Collecting personal data is nothing new. While the information harvesting of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have shocked many, it has been known for centuries that the more you know about people the more effectively you can deal with them. And while aggressive data collection by companies is a recent phenomenon, governments have been doing it far longer in the form of the census.
What is a census?
Simply a census is an official record of the population of a country or area. At its most basic it may just be a matter of counting heads. But most modern censuses have collected many more details of age, economic circumstances and geographical origin.
When was the first census in the UK?
The first modern census was taken in Sweden in 1749 and was soon followed in other European nations. Campaigners tried to introduce a British census in the 1750s but the gentry opposed through fear that it would be a means of increasing property taxes. Later a group of statisticians and politicians were able to persuade the government to take a census every ten years. The first census of England, Wales, and Scotland (Ireland was not included until later) was made in 1801. A survey has been taken every decade since except for 1941 when the Second World War intervened.
What information is contained in the census?
The first censuses were concerned with collating statistics. They counted the population and noted the numbers of people involved in farming or factories. The ages of citizens began to be recorded but few personal details. For the period 1801-1831 very few records survive other than the bare numbers in the official published census abstracts.
In 1841 the census system changed dramatically. From then we have names, addresses, ages, gender, occupation and area of origin. Throughout the C19th more details were added. In 1851 individual’s marital status was recorded as well as the relation to the head of the household. Severe disabilities began to be noted. At this time the precise location of every person’s birth i.e. town or village and county was also included.
In 1911, the latest census currently available to public view, an even more comprehensive range of personal details were taken. For instance, the number of years a couple had been married, the number of children born within the marriage, how many were living, and how many had died, and whether anyone in the household suffered from an ‘infirmity’.
At various times the information recorded was slightly different in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but the above – based on the censuses of England – provides a good guide to what was going on.
How to find people in the census?
To avoid counting anyone more than once, only those who were present on census night were recorded. This meant that visitors might be included while other members of a family might be unusually absent because they were elsewhere. However, using online indexes, ‘missing’ people may be found elsewhere, using factors like age and place of birth for cross-referencing.
Some people, such as criminals, may have had a reason to avoid the authorities. Those in the armed services may still be found in separately collected census data. In 1911 many women who campaigned for the right to vote evaded the census as a form of protest.
Where can I access UK census records?
Although the censuses are part of the National Archives as a government record, all the censuses between 1841 and 1911 have been digitised and are available through a variety of subscription-access websites. The major providers include
Where can I find out more about the census?
There are a number of thorough books on the subject, but particularly useful guides are
- Emma Jolly, Tracing Your Ancestors using the Census (Pen & Sword, 2013)
- Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited (Institute of Historical Research, 2005)
- Peter Christian and David Annal, Census: The Expert Guide (National Archives, 2008)
How can I get help with census records?
We can help with any enquiry relating to UK census records between 1841 and 1911. The team at Talbot Research are experienced with searching and interpreting these records and putting them in context to create the clearest picture of the past. Please contact us to find out more.