A Master Class in Census Searching

Auhor and professional genealogist Emma Jolly

FAMILY historians everywhere are working their way through the 1921 census, which FindMyPast has just put online. It will help chart the huge changes that followed the First World War. For the first time, information will be available on divorce, names of employers, and detailed aspects of education.

It will throw light on the lives of those living in the aftermath – the widows bringing up families alone, the survivors of the conflict continuing with their lives or striking out in new directions, and the estate owners battling death duties.

In fact, the 1921 census did not go smoothly. Originally scheduled for 24 April, it had to be postponed until 19 June due to industrial unrest sparked when mines nationalized during wartime were put back into private hands and miners’ wages were promptly reduced.

Surprisingly, it showed that despite the conflict the population appeared to have increased since 1911, though comparisons are confounded by population movements – armed forces, enemy prisoners and refugees – and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

One stark finding was that, for obvious reasons, there were many more women than men, which prompted calls for schemes to encourage them to emigrate to places like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which had many thousands of unmarried men.

With such an important census on the horizon, now is a good time for family historians to prepare the ground by researching earlier censuses and fleshing out their family trees. And an essential primer for the exercise is A Guide to Tracing Your Family History Using the Census by professional genealogist Emma Jolly.

This new book based on solid historical research provides a detailed guide to all the national censuses carried out since Hampshire resident John Rickman set the ball rolling in 1801. The early ones only provided statistics, but from 1841 they recorded the names of every individual in a household. In that year they also assumed new importance in public health, when pioneer statistician and epidemiologist Dr William Farr took charge.

As well as age, sex, and place of birth, the 1841 census lists profession, trade and employment and people of ‘independent means’. It was the first ‘new age’ census following the introduction of civil registration in 1837 and the new-born General Register Office, which is still familiar to anyone who orders registration certificates.

Each successive census elaborated the information recorded. That of 1851 included details of the ‘relation to the head of the family’ and classified occupations into 17 groups. The blind, the deaf and dumb and those sleeping in barns, tents, barges and the like were also noted.

And for the first time, it carried out religious and educational censuses, recording attendance at services (on 30 March), average attendance during the previous 12 months and details of the church building itself. A mass of information was also collected for schools – affiliation, date of establishment, numbers of teachers and pupils, classroom sizes and much else.

Emma’s book is full of this sort of granular detail that makes it an essential tool for any family or local historian. The basics of each census are given: the 1881 was ‘one of the most accurate’, in 1911 it was boycotted by suffragettes, and the separate one for Ireland in 1901 was very detailed – and is free online, as is the 1911 census.

Armed with a census record, a map and some fieldwork it is possible to uncover the story of any neighbourhood. Take 16-23 Andover Road, Winchester, a terrace of mid-Victorian houses at one time next to two gasometers. In 1891 they were occupied by an astonishing array of 45 people – dressmaker, French polisher, grocer’s carman, carriage smith (yes!), fishing tackle maker, tailor and apprentice and others. It is a story waiting to be told.

For each census Emma gives illuminating historical context, provides suggestions for online resources – including free ones – and writes about problems likely to be met by users, the most effective way to use the records and how ‘to take it further’.

For those with ancestors outside England she describes the unique features of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish censuses. Other sources of census data are also presented, such as the county muster rolls of 1630, the hearth tax of 1641, and various surveys carried out over the years in Ireland and the colonies.

Emma first got interested in family history as an undergraduate when asked to investigate her own family as an exercise to highlight the problems of researching and writing history. Later she obtained a Higher Certificate in Genealogy from the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies and an MA in history from Sheffield Hallam University.

Asked to give tips on family history, she said: “The first thing is to start with the most recent information and work backwards. Keep looking for sources of information, because the more clues you have the more chance you have of finding the right family.

“Of course, there are now many online sources for the censuses, but don’t just depend on one. They are all slightly different – the transcriptions vary, the images of some records are better on one or another, and the clarity of images varies. So, double-check everything between two different sources.

“Don’t depend on the [finding aid’s] indexes, but, look at the record itself. You might be surprised to find that someone you thought was a ‘dentist’ was actually an ‘ag lab’! It’s also useful to investigate the local history of your ancestors’ communities. It will make the results deeper and broader.”

As well as helping to trace ancestors, census data has other uses. Surname mapping shows where particular family names are found. Work at the University of Essex on the 1881 census revealed that 40% of Britons share only 500 names.

Census data also provides a range of social and economic indicators for any given district, such as age, social class and occupation. Much of this can be found on the Vison of Britain website, based for Hampshire on work at the University of Portsmouth.

Local historian Bob Applin has analysed the 1851 census for the new Victoria County History, which is focused on Basingstoke, to provide profiles of the locality in terms of age, family structure, inward migration, sizes of households and occupations. He has also studied the lives of subgroups, such as servants, garment workers and agricultural labourers. A Guide to Tracing Your Family History Using the Census (Pen & Sword Books) is a vital companion for any family historian teasing out the details of their ancestors’ lives. It’s worth buying alone for an invaluable two-page comprehensive list of online sources of census data. All this will be complemented by membership of the Hampshire Genealogical Society, whose indexes, publications and other resources make the task much simpler.

From an article by Barry Shurlock first published in the Hampshire Chronicle.

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