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The first official Census undertaken in Great Britain, was during 1801, and subsequently every ten years, and up until 1831, were purely head counting exercises, where names were not even deemed necessary.  Some of the Census enumerators, however, took it upon themselves to draw up their own lists of persons within each household, and these lists sometimes appear in church and parish records, which are usually held by County Record Offices.

The 1841 Census, was, therefore, the first to record the names of every member of a household, but apart from where children were under the age of 15, age would still only have been approximate, and usually to the nearest five years.

From 1841, we also find the person’s sex, their occupations and whether they were born in the same county as they were now residing (indicated by a simple ‘y’ for yes, and an ‘n’ for no), being recorded. Relationships to the head of the household, however, were not recorded, and for those born in Scotland, an ‘S’ is recorded, for Ireland, an ‘I’, and if a person was born overseas, then an ‘F’ was used.

Later Census returns, were more comprehensive thankfully, inasmuch as the relationship to the head of the household was recorded, exact ages(although inaccuracies were still to be expected, as the informants were taken at their word), occupations, and importantly – the birthplaces were taken. If a person’s birth took place outside of England and Wales, however, only the country is given, and of course, any members of the family, or other usual occupants who were absent when the census was taken – were not recorded. A missing family member in the returns could be explained by the fact that the person was in hospital, or in prison, in the military or in service.

The 1881 Census of Great Britain and Ireland, from which the entries in this book have been transcribed, recorded the people residing in every household on the night of 3 April, and was the fifth British census to include details of household members. The census schedule in 1881 for example, as with earlier census’, asked whether any of the household were ‘lunatics’, ‘imbeciles’ or ‘idiots’, something which caused the Registrar General to observe:

It is against human nature to expect any mother to admit that her young child is an idiot, however much she may fear this to be true. To acknowledge the fact, would be to abandon all hope”.

This ninth census, was taken after two Acts of parliament received Royal Assent on 7 September 1880, one relating to England and Wales and the Islands, and the other relating to Scotland.

The only published information in regard to the administration of a Scottish census, dates from 1851, prior to the establishment of the Scottish Register Office in 1854. In the case of England and Wales, some 34,711 enumerators were hired to distribute schedules to each household or tenement (during the week of 28 March 1881)and to collect those completed schedules, on either 4 or 5 April. The enumerators then had to enter the recorded details on the schedules into their enumeration books, and all within within six days ‘in strict conformity with the rules given therein’.Different procedures were undertaken in regard to Scotland, and for vessels that were at sea, and for members of the Royal Navy.

The instructions (rules) that were given to each household, were clearly printed on the reverse of the enumeration schedule, but despite that, a number of problems became evident, and alterations often had to be made once the schedules were collected from each household. Minor errors, such as simple spelling mistakes were duly corrected, although it should be noted that errors were also introduced at this time, due to the enumerators interpretation of what the householder had written, as many were semi-literate or completely illiterate, and had to rely on neighbours, friends or the enumerators themselves to complete the schedules for them.

Information was almost certainly altered, much of it based on the enumerator’s local knowledge, and it was not unusual for the enumerators themselves, to falsify information, and the use of abbreviations was pretty much across the board, with the strict understanding that any such contractions were easily understood.  Many of these abbreviations, however, were at best confusing, as one of the more common examples used, were the initials ‘C. M.’ which could refer to a ‘Cotton or Carpet Manufacturer’ or even a ‘Coal Miner’.  It is difficult, therefore, to ascertain how much (or little) alteration had taken place, as almost no original schedules exist.

Once that process had been completed, and the enumerator had copied out the schedules into his enumeration book, they were despatched to one of the 2,175 local registrars, where they were examined. The superintendent registrar, then approved and countersigned each enumeration book, and then forwarded them to the Census Office, which was located in Craig’s Court, Charing Cross, London, where the next checking procedure was carried out.

The books were upon arrival in the Census Office, further scrutinised, a task which took more than 60 clerks, over three months to complete. It is worth noting at this point, the working conditions of the clerks tasked to carry out these checks, who were not salaried, but were paid on the number of ticks they made.

According to Dr. William Ogle, the office in which the census clerks worked, were:

‘very low, fearfully ventilated, and were foetid by the time the day was over, quite horrible to go into … we had perpetual complaints of illness … two of our staff at the present time [1890] declare that their health was permanently ruined by the foul air …

Although the entire enumeration process appeared to have been most thorough, there is little evidence which would suggest that this was actually the case.  It must therefore, be accurate to record, that between the time the householder handed over the schedule, right through to the final census report, the details contained therein were susceptible to alteration and/or correction, by any number of people. Although the greater part of the alterations were indeed beneficial, they also contaminated the integrity of the data, and therefore should not be relied upon as being infallible.

That being said, while one must of course acknowledge their imperfections, the process by which they were created should also be understood. In 1987, the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) was granted a licence by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office (HMSO) to fully transcribe and index the 1881 Census of England & Wales.  The GSU was founded in 1894 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and it’s purpose was to collect genealogical data, and make it available to the public. The result of the GSU’s work was a fully machine-readable transcript of the census for England and Wales [initially Scotland nor Ireland were not included], and was published on a series of CD-ROM disks in 1999.

The extracts that will be published on this page, are taken from that series, and form part of an ongoing project, added to, as and when they are transcribed.