Guide to the 1841 Census of England and Wales

The 1841 Census of England and Wales, taken on 6 June 1841, was the first census taken at the same time across the country, and occurred because of the enactment of the Population Act 1840, in which a position was created which was entitled 'Commissioners for taking account of the population'.  Earlier censuses were administered by Overseers of the Poor.

The Registrar General and the Superintendent Registrars, who maintained responsibility for registrations of births, marriages and deaths, were made responsible for the administration of the 1841 Census. 

One enumerator was appointed per census district, approximately 35000 in all, and they were responsible for collecting details from a population of around 16 million.  

Civil Registration and the taking of the Census became inter-connected for the first time, so any change in the local boundaries or districts affected both of them.

Enumeration Districts were made up of subdivisions of Civil Registration Districts, and were designed so one person could, in a single day, collect data from all households in the area.  There were around 200 households in each enumeration district.  


The Census Schedule

A pre-printed census schedule was delivered to every household a few days before the census was due to be taken, with the householder being required to state the names, ages, sexes, occupations and birth places of every person who lived at the address.  This schedule was then collected by the enumerator.

If the householder was illiterate, or could not fill in the form for another reason, the enumerator would help them to complete the schedule.

It was not uncommon, however, for the enumerator to mishear what was said by the householder, especially if he had a strong accent, so the enumerator may have transcribed the information provided incorrectly.  It is best, in these circumstances, to double check the information provided on the census with other sources, such as parish registers or, if the person was still living, the 1851 Census.

On each page, the enumerator would total up the number of males and females in the columns, and the number of inhabited and uninhabited houses.


The Official Census Books

The enumerator copied the census schedules into official books, with the original schedules being destroyed.  When you peruse the 1841 Census, you look at the census enumerator's books. 

It is important to consider that the enumerator could have made a mistake when he was transcribing the information from the schedules into the books. 

A / marked the end of a household, but // marked the end of a building.  It is important to remember that many households may be located in one building.


Refusal to Answer Census Questions led to Fine

It was considered an offence to refuse to answer a question on the census or to provide information that was knowingly inaccurate.  If anyone was found guilty of such an offence, they were fined.


Relationship to the Head of the Household

Occupants' relationship to the head of the household was not recorded.  If a lodger was living with the family on census night, he/she was not recorded as such.


Different ways Enumerators Recorded Information

Enumerators collected the information from householders in many different ways.  Some enumerators listed the surname followed by the Christian name, whilst others listed the Christian name first, followed by the surname.

Some enumerators did not always write down the last name in every instance.  If there were many people with the same last name in a household, the enumerator may just write do, short for ditto, meaning 'as above'.

Some enumerators abbreviated the marital status of the householder, such as M for married, U or Un for unmarried and W for widow or widower.


Census Addresses

Only a very brief description of the address was entered on the return, but all household occupants were recorded for the first time.  The address was rarely written at all in villages because it was not considered to be necessary.

You can search the 1841 census street index, but it is necessary to know the address your ancestor was living at.  This is only available for towns and cities, villages are not included.


Age at the Time of the Census

In the 1841 Census, the ages of occupants over the age of 15 were rounded down to the nearest 5 years.  For example, someone aged 53 would be transcribed as being 50, and a person aged 22 would be listed as being 20. 

When looking for your ancestor's baptism in parish registers, which would be the only option open to you because civil registration did not begin in England and Wales until the September quarter of 1837(includes July, August and September), it is prudent to check for 3 or 4 years either side of the year in which you believe they were born.

Sometimes the enumerator recorded exact ages, which is a great help to the family historian because it makes it easier to trace their baptism.

Many people did not know how old they were, so guessed at their age, which is a reason why their age varies from census to census.


Instructions given to Census Enumerators

Age - Write in figures the age of every person opposite to their names, in one of the columns headed 'age of male,' or age of female,' according to their sex. For persons aged 15 years and upwards it is sufficient to state within what period of five years their age is, writing down the lowest number of that period; thus, for persons aged 15 and under 20, write 15 - for 20 and under 25, write 20 - for 25 and under 30, write 25 - for 30 and under 35, write 30, and so on, up to the greatest ages; but the exact age may be stated if the person prefers it.  For persons under 15, write the number of years; for infants under one year, the number of months.

Other instructions were also given to the census enumerators

Occupations and their Abbreviations

Occupations were noted for the first time, with the enumerator using occupation codes including:

Ag. Lab
Ap.
Army
BK.
Cl.
CM
FM
FS.
Ind.

H.P.
J.


M.
m.
MS.
Navy
P.
PO.
PS.
Sh.
SV.
TE.
TR.

Agricultural Labourer
Apprentice
Members of the Army
Baker
Clerk
Companion
Foreman
Female Servant
Independent - living on their own means.  This meant they did not have a profession
and could include men, single women, or widows
Member of the HM Armed Forces on half-pay
Journeyman (a tradesman, after having served his apprenticeship, was qualified to perform the job.  He could go on to become a master, but would have to be accepted by the Guild
Manufacturer
Shoe Maker etc
Male Servant
Members of the Royal Navy
Pensioners of the HM Armed Forces
Porter (could be a door or gate keeper or someone carrying luggage)
Prisoner
Shopman
Servant
Teacher
Traveller (could be a gypsy or a travelling salesman)


Birth Place

The 1841 Census did not give details of a person's birth place, instead stating whether or not they were born in the county in which they were living.  If not, it was marked 'N' for not in the county but elsewhere in England, 'S' for Scotland, 'I' for Ireland or 'F' for Foreign Parts.  

If a household member did not know where they were born, NK was written.  This stood for 'not known', which is always disappointing when conducting family tree research because it makes it much more difficult to ascertain their place of origin.


Problems with the Census

One of the major problems with the Census is that because it was written in pencil, some pages have badly faded over the years, and are now unfortunately illegible on the microfilm copies of the census.

It is also important to note that some parts of the return have missing pieces, as parts have been lost over the years, so if you are unable to find your ancestor on the census, please bear this in mind. Counties in which some parishes are missing from the census include:

  • Cheshire
  • Derbyshire
  • Hampshire
  • Kent
  • Middlesex
  • Northamptonshire
  • Oxfordshire
  • Somerset
  • Surrey
  • Wiltshire
  • Yorkshire

It is also sometimes very difficult to read the handwriting on the Census Returns.

Another problem was that because the return was compiled on 6 June, which was a harvest night, some agricultural labourers may have been missing from the census because they were working.  They may have slept outside or were away from the family home.


1841 Census Headings

  • Place
  • Number of uninhabited and inhabited houses
  • Names
  • Age and Sex (different columns for males and females)
  • Profession, Trade, Employment, or of Independent Means: Occupation

Where can I find the Census?

Most County Record Offices hold the 1841 Census for their local area.  These can also be viewed at the National Archives.

The National Library of Wales holds the 1841 Census on microfiche for all of Wales.

It is also possible to access free census records on-line at freecen which is transcribed by volunteers and contains partially complete indexes, although more information is being added all the time.

You can also search the 1841 Census through Find My Past, The Genealogist and Ancestry. Many subscriptions are available through these companies.

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