Introduction to the Census

The Hands on Middlesbrough group as part of the ‘Cannon Street Revisited’ project is presently producing a website which provides a snapshot of the 1911 census for the residents of Cannon Street and will eventually extend to all the streets radiating from Cannon Street. A number of volunteers are presently examining the 1911 census and other historical sources to present a picture of the residents at that time. 

The 2011 Census is potentially the last census that the Government will be undertaking. With an estimated cost of £460 million to collect, collate and distribute the data collected from 25 million households this expense is considered too high to repeat. If the final cost is around £500 million then that equates to roughly £20 per household.

With all the data that is collected by the Government authorities and other organisations one argument is that this data could be collected from other presently available digital sources. Also, with most of this data being collected by private companies could we expect them to release the data for free? Do government databases actually ‘talk to each other’? Are these databases capturing the data the census provides?

Given that it takes around 10 years to complete the census (years of planning and testing followed by years analysing the data) the benefits of a census to all are considerable.

A brief history of the modern census

Parliament passed the Census Act in 1800 and the first Census of England and Wales was taken on 20th March 1801. The Census Act also applied to Scotland but Scotland’s Census is controlled separate from England and Wales. Ireland’s first census was in 1821. The Census data for the Isle of Man (Ellan Vannin) is within the England and Wales Census collection. With the exception of 1941 a census has been taken every 10 years.

The first census of 1801 relied on information collected from each household by the Overseers of the Poor, aided by constables, tithingmen, headboroughs and other officers of the peace. In Scotland the schoolmasters were made solely responsible for collecting the information. (Source: Office of National Statistics).

With the founding of the General Register Office of England and Wales by the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1836 Thomas Henry Lister was appointed Register General for England and Wales with the responsibility for organising the census passed to him. So the 1841 Census was expanded to collect more data and also implemented the use of household schedules for the first time and was the first one to collect names of individuals.

Sadly, the original household schedules have not survived for the 1841 to 1901 Censuses. Owing to a fortuitous change in the recording and retaining process, the 1911 household schedules with all their valuable details have survived.

As the census developed the number of questions expanded and more accurate responses were requested. The census forms were also completed in the householders own hand – complete with mistakes and additional, sometimes superfluous, comments.


Example of an 1801 Chelsea Population Book with limited information

Some problems with the census

The main problem with the census for those researching family and local history is that it is not accessible to the public for 100 years.

Enumerator’s have often introduced errors in transferring data from the household schedules to the enumerator schedules. The actual census results aren’t always complete in that not all enumerator’s schedules have survived.

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Example of 1911 Census form

The quality of the scanned images can be poor and the handwriting may not be readily legible. Inverting the image and building up your skills will improve your speed in gaining the information you require.

People tend to ‘data grab’ in that they look only at one household. It is possible to crosscheck the information by accessing other data sources such as Parish Registers for Births, Deaths and Marriages, various directories such as Kellys and even military records.

Words change meaning over time with people confusing earlier and current word meanings.

Census images are only available on subscription or pay per view websites such as Ancestry, Find My Past and Genes Reunited etc. However, you can physically access the census via libraries, archives and family history centres for free but will incur costs if wishing to have photocopies of the images.

Beauty of the census

Each census provides us with a snapshot in time. As well as showing mobility of families it also highlights changes in housing. The number of rooms in each house starts to appear and uninhabited buildings start to be entered. By using local landmarks we can see new houses being built and older properties being demolished.

Using the head of household trades we start to see the change in employment opportunities and how each district was made up and what local industries they were supporting. Also villages moving from being self-supporting towards more reliance on local towns, both for entertainment and services and the expansion of towns and villages with previously distinct areas becoming parts of a larger unified area. The census can further reflect changes in suburbs with creation of more affluent areas and demise of previously affluent areas.

As limited as some of the earlier censuses are in their content it is surprising how much information on early families can be obtained by diligent research and the use of all the information now available to researchers.

By Paul Dunnill

Posted in Cannon Street Revisited.

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