Stray Thoughts on the English census

Not that long ago, the large microfilm room at The Family Record Centre in London (God rest its soul) was humming with conversation and the clacker of the census films being wound forward or back.  The 1881 census was the first to be surname indexed, (which took a large team of volunteers under the supervision of a member of the National Archives staff, the late Sue Lumas). Back then we needed guidebooks to help us understand how the originals were laid out, how to search, and how to use the paper street indexes.

Now we sit at home and find more or less everything that can be found, or do we?  [The 1861 census of England on Ancestry is still somewhat deficient when compared to results on Findmypast, but the gaps between all the census providers has narrowed considerably].  Twice a year I used to set an exercise to my students on the One-Name Studies course in which they had to compare results across the census for their surnames of choice.  This was entirely numerical using an exact search on the name and a count of hits.  Over a dozen groups reported their findings in this exercise since 2009, and each time there were fewer discrepancies to point out.  The exception being FreeCEN which still has some way to go to catch up with the paid for sites.  It is not at all bad for Scotland, but has many, many gaps as yet for England.

Thus it is that as the big census offerings are revised and improve year on year (are you checking for updates for your missing people?) less of us than ever really learn about the structure of the census because we find our ancestors and move on.  The majority are saved much time, but a minority suffer that peculiar frustration when you are faced with negative results and cannot fathom why.   Knowledge of the organisation that lay behind the taking of the census, can still be very useful to those of us who are deeply engaged in the hunt and see the necessity for historical and geographical context, as well as those studying the history of a locality.

The census was undertaken for statistical reasons to provide a population count.  Each enumerator walked and oversaw a district which was a sub-division of a civil registration district.  They were originally all meant to be of a standard size, with the area an enumerator had to travel no more than 15 miles.  The front page or front cover of the enumerators’ books always described the geography of the district.  The actual order of enumeration was totally up to the enumerator, so this does not necessarily match with any descriptive list on the front cover.

Edward Higgs, who is the most interesting author on the census makes the useful sounding suggestion that an examination of the local newspapers on or after census night might provide more information about local conditions and the vagaries of the enumeration.  I decided to put this to the test and look at whether the census for a group of villages in Hertfordshire were mentioned in 1841, but to no avail.  A further search on the word “census” over all the newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive, produced a lot of results, but narrowing that down to the weeks before and after the census, did not seem to offer very much that would be helpful to someone studying a particular district.  Some of the newspapers carried reports later in the year on the population counts (completed by August 1841 for a June enumeration!  That was an efficient civil service.)

Interestingly a search on Ancestry.co.uk (April 2022) using just the term “Datchworth” gave me 575 results or people resident in Datchworth on 6th June 1841, the night of the census.  The formal returns counted 593 people in Datchworth.  This means that Ancestry have managed to ‘lose’ 18 people or 3% of the total.

There is a still a case to be made for actually viewing the census page by page, including the enumerator’s description.  Everyone should try it.

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