Census Information: Early Census History in the UK
This census information page provides brief details of UK censuses since 1801. More detailed census information for individual census years is available on the relevant census page.
A nationwide UK census has been taken every decade since 1801. There were only two occasions when a census was not taken. Firstly, in 1921, no census was taken in Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Secondly, in 1941, due to the 2nd World War.
The first four UK censuses, from 1801 to 1831, were taken purely for statistical purposes. They were essentially a ‘head count’ to measure population growth. The Population Act 1800, which legislated for the 1801 Census, was passed at a time of mounting anxiety over population growth. This anxiety was fuelled by Thomas Malthus in ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population” which argued that population growth would always exceed the food supply, leading to mass starvation. It was largely to debunk the dystopian ‘Malthusian theory’ that led John Rickman (a civil servant and government statistician) to push for a nationwide census. The need to calculate the number of fighting men in the lead up to the Napoleonic Wars was also a decisive factor in the successful passing of the Population Act (also known as the Census Act).
It was not a requirement of the pre-1841 Censuses to record personal information. It is because of this that they are generally of limited value to researchers. However, some ‘enumerators’ did voluntarily choose to record personal details. Where such records survive, they are of great value to family historians and genealogists. Unfortunately, most of these pre-1841 censuses were destroyed or lost after the statistical information was extracted. The Family History team have dedicated a section of our site – Pre 1841 Census Records to pre-1841 census listings and records that have survived. You’ll find information on the 1801 Census, 1811 Census, 1821 Census and 1831 Census and the counties of England that hold these surviving census records.
For more detailed census information surrounding the background to the pre-1841 censuses, please visit 1841Census.co.uk..
The more detailed Censuses for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 all provide personal information and can be searched by members of the public.
The 1921 Census – next for release
The next census due to be released is the 1921 Census for England, Wales and Scotland. The 1921 Census Date was 19 June 1921 and the census data is not due to be released for 100 years. The government has stated that it will be released in its entirety in 2022. This census remains in the custody of the Office for National Statistics. There have been various petitions over the years calling for the early release of the 1921 Census. One popular petition conducted in early 2007 reached 23,600 signatures by its deadline on 8 March 2007. The UK Government rejected the petition saying that they they needed to respect the privacy of those who originally completed the census and to comply with the assurances given at the time that the census information would not be released for 100 years.
There are no Census Records for 1931 or 1941
The 1921 census is an important census as The 1931 census was destroyed in an unexplained fire in Hayes, Middlesex in 1942 (not due to enemy bombing), and there was no 1941 census due to the second world war. So, if the 100 year rule stays in place there will be a considerable gap from when the 1921 census is released until the 1951 census. The gap is bridged by the release of the 1939 National Register (taken at the start of the second world war and used to introduce ww2 National Identity Cards and Ration Books) which includes much of the similar information to a national census but doesn’t include the place of birth.
Census information collected on a typical census return
UK Census Returns have much useful genealogical census information and census data. The format has been mostly unchanged from the first detailed census in 1841 (apart from ages being rounded down in that census to nearest 5 years for over-15yr olds). Here’s the information a typical census record will include:
- Location of Census Return. The civil parish, borough and ward are listed across the top of the census.
- Street Name and House Number. If you check on local maps of the time you should be able to find the house in question. Very likely it is still standing and will give you an indication of the affluence of your ancestors.
- Total Number of Houses and Male/Female Numbers on each census sheet. This information will have been useful for those collating the statistical information on populations and number of dwellings.
- Name. The census asks for NAME and Surname of each person. The household might give full name including a middle name, but often it will just give a name and surname. Be aware that the person might have listed a middle name as a first name if that was the name they are using.
- Relation to Head of the Family. The husband will normally be listed as Head with family member terms listed i.e. wife, son, daughter. Other statuses listed might be visitor, servant, border, lodger etc.
- Condition as to marriage i.e. marital status. This will often include abbreviated information such as M or Marr for married people. S, Un, Unm will denote single and unmarried people. Widow, W or widr will denote those whose spouses have died. Particularly good information if you need to find an ancestor’s marriage or death certificate. It helps narrow down the years.
- Age last birthday and Male/Female. Not always accurate as an individual might not want to give exact age. The age is inserted in either the male or female column to denote gender.
- Rank, Profession, or occupation. Just like today some family members might have over exaggerated their career title.
- Where Born. Vital information for genealogists. This information might denote a completely different area of the country to concentrate a search, or perhaps the person might have been born abroad. In victorian times there was much social upheaval and industrial changes and it wouldn’t have been unusual for a family to ‘up sticks’ for new employment opportunities.
For more details of the questions asked for a particular census, please visit the relevant census page.
For a full list of census abbreviations, please visit our census abbreviations page.
Free Census Trial including extensive Family History Records
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