Using the census

By the beginning of the nineteenth century parish registers, the information collected by the Church about baptisms, marriages and deaths  become less reliable as a method of finding out how many people lived in the country. It took a while to get a new system established. The early versions of the census up to 1841 provide totals, but not the details that were collected by the Anglican priests who were the first enumerators.

From 1851 the recorded information was preserved in books giving details  household by household including the name, state, age, sex, occupation, relation to head of household and parish of origin of each resident. They also note the number of houses occupied, unoccupied and buildings.

These details provide a great way of starting a local study. Recognising who lived in a house in 1911 can be fascinating , it is even more interesting if you can trace who lived there in the previous fifty years by using the earlier versions of the census that are online. All sorts of patterns can be recognised, where people were born, what jobs they did and something about the history of the families.

The early versions of the census can, however, be a bit of a puzzle as it is not always easy to indentify houses by the enumerators’ numbers in the early versions of the census as it is not always clear what the enumerator is counting as a house or household. Reading the handwriting of the early census returns can also be challenging. A typed transcript is always worth seeking out, and if you are teaching younger children, a transcript is essential.

In spite of this, the availability of early versions of the census makes an excellent starting point for a study to move forward or back in time. This approach was recommended in an excellent book for local history groups, This was their world, by Alan Rogers (or, in its revised edition, Approaches to local history). Buy a copy of this book if you can find it secondhand.

If your area has a Victorian County History you will also be able to get the population totals for the parishes and the county. By looking at these totals over time in urban areas, it is possible to see an outline of the development of a town.