Census, People and Genealogy

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One of the things that has been on my to do list for a while, is a series of blog posts about the census. Over the next few posts I am going to share about each of the census from 1801 up until the release of the 1921 census.

A census has taken place in the British Isles every decade since 1801 – You can see a full list of the census dates and associated information HERE.

The purpose of a census is generally speaking, a people count of those who are living in the country and where they are living.

That information and the breakdown of demographical facts enable several important factors to be established, here are a few of them:

  • Of the population, how many are suitable candidates should there be a war
  • Of the population, how many are candidates for the payment of taxes.
  • Of the population in the location, was there growth?

The census questions between 1801 and 1831 was effectively in two parts and made up of six questions:

  1. First three questions were to be addressed by the Overseers of the poor (or other substantial individual) and centred around the current population – the number of homes in the parish, along with if they were inhabited or not, the number of families and then the number of males and females. There was also a question about occupation, loosely divided into agriculture, manufacturing, commerce and lastly handicrafts.
  2. The latter three questions were to be addressed by the clergy of the parish – based upon the births, marriages and deaths within the parish and recorded in the parish registers.

Over time, the questions asked of those in the household on the specified night changed as the government sought to find out specific demographical information from the population.

Each time the Government wished to undertake a census; it was required to be approved by Parliament who then approved the legislation which outlined the details of a specific census. This happened from 1801 with the Population Act 1800, every decade until 1920, when the Census Act made it possible for the Government to hold a census at any time, but not within five years of the previous census.

The census is a key document as we pursue our family history. It is also a significant resource for those undertaking a one-name study and one-place study.

A census enables us to identify one, or more persons and to follow them through the subsequent census returns, using the key identification measures, such as approximate age, place of birth, perhaps spouse or parents and children or siblings; even if you might need a little scope for those factors.

Those undertaking a specific study, as outlined above can also benefit from using census material.

With a place, especially a village or property, it is relatively easy to extract the entire location, across each census, building a portfolio of the demographical group of the location for example. Many years ago, I did an complete extraction of the census, from 1841-1891 for the village of Puttenham in Surrey printing the census at the archives.

For a surname, it is similar, and many genealogists working on a surname project start their data gathering with a census, building on a family group, over the decade. Although for my surname projects and One-Name Studies, I don’t start from a census, but with a marriage as I reconstruct families. I do use census returns, but not immediately. I have written before on this and you can read that post HERE, although I think I probably need to write on the topic again.

Over the coming days I am going to meander through the decades, with particular focus on the census returns, though the broad statement is, census material for 1801-1831 has limited value to family historians as there is not any specific individual data; and that in 1904, the records were largely destroyed, although a some examples have survived, as we shall see….

About Julie Goucher

Genealogist, Author, Presenter, native Guildfordian, avid note taker and journal writer. Lover of Books, Stationery & History; Surnames, European Ancestors, Butcher & Orlando One-Name Studies, Pharos Tutor for all One-Name Studies and surname courses.
This entry was posted in Census, Compton, Surrey, England, Genealogy, UK & Ireland (Eire) Genealogy Series. Bookmark the permalink.

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