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History of the British Census

An example of the 1841 census.

The first British census took place in 1801 during the reign of George Vl. At first it was more or less just a population count, no individual's details being recorded.

In 1841, just after Queen Victoria came to the throne, the first more detailed census was taken. Details were recorded of everyone's occupancy, their name, age (to within 5 years), their occupation, and whether or not they were born in the county where they now resided.

From 1851 their exact age was recorded, also the town of their birth, their marital status, their relationship to the head of the house and whether they were blind, deaf or dumb.

Subsequent censuses have included various amendments. For example, in 1871 another category was added, whether idiot, imbecile or lunatic (all perfectly acceptable medical terms at the time).

These 10 yearly censuses have been taken place ever since 1841 (apart from during World War 2), and are available for the general public to view after 100 years. Therefore the latest census available is 1911.

Schedules were handed out days before the allotted date of the census, and people were asked to complete the details of who was living in their house on that night. These details were then gathered by the enumerator who copied them into his book.

1911 is the only year where the original documents completed by the householders themselves still exist, so it is possible to see your ancestor's actual handwriting. During the early years, only a small proportion of the population could read or write, so the enumerator would often have to take the information orally. This accounts for variations of spelling of names we often find in different censuses. Compulsory education did not come into England until 1870 (and even this was often waivered in agricultural areas).

In 1939 at the outset of World War II, a Register was taken of all 41 million people in England and Wales. Identity cards were issued which continued to be used until 1952. This register is now available and shows the names, dates of birth and addresses of anyone born over 100 years ago. It also shows those born since, but who died before 1991, when the Register was no longer updated.

Below: An example of the 1881 census.

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