Nineteenth and early twentieth century census returns tend to be the principal documents that people use when they begin their genealogical journey into identifying and learning more about their ancestors. These returns provide a decennial snapshot of a family resident at a particular address on the night of the census. They not only provide evidence that could demonstrate the golden thread of lineage but can further assist in placing individuals into the more meaningful context of family and neighbourhood and also the wider local and societal environmental framework.


However, as with all research tools, researchers have to remember to examine each new potential lead with a shrewd but realistic eye, in short – beware the limitations of the census return. The main thing to bear in mind is that the census was not created for the family historian but is rather a serendipitous genealogical result of a governmental programme to account for the British population. Many census enumerators may have thought that once the population had been counted then these records would never see the light of day again. If only they knew that over 100 years later people would be enthusiastically pouring over their scribblings then perhaps the strange and obviously incorrect information that riddles the returns would not be so prevalent.


While the premise of a census would seem simple; record the basic demographic details of everyone who slept at a particular address on a given night once every ten years, in practice, the whole endeavour is a pitfall for the unwary. It is littered with inaccuracies resulting from misinformation due, in no particular order to: ignorance, illiteracy, surreptitious instances of censorship, fear of legal retribution, shame or just plain deceit.  For instance, while it is certainly true that some people, for varying reasons, were quite inventive about their age others simply had only a vague notion of when they or other family members were born. There was something of a decennial joke that occupied many newspaper column inches regarding the delicate and sometimes thorny issue of ascertaining a lady’s age and a plethora of cartoons were produced across the years.  Many people lied about their occupations, for example, in the 19th century thousands of women were prostitutes, yet this is certainly not what they entered on their household returns – a very common alternative was a ‘lodging house keeper’. Also, whilst most children were noted as ‘scholars’ by their parents, this may have well been to disguise the fact that they were illegally sending their underage brood out to work.   Officialdom further causes misleading information, like the rounding down of ages as seen in the 1841 census or the almost institutional omission of female occupation by a staid Victorian establishment.


The manner in which the collection and recording of information was accomplished was, in itself, a major source of inaccuracy. The enumerator delivered a schedule to every household in advance and then was required to collect the ‘filled-up’ forms once census night had passed. Here we have the primary cause of countless errors, with so many people being illiterate a friend, neighbour or the enumerator would have been obliged to assist in the completion of the form. The information ultimately recorded being only as accurate as the person supplying it was willing, or able to impart. While the handwriting and spelling of many concerned, official enumerators included, left a lot to be desired, it also has to be borne in mind that people tended to write names phonetically, an illiterate householder couldn’t spell their name even if asked. Add to this the fact that many an enumerator watered down ink to make it stretch further and the general quality of writing implements were less than satisfactory both further impact on the legibility of the finished document. There are also many documented cases of enumerators projecting their own beliefs and values on the householder, for instance in the recording or otherwise of cases including illegitimacy, unmarried couples, female and/or child occupation… If you couldn’t read, how would you know what had been recorded in your name by a perhaps discriminatory, overzealous or religiously bigoted enumerator or even a resentful, trouble-making neighbour?  Such variant issues of accuracy were correspondingly abound in institutions, schools or on vessels when it was the person in charge who completed details on behalf of everyone within the establishment or on board ship, thus leading to many errors in the recording of the final information.  In asylum returns it is quite normal to see inmates recorded only by a set of initials, in order to afford a degree of privacy, noted by a journalist of the day as a ‘curious but kindly provision’.


The completed and collected forms were then copied into an enumeration book by the district registrar – another key source of mis-transcription.  These were sent, together with the original schedule, to the General Registrar’s office in London where clerks further checked, extracted statistical information, made notes and applied ‘corrections’ before destroying the original schedules.  It doesn’t take too much imagination therefore to see how a mis-spelt name or an ambiguous number could easily manifest itself into a completely different name or age being eventually recorded.


In 1841, the first attempt to collect set information about every individual in the country, established the census structure and process, with the county being divided into more than 30,000 enumeration districts based on the old Hundreds system. Each subsequent census contains the same basic type of information, which has fortuitously provided a valuable building block for the ever-burgeoning pursuit of genealogy. Details include address, name and indication of the sex of each occupant as well as age and occupation.  As each edition of the census was born the government increasingly sought to gather more information about the population, the questions asked reflecting the interest of the government of the day. Except for 1841, the relationship to the head of the household was given as was the place and county of birth and marital status.  In the 1841 census ages were usually rounded down to the nearest five years for a person over 15 and places of birth were defined as to whether or not it was in the county of enumeration, indicated merely by Y or N. Furthermore, the address may be no more than the name of a street or even a village and only one forename was habitually noted.

By 1851 whether a person was blind, deaf or an ‘idiot’ was noted and tradesmen were defined as master, journeymen or apprentice with the number of employees that a master had being specified.  In 1871 the medical disabilities column was expanded to differentiate between ‘imbecile, idiot or lunatic’. By 1891 the number of rooms occupied by a family, if less than 5, was recorded and whether a working person was an employer or employee. In Wales the language spoken was noted by Welsh, English or Both.  Ten years later the census included information regarding if the person worked at home or not and four categories of disability were now listed: deaf and dumb, blind, ‘lunatic’ and ‘imbecile or feeble minded’. The 1911 census was the first that retained the original household schedules, so a family historian could well be looking at their own ancestor’s handwriting.  Unlike previous editions, these returns included soldiers serving overseas and so-called fertility questions; how long a couple had been married and the number of children, living or deceased born to that couple.  This census also comes with added poignancy; you could easily find yourself viewing, in their own hand, an ancestor’s carefully compiled household list containing the names of sons they may well have tragically and painfully lost just a few short years later.


Ten years is a relatively long time within the history of a family and many things can happen in a person’s life between one census and another.  During this time people may have married and re-married, resulting in a number of name changes. Alternatively, there are many cases where someone wanted to change their identity, for personal or political reasons; a bigamist who altered names to flee or disguise themselves from a former partner or an individual who anglicized their name over time to suit the political environment, are just two examples of name changes that can occur without recourse to officialdom, furthermore the use of nicknames and diminutives could also easily derail the unsuspecting researcher.  When investigating the census data it would be well to remember that none of the information given was ever double-checked against any accredited sources, therefore mistakes, variations and complete misunderstandings are extremely commonplace.  Many mis-transcriptions also occur when a person uses a difference writing system or alphabet such as Hebrew, Chinese of Cyrillic and no account can be taken as to how the census clerk or enumerator may interpret and record a name in such cases.


One of the more contentious issues an investigator may face when trawling census data is that relating to occupation, especially female occupation. While male livelihood was ordinarily noted as a matter of course there were hidden occupations that were not recorded, particularly where women working at home were concerned.  For instance farmers’ wives, and wives of men such as grocers, bakers, butchers etc who perhaps lived above their shops, and whose business involved the whole family.  Such women were described as farmer’s wife or butcher’s wife. Children, especially those above school leaving age, were similarly defined in terms of their father’s trade or occupation regardless of whether they were employed in the business or not. Women who carried out work from home or worked part-time were not termed in any such way; rather their occupation was left blank, thus implying that they ‘worked’ as a housewife. This lack of recognition with regard to female occupation reflects, amongst other things, the significance Victorian society placed on the role of women in the home and the status attached to men as breadwinners and sole providers.


The rich and inviting wealth of material that the census information offers the family historian to embroider the golden thread that connects one generation to another is palpable, however as can be seen there are many reasons why such information may not be 100% accurate. A flexible, methodical and open minded research technique is required allied with persistent doggedness and the knowledge that no matter how obliquely the information seems it can all be helpful but conversely it can also all be misleading   As valuable a tool as the census may seem to understanding the lives and loves of our ancestors, much of the information has been corrupted in one form or another and therefore even the most diligent researcher could see their golden thread unravel and fray or just as easily find themselves sewing it into the most unfathomable knot.