Its quite common nowadays to hear all sorts of groans and moans about the nanny state, and the Government taking down information. Sometimes they have a fair point, but it is all too easy to forget that if the Government did not take surveys and collect information, it would be so much harder to provide public services. After all, how can you plan for education, healthcare, social services, if you dont know how many people live in the country?
Until relatively recently, around the late 1830’s, the only accurate information about who was born, who was alive, and who lived where, was contained in Church records, such as registers of births, marriages and deaths. But what about people who did not go to church? At the same time, outrage about the poor conditions in many towns led to a call for better public services.
As a result, in 1837 a formal structure came into being to officially register every birth, every marriage, and every death. Four years later, in 1841, the first detailed census was taken of inhabitants of the United Kingdom. Since then censuses have been taken every 10 years, and the information contained in them is released into the public domain 100 years after the census date, when it is presumed that most people in them have died. The exception to this is the 1911 census, which was released in 2009. As a result, you can use any of the censuses from 1841 to 1911 for your research.
Census returns are organised by County, Parish, urban or rural District, Parliamentary Borough and Town of Village. The census returns record who was living in a household on census night. The returns were filled in by an enumerator, which explains why each street, and each neighbourhood, is all filled in with the same handwriting.
There is a whole range of information about each household, and each person. The entries are by road, starting from house number one onwards. The first household member is usually the head of the household, followed by spouses, children, other relatives and other people such as employees and servants.
For each person in the census, you can usually find at least some of the following: road name, house number, name and surname, relation to head of the family, condition of marriage, age on last birthday, profession or occupation, employed or self-employed, where born, and any physical or mental disabilities.
As well as residential areas, the census also covers buildings such as Hospitals, schools, lunatic asylums, naval ships and military barracks.
So you can see that finding people on a census return can tell you a whole load of information, and can really help to fill in gaps, place people at a certain place in time, and find out about family relationships that you may not be sure about. And crucially, it can also give you a lot of other information, such as someones occupation and disabilities. Who was living with who? who was living near who? Did all the same people in road work at the same place, or in the same jobs? There are all manner of things a census can reveal.
Although much of what is on a census is rather humdrum, you can also find some rather intriguing discoveries. When researching Joseph Stebbing, I was informed that in the 1871 census there was an Agnes S. Earley living next door to Joseph Stebbing. What did the S stand for? Stebbing, as it turned out!
So where can you look at the census? The most accesible port of call is probably 1901 census online and 1911 census online, although there is a charge for these services. FreeCen is a free searchable database of census returns, although it is by no means complete new transcriptions are being added regularly by volunteers. Similar services can also be found at Ancestry.
But dont rule out visiting your local library or records office, most of them have at least the most local census returns available to look at on microfilm. Also, the National Archives have all of the census returns available to look at in their reading rooms.