1881 Census

1881 Census Date – 3 April 1881

The 1881 UK Census was taken on the night of 3rd April 1881.

Population Recorded

The population figures for the UK and British Empire are compiled in the following table.

(or decrease)
since 1881 census
Total UK population34,884,84810.80%
Islands of the British Seas141,260-2.30%
Rest of Empire219,161,522
Total Population of British Empire254,187,630
Please refer to our Census Records page for more details.

Where to search?

There are a number of subscription based companies that hold 1881 census records such as:

FindMyPast.co.uk holds 1881 census records for England, Wales and Scotland:

Ancestry.com holds 1881 census records for the English Census, Scottish Census, Welsh Census, 1881 Isle of Man Census and 1881 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 1881 Census

Prime Minister

William Ewart Gladstone (1880 to 1885)

Government of the day


Foreign Secretary

George Leveson Gower, Earl Granville (1880 to 1885)

Chancellor of the Exchequer

William Gladstone (1880 to 1882)

Historical Snapshot – Victorian Britain in the decade up to the 1881 Census

Domestic Affairs

The 1874 General Election – first secret ballot

In 1872, the Ballot Act had introduced secret ballots in an attempt to end bribery and intimidation during elections. The General Election of 1874 was, therefore, the first UK General Election fought with a secret ballot.

Upon losing this Election to Disraeli, Gladstone observed that his ministry had been ‘borne down by a torrent of gin and beer’; an acknowledgement of his Ministry’s unpopularity following the Licensing Act of 1872. This deeply unpopular Act imposed (amongst other things) closing times (which caused near riots) and prohibited drunkeness in public places (including pubs). Even the prominent Churchman, Bishop Magee of Peterborough, felt that it was “better an England free than an England sober”.


The decade prior to the 1881 census saw a couple of pivotal Acts relating to education. By abolishing communion ‘tests’, the Universities Tests Act (1871) opened up the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham to Catholics, Jews, Non-Confirmists and those of no faith.

At the other end of the education spectrum, the Elementary Education Act (1880) brought in compulsory education for children up to a minimum age of 10 years (maximum age: 13 years).


Advancements were also made in employment legislation. Under Gladstone, the Trade Union Act (1871) legalised trade unions and gave them legal protection. Unfortunately, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, passed on the same day, imposed strict ‘coercion’ laws which made picketing/threatening to strike virtually illegal. Under Disraeli, peaceful picketing was finally legalised under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875).

Other significant employment legislation was also enacted, which brought some relief to the misery suffered by many of the working poor. Effective legislation to finally stamp out the use of child chimney sweeps was passed under the Chimney Sweepers Act (1875). The Employers and Workmen Act (1875) levelled the contractual playing field between employer and employee, and the Factory & Workshop Act (1878) extended the 10 hour day to all trades, banned children under 10 years being employed and stipulated that they must be in education.


Disraeli’s Ministry also passed the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act (1875) which empowered local authorities to clear slums and replace them with housing estates.

Health & Safety

In the field of health & safety (which was most definitely in its infancy!) the Merchant Shipping Act (1876) was a genuine (but largely ineffective) attempt at preventing ships being overloaded. Heavily campaigned for by Samuel Plimsoll, the Act was largely ineffectual because shipowners could fix their own ‘load-line’. Sometimes the load-line (or ‘plimsoll-line’) was painted on the funnel of the ship.

1873 – 1896. Great Depressions at home and abroad

The late 1800s were marred by two great depressions. Britain was particularly hit by the Great Depression of British agriculture, which was caused by the cheap imports of corn and other food from Canada, Argentina and Australia. Although many landlords begged the Government to reintroduce Corn Laws (i.e. tariffs), the once protectionist Disraeli knew it would be political suicide; working class men, the chief beneficiaries of cheap food, now had the vote (courtesy of the 1867 Second Reform Act).

During the same period, Europe and the United States were suffering the ‘Great Depression’ or ‘Long Depression’ of trade and ndustry. Triggered by the Panic of 1873, when the Vienna Stock Exchange crashed, this is considered to be the first global financial crash.


By introducing secret ballots, the 1872 Ballot Act had given a huge boost to the Irish Home Rule movement; Irish landlords were now unable to instruct their Irish tenants on how to vote. By the 1874 General Election, the Home Rule League (a rebrand of the Home Government Association) won 59 seats.

In 1879, the Irish Land League was set up by Michael Davitt, a member of the Fenian (Irish Republican) Brotherhood who had already served a 7 year sentence for treason. The Home Rule League MP, Charles Parnell, was elected president. The Irish Land League waged a ‘Land War’ of rent strikes and intimidation. Its intensity was such that by 1881, Parliament felt compelled to pass the Coercion Act suspending Habeas Corpus.

Industry, Science and Technology

“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” With this rather prosaic summons, the World’s first telephone call was made by Scottish born Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, in 1876. Steel production greatly improved with the advent of the Gilchrist-Thomas process of steel production (1878). A year later, Thomas Edison, the American inventor and business man, patented the first commercially viable electric light bulb.

Foreign Affairs

The 1870s marked a period of great progress in the settling of international disputes peacefully, but this decade also laid the ground for the First World War.


Great strides were made in the field of international arbitration with the Treaty of Washington (1871) which is considered a precursor to the League of Nations and, afterwards, the United Nations. This forward thinking Treaty laid the groundwork for the ‘Alabama Settlement’ a year later in which Britain agreed to settle the ‘Alabama claims’. These were financial claims made by America against the British for failing to stop British ships (such as the ‘successful’ Alabama) being used by the Confederates in the American Civil War. When Britain agreed a settlement of $15.5m, Gladstone drew widespread criticism from a British public who did not feel that America should receive a penny. However, this settlement is now considered, in hindsight, to have been hugely beneficial for good, long-lasting relations with America.


The Treaty of Frankfurt (1871), which ended the Franco-Prussian War, had a far less favourable legacy to that enjoyed by the Treaty of Washington; French resentment in losing Alsace-Lorraine to a resurgent and unified Germany was a major factor in the lead up to World War I.

The Russo-Turkish War (1877 – 1878)
Britain remained neutral in this conflict between an Eastern Orthodox coalition led by Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Initially, British public opinion favoured the Russians (this sentiment was vividly expressed by Gladstone in his pamphlet ‘The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East’).

However, public opinion swung behind Turkey after her heroic Defence of Plevna; Queen Victoria even threatened to resign unless the British intervened, exclaiming ‘Oh, if the Queen were a man, she would like to go and give those Russians, whose word one cannot believe, such a beating!’ Before the British managed to get involved, however, the war ended with the Treaty of San Stefano. This Treaty was vehemently opposed by Britain, Austria-Hungary and Germany for giving Russia too much power. Following a meeting of the great powers of the day at the Congress of Berlin, the Russians ultimately agreed to replace the Treaty of San Stefano with the Treaty of Berlin.

The Treaty of Berlin was considered a great success at the time (at least for the British). It halted Russian expansion into the Mediterranean, dismantled Greater Bulgaria and Turkey agreed to lease Cyprus to the British.

However, history does not view this treaty so kindly. Turkish promises of good behaviour towards Christians were soon found to be hollow (as the massacre of Armenian Christians a few years’ later was to show). Also, the British agreed to Austria-Hungary gaining Bosnia-Herzegovina. The goal was a good one; to ensure Austria-Hungarian would support Britain in any future conflict with Russia. Unfortunately, by reducing the power of Russia and increasing the power of Austria-Hungary, a power struggle began which would ultimately become a major catalyst for the First World War.


1 May 1876. Queen Victoria became Empress of India
Disraeli managed to push the Royal Titles Act through Parliament which conferred this title on Queen Victoria. Gladstone’s opposition served to turn Queen Victoria against him even more strongly (and, equally, to strengthen her bond with with Disraeli).


September 1878 – September 1880. Second Anglo-Afghan War
The British invaded Afghanistan with 50,000 (mainly Indian) troops, ostensibly because Kabul had rejected a British diplomatic mission. The real reason was to obstruct Russian expansionism in the region.

The war ended with a decisive British victory at the Battle of Kandahar on 1st September, following which Afghanistan became a British protectorate and its frontier annexed.


In 1875, the British government acquired a 44% stake (worth £4m) in the Suez Canal. The circumstances were controversial; the Khedive (similar to a Viceroy) Ismail Pasha, on the brink of bankruptcy, secretly offered his 44% shareholding in the Suez Canal to some French businessmen. Disraeli, tipped off by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, was alarmed – the French already had a greater shareholding than the Khedive. Using a loan from Rothchilds and bypassing Parliament, Disraeli moved swiftly to arrange the purchase of the Khedive’s shares. The deal was ratified a year later in the Suez Canal (Shares) Act of 1876.

Now with a direct interest in Egypt, the British attempted to resolve Egypt’s financial crisis. Along with the French, they persuaded the Sultan of Turkey to depose the Khedive in favour of his son, Tewfik Pasha, in 1879. Within a few years, Western interference in Egypt would lead to an uprising known as ‘Pasha’s revolt’.


Dr David Livingstone
1871 was the year in which Henry Morton Stanley (explorer & journalist) relieved the famous Christian explorer David Livingstone in Tanzania, with the now famous greeting; “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Less than two years’ later, David Livingstone had died of malaria and dysentry.

12 April 1877. The Transvaal (aka the South African Republic) was reannexed by the British
Although the annexation was largely prompted by a perceived Zulu threat, it was resented by the Boers when this threat was later removed.

1879 – The Anglo-Zulu War
Acting against Parliament’s wishes, Sir Bartle Frere (British High Commissioner for South Africa) used the well-worn tactic of a string of unreasonable demands to force a conflict with the Zulus. His ultimate aim was the unification of South Africa. In July, the war ended in British victory at Ulundi, and Zululand was sectioned off to compliant chiefs. However, the British experienced one of their worst defeats at the Battle of Isandlwana (22 Jan) when 1,350 British troops and auxillaries died. Due to the ever popular cocktail of propaganda and romance, this battle has been largely eclipsed by the strategically unimportant but heroic Battle of Rorke’s Drift which occurred on the same day. This battle, involving approx 150 British and Colonial troops against around 3000 – 4000 Zulu warriors, led to the award of 11 Victoria Crosses (and was also the subject of the famous ‘Zulu’ film).

December 1880 – March 1881 First Boer War
The Boer’s declaration of independence on 16 December was the catalyst for this particular conflict between the British Empire and the South African Republic (the Transvaal). The war ended in defeat for the British at the Battle of Majuba Hill and resulted in the British recognising the Transvaal as an independent state (although it was still under the suzerainty of the British).