871 Census; the American War of Independence and the birth of a unified Germany.

12 Apr 1861 – 9 May 1865. The American Civil War

Within days of the 1861 Census, the American Civil War erupted. Palmerston (then Prime Minister) and Russell (then Foreign Secretary) largely managed to avoid being drawn into this conflict. There were, however, a couple of dicey moments; such as the ‘Alabama Affair’ which involved a British ship being used to sink several Unionist ships.

The rise of Germany and the fall of France

Otto von Bismarck escorts Emperor Napoleon III

Otto von Bismarck escorts Emperor Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan – by Camphausen Wilhelm Camphausen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1860s witnessed the rise of the German state followed three pivotal military adventures; the Second Schleswig War (1864), the Austro-Prussian ‘Seven Weeks’ War (1866) and, finally, the Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 71). The Franco-Prussian War, in which Napoleon III was captured at the Battle of Sedan, resulted in both the destruction of the French empire and the unification of Germany.

1868 – 1874. Bardwell’s Army reforms

The alarming military might of Prussia brought into sharp relief the need for a professional army, rather than the haphazard ‘gentleman-soldier’ arrangement that had been so unsatisfactory in the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny. Bardwell (Secretary of State for War between 1870 and 1874) introduced major reforms including the abolition of flogging, bounty money, and the purchase of army commissions. Not before time, the British army had become a professional fighting force.


[1]Census of England and Wales, 1871, Preliminary report, and tables of the population and the houses enumerated in England and Wales, and in the Islands in the British Seas on 3rd April 1871 BPP 1871 LIX [C.381] p.ii