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Duration 00:16:04

Introduction to the census

The census documents information about the population taken every ten years. How and when did the system start? Where can you find the records? What can you see online? Find out the answers from Audrey in this short podcast.

You can also use the research guides on our website to find out about census records and the 1939 Register.

Please note that at the moment The National Archives is closed to visitors until further notice. Advice in the podcast about visiting us and using the facilities in our reading rooms will apply once we re-open.


Matt: Hello. Welcome to The National Archives. We’re here back in the Map and Large Document Reading Room on the second floor of our building here in Kew. This is one of our public reading rooms, which anyone can visit, and we’re here today to talk about the census with Audrey Collins, our family history records specialist. We’re going to talk about the census because it’s one of the most useful family history documents, and we’re going to find out all about it from Audrey. So Audrey, let’s start by explaining to anyone that doesn’t already know, what exactly is the census?

Audrey: The census is the biggest survey ever. It would be a market researchers dream. It was taken every 10 years, and the idea was to get information about the population as a whole. And the best way to do that, to make sure that you counted everybody once and nobody twice, which mostly worked, was to just list everybody by name. So although that wasn’t the intention, that makes it really, really useful for family historians. But the whole point of it was to get the big picture about the population, of where they were and how old they were and what they did.

Matt: Right. And when was this idea hatched? When was the first census?

Audrey: The first actual census was 1801 throughout Great Britain. And it’s worth mentioning here that the records that we have are for England and Wales and the Channel Islands the Isle of Man and varying amounts of shipping and armed services overseas. But significantly, not Scotland not Ireland. Those records are held by their relative National Archives. So the census was taken every 10 years. The first one was 1801, but the first one that we have here at The National Archives is 1841, and that’s because that was the first year when all the records were collected centrally. Previously, the local authorities who’d taken the census, they just had to send the figures to London. But in 1841, they gathered everything together so that it would be done consistently and the data would be extracted consistently. So that’s why we’ve got these wonderful records every 10 years from 1841 onwards.

Matt: And so how did it work? How was the census compiled? It seems like a huge exercise, especially for that time.

Audrey: It certainly was. And the way it was compiled really didn’t change very much at all until comparatively recently, when – the last census in 2011, you could fill that in online – but right up to 2001 it was much the same. An enumerator – you had their little patch – they would go around and deliver a paper to every household. And an enumerator’s district was supposed to be about the size that one man could get round in a day. So in central London, that could be just a block, because the population was densely packed into tenements there. And in something like the North York Moors or Mid-Wales, it could be a very, very large area with not many people in it, but it just took a long time to get round. The enumerator would deliver the paper a few days before the census, which was always a Sunday night, and then a few days after that, they would go round again and collect all the completed papers.

Matt: And so the enumerator delivers the papers. So the householders fill them in, do they?

Audrey: That’s right. They were supposed to. Now, in 1841 and the earlier census years, not everybody was literate enough to do that. So in some cases, the enumerator might have done it for them. But they just simply did not have time to do everybody’s, so what seemed to happen is that somebody would fill it in for them. You might have a friend or a neighbour. There’s anecdotal evidence about that. But the enumerators, they had enough to do as it was, just going delivering and collecting, so they wouldn’t realistically have had the time to fill in people’s information for them, other than in a few cases.

Matt: And just to clarify, then – so all of this was supposed to happen on a fixed day, on the same day, throughout England and Wales and so on?

Audrey: Yes. The filling in of the form bit, that was the bit that was supposed to be done on the same night. It didn’t always work, because when you tell a few million people – you give them the same set of instructions – quite a number of them will either not look, or think they know better, or just do their own thing, regardless. So the information is supposed to be about who was under that roof or who slept in that building on census night. In practise, it doesn’t always work out, because some people will still put family members down, even though they’re away somewhere else. And they will sometimes not put somebody down, because, oh, they’re only here for the night, they’ll be listed somewhere else.

Matt: So let’s emphasise that point, because I think it’s something that people have misunderstood in the past that I’ve spoken to. The people that are recorded as existing at a single address on the census are not necessarily the people that lived there?

Audrey: That’s right. Most of the time, they are, and there’s usually lots of other evidence about it. If you’ve got the same husband and wife and children in the same house in two census years, that’s a pretty good guide that they lived there. But the census was – it was a snapshot in time. It was one day. So if somebody, for example, was visiting, and they’re a relative, you can’t tell, just from that census, whether that was somebody just stopping by on their way to somewhere else and staying with a relative or whether they lived with that family all the time. You’d need other evidence So I always blench a little bit when people say, oh, he was living at that address in the census. Well, probably, but you do need other information to prove that. You should never assume.

Matt: That’s interesting. And so you’ve got this list of names in the census. What else is recorded? What can you expect to find in this census document?

Audrey; Right, 1841 didn’t record a lot of information. You’ve got everybody’s name and their age. And for adults, the age was rounded down to five years or it was supposed to be, it wasn’t always. And you’d get an occupation and whether somebody was born in that county, which is better than nothing. It’s a lot better than the minimal information that was recorded in earlier censuses, which mostly doesn’t survive anyway. But it’s from 1851 onwards that you really get a decent amount of information. So it’s quite a useful tip, if you’ve got somebody in 1841, it’s always a good idea to try and find a family or person in 1851 if you can, because that gives you a lot more information. As well as their age and their name, you will get their position in the household. So you’ve got head of household, and then their relationship, so wife, son, daughter, servant, mother-in-law, et cetera. And then you’ll get their occupation, usually in a little bit more detail, because the lines were a little bit wider to fill in on the forms. And then you will get an actual birth place, which should be parish and county, if someone was born in England and Wales. If they were born beyond there, then you would normally just get a county, or, sorry, a country, or foreign parts. Again, it’s better than nothing. And you get a little bit more information added to it as the census years go on. But the really big difference is in 1911 when there was quite a lot more information about the families.

Matt: And I noticed you mentioned earlier that even ships were included. Was there anywhere that wasn’t included, prisons, or…

Audrey: Everywhere should have been included. Prisons and asylums are sometimes a bit tricky, because in some cases, the inmates were listed just by initials. So even if you know that somebody was in a prison or in an asylum, or they were not with their family and you have a very strong suspicion that that’s where they were, they’re not always going to be easy to find, because they may not be listed by their full name.

Matt: And people on ships – did the ship have to be docked at an English port for it to qualify for the census?

Audrey: Oh, the shipping. Every census year had slightly different arrangements for shipping. And the practicalities of it are that if you’re on a thing that moves, it’s just not always going to be practical for an enumerator to deliver a paper and for it to be collected. So anything to do with ships, and even boats and inland waterways, is a bit hit and miss. There are some very nice schedules for them, but just the logistics of actually getting the census done for people who are on any kind of floating vessel means that there’s a lot that are missing and that you won’t find for a variety of reasons.

Matt: And I think, if I remember correctly, there’s something significant about 1911 that makes it different to the other censuses?

Audrey: Oh, yes, yes. As I mentioned earlier, it was taken in exactly the same way, the boots on the ground, the enumerator went round, delivered, collected. But the really big difference is that, because of the way the statistical data was extracted – which was the object of the exercise, it wasn’t just for us, the family historians – but the way they were able to do the number crunching in 1911 was very different. They started using machine technology, which meant they could gather a lot more information. And the other thing was that, because of the way they were doing that with the machines, they could extract the information directly from the household schedules, which had always existed, and there are a few survivals for earlier years, but the enumerator would take those home and copy it up into the enumeration books, which is what we see now. But in 1911, they missed out that stage altogether. So the punch card operators, who were young teenage girls, for the most part, because they were cheap and they were very efficient – they were able to do this from the punch cards. And the cards themselves – we have a few copies in the archives – they are exactly the same size and shape as the computer punch cards that I used to see in my very first full-time job, in 1970 something, when I worked for a company that had a computer. So the computer punch card is probably a lot older than you think. And they did that directly from the household schedules, which is why, in 1911, you will see little numbers written on there against the occupations and the birthplaces. And those are the codes that were put on there by experienced census clerks, so that the punch card operators didn’t have to read the words. They just had to look at the numbers and punch them in.

Matt: So a lot, or at least a significant number of the schedules in 1911, are in the hand of the householders.

Audrey: Very often, yes. And you can usually tell if it’s somebody else in the household, because if their handwriting is legible, you can see. Sometimes it’s a child. And in earlier census years, it very often might well have been a child, because once compulsory schooling came in 1871, you will sometimes get families where the children could read and write, but the parents couldn’t necessarily. So they would get – not a small child, but possibly a teenage child or a 10-year-old to fill in the form for them.

Matt: And so how do people access the census? So there’s all this information out there. Where do people go to get this?

Audrey: Nowadays you go online, and it’s probably the most accessible record that we have. It was the very first big digitization project that The National Archives did for the 1901 census, and subsequently all the other census years have been digitised, either from the films or, in the case of 1911, direct from the originals. And the other really good thing about it being online is it’s not just in one place. All the major family history sites have got the census. And for the most part, they have done their own transcriptions. So if you can’t find somebody in one census year on one family history site, it’s worth trying one or more of the others, because it may just be that somebody has made a different interpretation of sometimes really bad handwriting, and somebody’s guessed right. So it’s always worth – you have lots of options you can try.

Matt: And it’s probably worth mentioning that we have free access here, in the reading rooms at The National Archives in Kew to all of those family history websites, certainly the most significant ones. And you can sometimes visit other local libraries and archives, which have their own institutional subscriptions. So if you don’t have your own subscription, it might well be worth trying that. Now, the most recent census available to anyone is 1911, right?

Audrey: That’s right, because we have 100-year rule on censuses. So every 10 years, a new one has been released.

Matt: And so we do get asked about more recent censuses? Are there any alternatives to the census?

Audrey: There is a thing called the 1939 register, which – it looks a lot like a census, but there are some quite important differences. And some people do refer to it as a census. It’s not. And it was planned alongside what would have been the 1941 census, if the war hadn’t broken out. And it has a lot less information, because it had to be done very quickly. And there’s all sorts of reasons why it looks like a census, but it’s not. There’s more information in our very detailed research guide on the 1939 register.

Matt: And so if you want to learn more, you can go to The National Archives website, where we have our research guide on the census, as well as another research guide on the 1939 register. And you can, of course, as I’ve mentioned visit us here, and we’ve always got staff on hand to help you with any of your queries, family history or otherwise.