Census Records – 1801 – 1911
Census records are unrivalled in the breadth of information they contain. Most genealogical records, such as births, marriages and deaths, focus almost exclusively on an individual, at one fixed moment in time. Census records offer us a wider perspective. They reveal where our ancestors were living and disclose personal details of who they were living with. This information is recorded every ten years, providing us with a dynamic narrative of our ancestors’ lives.
Since 1801, a census for England and Wales has taken place almost every ten years. From 1821, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (aka ‘Islands in the British Seas’) were included in this census. Since 1801, Scotland conducted separate, but near identical, censuses in both scope and dates. Ireland followed Scotland in 1821. A census of the British Empire was first attempted in 1861.
The only census year in which a UK census was not held was in 1941 (due to World War II). In addition, All Ireland did not have a census in 1921 and, post-partition, Northern Ireland diverged from the rest of the UK until the 1951 census.
The 1841 census was the first national UK census to collect personal information from UK inhabitants. It is, therefore, the first census to be of value to family historians. Subsequent censuses improved and expanded the information recorded.
For reasons of privacy, census returns are only made available to the public when they are 100 years’ old. The census of 1911 is, therefore, the latest census currently available to the public. Census returns less than 100 years’ old are held by the Office for National Statistics.
Population Recorded in Census Reports
Following the completion of each census, increasingly complex census reports were published. These reports analysed population trends, population density, occupations, ages and even, from 1911, fertility.
|Census||England and Wales||Scotland||Ireland||Total UK||Plus: Isle of Man and Channel Islands|
|1921||37,885,242||4,882,288||Ireland not taken||Not complete as Ireland not taken.||149,852|
The devastating legacy of the Potato Famine in Ireland, which struck in the 1840s, is self-evident from the population figures for Ireland.
In 1861, attempts were first made to conduct a census of the British Empire. In true civil service tradition, the population figure of 135,571,351 shown for British India in 1861 was, in fact, an estimate. As a result, the earliest population figures for the British Empire that are of any real merit are those from the 1871 census onwards.
|Census||British India||The Colonies||Total|
|The figures for colonies varied between census reports* and contained inaccuracies. The 1921 census only included principal countries.|
UK Census dates
These were the census dates. From 1841 onwards, the census was always taken on a Sunday night; this was considered to be the evening during which most people were at home.
|Pre-1841 census dates||Post-1841 census dates|
|1801* – 10 March||1841 – 6 June|
|1811* – 27 May||1851 – 30 March|
|1821 – 28 May||1861 – 7 April|
|1831 – 30 May||1871 – 2 April|
|1881 – 5 April|
|1891 – 3 April|
|1901 – 31 March|
|1911 – 2 April|
|1921* – 19 June
(release due: 2022)
Personal Details Recorded – up to the 1911 census
In each successive census, an increasing number of questions were asked. The following table illustrates the growing list of personal information collected in the census records for England and Wales.
|From the census of:||Personal details of all occupants - supplied by householder||Comments|
|1841+||Full address of where the individual stayed on the night of the census.||1841 Census: the full address was rarely recorded. From the 1861 census onwards, people returning home the next morning were recorded.|
|1841+||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.|
|1851+||Relationship to head of the family||The husband will normally be listed as 'Head' with other occupants listed as wife, son, daughter, or other relative, visitor, boarder, or servant, lodger etc.|
|1851+||Marital status||Particularly helpful for searching an ancestor's marriage or death certificate. It helps narrow down the years.|
|1911||Married women only: Number of years' married, and number of children born alive to the present marriage (split between those still living and those since died)|
|1841+||Age||1841 census: the age was rounded down to the nearest five years unless aged under 15 years'.
Caution: Not always accurate!
|1851+||Occupation||Wording changed over the years. Please see individual census pages.|
|1911||Industry in which employed. If employed by a public body, the name of the body|
|1841+||Where born||This question was expanded greatly with successive censuses - check individual census pages.
|1911||If born outside England and Wales: resident or visitor?|
|1911||Nationality if born overseas|
|1901+||Language spoken - Isle of Man only.|
|1851+||Whether the individual was blind and/or deaf/unable to speak.|
|1871+||Plus: whether imbecile, idiot, lunatic|
|1911||Plus: whether 'feeble-minded'|
|1911||Age when afflicted by infirmity|
Interest in occupation statistics had been growing since the original 1801 Census. Pre-1841 censuses recorded occupation numbers from a restricted list. The 1841 census was the first census to record the actual occupation of each individual and occupation census abbreviations were introduced to make life easier for the enumerators. By the 1911 census, additional questions were asked regarding the actual industry in which an individual was employed.
Scotland and Ireland
Whilst Scotland and Ireland census returns were conducted separately, the questions asked were virtually identical. Ireland census returns did ask some additional questions.
For more details of personal information recorded for each census year, please visit the relevant census page.
Census records – why are they so unique?
Personal details – their scope and potential for fresh leads
Census records hold much more than the personal details of one individual. They list the personal details of every person who stayed overnight at a particular household (later extended to those people arriving the next morning). The list included the householder’s spouse, siblings, other relations, servants, visitors, tenants etc. At the end of one list of occupants, another begins listing the occupants of the next (usually neighbouring) property. And so the list goes on.
The personal details of a household’s occupants can throw up a rich source of leads; a wife’s maiden name, place and date of birth may help us locate her birth certificate, or trace other family members. Siblings with different surnames may point to previous marriages. The birthplace of children can help trace a family’s movements.
Census records do not list just one individual household address, but all the surrounding properties in a district. They are often listed one after the other. By consulting street maps, you should be able to locate the house your ancestors lived in and go on a virtual (or real!) tour of the district in which your ancestors lived.
The parish, borough and ward are listed across the top of the census schedule and a description of the Enumeration District is also provided. Please note that the number in the first column relates to the Householder’s schedule number – not house number.
Did our ancestors live with servants or boarders? If so, how many? Were there any visitors and, if so, who were they?
Questions relating to the number of rooms were first introduced in the 1891 census. Check the number of rooms against the number of inhabitants for a clearer picture of the comfort (or discomfort) in which your ancestors lived.
Census records provide a narrative
Because national censuses are decennial, they can tell a fascinating story about our ancestors. What has changed since the last census? Where did your ancestors move to and why? Who are they now living with? Has the householder taken in lodgers since the last census or has he employed (more) servants?
Where to search?
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.
Census records taken in British colonies at the same time as the UK census are usually held in the countries of origin, but limited colonial census records are held at the National Archives.
For British Army Overseas census records (1911), visit either the National Archives or the subscription site Findmypast.co.uk.
For schedules of vessels, visit the National Archives.
A Short history of the UK Census
1700s: the push for a nationwide census
The first Parliamentary Bill proposing a regular nationwide census in Great Britain occurred as early as 1753. However, there were many objections on grounds of religion, feasibility and cost. There was also a suspicion that the information gathered would be used for conscription or taxation purposes. As a result, the Bill failed.
However, towards the end of the 18th Century, there was mounting anxiety over population growth. This 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. In the lead up to the Napoleonic Wars, there was also a growing need to calculate the number of fighting men.
Finally, in 1800, the Population Act (also known as the Census Act), successfully legislated for the first 1801 Census in England, Wales and Scotland. John Rickman, a leading proponent of a nationwide census, supervised this census and all subsequent censuses up until his death in 1840. Ireland conducted its first census in 1921.
Pre-1841 censuses – head count only
The first four UK censuses, from 1801 to 1831, were essentially a ‘head count’ to measure population growth. There was no attempt at recording personal information and most of the census records were destroyed or lost after the statistical information was extracted. They are, therefore, of limited value to family historians. Occasionally, some ‘enumerators’ did record personal information and any surviving records are highly prized.
In England and Wales, responsibility for collecting census information was split between overseers of the poor and the clergy, with rather patchy results. The census results passed through the hands of various officials before landing at the Home Office.
In Scotland, the ‘schoolmaster’ for each parish was responsible for collection and the results were signed off by the Sheriff Substitute.
In Ireland, magistrates supervised the censuses of 1921 and 1931.
For more detailed census information surrounding the background to the pre-1841 censuses, please visit 1841Census.co.uk
Post-1841 Census returns
England and Wales
The 1841 Census introduced significant improvements to the national census. In addition to the collection of personal information, an improved system of administration was established, which has remained largely intact to this day:
The General Register Office in England and Wales took control
From the 1841 census onwards, the General Register Office in England and Wales assumed overall control of the national census. The administrative system recently put in place for the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was now applied to the administration of the census.
Improved systems of collection introduced
To ensure people were neither missed nor double counted, the Government recognised the importance of gathering census information in one day. To achieve this end, the following system was introduced:
- Enumeration districts (ED) established. Existing registration districts were sub-divided into ‘enumeration districts’ (ED). This was to ensure that the area could be covered by an ‘active man’ in one day.
- Enumerators employed. An ‘enumerator’ was attached to each enumeration district. His job was to deliver householder’s schedules, collect them on census day and record the census details.
- Householder’s Schedule.
The enumerator delivered a ‘householder’s schedule’ to each householder within a week of the census date. These schedules were forms in which the householder was asked to provide personal details of any person who stayed in his house on the night of the census, including visitors and servants (later including those returning home the next morning). It had to be completed by the householder in readiness for collection by the enumerator on census day. There was a fine for non-compliance (initially between 40 shillings and 5 pounds).
- Census Enumerator’s Book (CEB) (1841 – 1901).
The enumerator collected the householder’s schedules on census day and copied the information into census enumerator’s books.
Important: once the information had been copied into the CEB, the householder’s schedule was almost always destroyed. It is the census enumerator’s books that are available to historians for research.
- Census Enumerator’s Summary Books (ESB) (1911).
The 1911 census was the first census in England and Wales to retain householder’s schedules. The census enumerator’s books were replaced with enumerator’s summary books which listed only addresses and householders’ names. All addresses are listed in these summary books; private houses, unoccupied houses, hotels, churches, factories shops etc.
Although Scotland conducted separate census returns, the process was nearly identical. These are the main differences to the system of collection:
- The General Register Office for Scotland did not take control of census collection until the 1861 census. (It was established much later than its English and Welsh counterpart). Before the 1861 census, the ‘schoolmaster’ continued to act as enumerator, whilst the Sheriff Substitute continued to sign off the returns.
- Enumerator’s Summary Books were not used for the 1911 census. Scotland continued to use enumerator’s books and householder’s schedules.
As with Scotland, Ireland conducted separate but very similar census returns. The main differences to the system of collection were:
- The General Register Office for Ireland did not take control of census collection until the 1851 census. Prior to that, Commissioners were responsible for the 1841 census, with enumerators recruited from the police. (Magistrates were responsible for the pre-1841 censuses.)
- Since the 1841 census, householders in Ireland had completed their own census returns (known as Forms of Family Return). This system was not adopted by the rest of the UK until the 20th century.
Unfortunately, only the 1901 and 1911 census records are available to any meaningful extent. This is because almost all Irish census records prior to 1901 were destroyed.
Public institutions (barracks, prisons and workhouses) and shipping vessels
These were enumerated by the officers in charge. From the 1851 census onwards, special enumeration schedules were used.
From 1841, soldiers and sailors ashore in Great Britain were enumerated in their barracks or place of residence. Previously, they had been excluded from census returns.
Schedules for Vessels were also introduced in 1851 and these were completed by the master or person in charge of the ship. They applied to all vessels; both naval and merchant ships. Unfortunately, no enumeration schedules for vessels exist for the 1851 census and, for the 1891 census, no Royal Navy census records exist for ships in foreign waters. More generally, schedules for ships in foreign ports are usually incomplete.
The British army posted overseas
The personal details of soldiers posted overseas were not recorded until the census of 1911. Prior to this census, only a head count was taken. This can cause frustrating gaps in the census records of those ancestors who served in the army. However, there are alternative avenues of research – please see our military records page.
When is the next census?
1921 census records for England, Wales and Scotland are scheduled for release in January 2022. The 1921 census for England and Wales has taken on a great deal of significance. This is because, in addition to the 1941 census being abandoned, the 1931 census records for England and Wales were destroyed by a mysterious fire.
As discussed above, All Ireland did not have a census in 1921. Both Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State did conduct a census in 1926 but, unfortunately, the 1926 census records for Northern Ireland were destroyed. Please visit our Ireland Census records page for more information.
The National Register 1939
Whilst the 1941 census was abandoned (and the 1931 census for England and Wales destroyed), a great deal of census information was collected by the unique National Register of 1939. This wartime ‘census’ was conducted to enable the provision of National ID Cards and Ration books. Many of the personal details contained in this register have been released to the public already, despite the Register being less than 100 years’ old.
For researchers of English and Welsh ancestry, this Register is of even greater importance because it plugs a large genealogical gap between the census of 1921 and next available census of 1951. Please visit our National Register page for more information.
Sources – Population Recorded in Census Reports
UK, Isle of Man and Channel Islands
Census of England and Wales, 1921, Preliminary report including tables of the population enumerated in England and Wales (administrative and parliamentary areas) and in Scotland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands on 19-20th June 1921 BPP 1921 XVI [Cmd.1485] p.62 (UK) and p. 63 (Isle of Man and Channel Islands).
Rest of British Empire
1911 census (principal countries only): Census of England and Wales, 1921, Preliminary Report including tables of the population enumerated in England and Wales (administrative and parliamentary areas) and in Scotland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands on 19-20th June 1921 BPP 1921 XVI [Cmd.1485] p.64
1891 – 1911 censuses: Census of England and Wales, 1911, General report with appendices BPP 1917-18 XXXV [Cd.8491] p.286
1871 – 1881 censuses: Census of England and Wales, 1881, Volume. IV. General report BPP 1883 LXXX [C.3797] p.75
1861: Census of England and Wales, 1861, General report [Vol. III.] BPP 1863 LIII (3221) p.72
Note: Figures vary in different census reports e.g.:
– 1871 General Report (Vol. IV BPP 1873 LXXI Pt [C.872-I] p.162) shows a total population for colonies and possessions of 203,133,294 i.e. 40,000 less than the amount later published in the 1881 General Report.
– *1921 Preliminary Report contains different 1911 census population figures for colonies compared to those contained in the 1911 Preliminary Report. In addition, the 1921 report only lists the principal countries.