1841 Update - Using the First British Nominal Census
by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot
There has been a spike in activity within the UK data at Ancestry, and the reason is the arrival of 1841 census data. The excitement is understandable; the set of census returns for England and Wales, 1841 to 1901, is complete. Genealogists should be excited for other reasons too, and I will tell you more about why in this article.
Why 1841 Is Important
In England, Wales, the Isle of Man, Channel Islands, and Scotland, a nominal census was enumerated in 1841. This was not the first census of mainland Britain and the surrounding small islands, but it was the first that directed enumerators to list every name and record personal details.
It was a remarkable undertaking for its day. The census of 1841 differed in three ways from its predecessors (1801 through 1831):
- It was taken all at once in the shortest possible time.
- An account had to be made of each and every individual.
- The full returns, rather than statistical summaries, were sent to the General Register Office for analysis.
The Familiar Difficulties
Most descriptions in books and articles include comments on the shortcomings of the census information. For each person enumerated you see full name, occupation, approximate age, and vague birthplace details, in addition to the information about location. There is no indication of relationships among people in a household which, combined with the vague ages and birthplaces, makes it difficult to pick out individuals, particularly when a surname is common.
Unreadable pages can be another problem because the census was written in pencil. Many of us have struggled to read faint microfilm images. The least fortunate among us find nothing at all as chunks of the 1841 census are missing.
Overcoming the Problems
The aforementioned background information also includes a detailed listing of missing sections. I recommend you check this information before doing your research, particularly if you have details of where a family or individual was residing at the time. Technical innovation won’t bring the details back, but Ancestry has done us all a service in making clear the facts about what is missing. We are prepared for the necessity of taking alternative action. Eleven counties in England and four in Wales have some missing bits, with the longest list of them being for Wiltshire. In Scotland the county of Fife has significant gaps.
The first comments I heard about the Ancestry version of the 1841 census for the UK were about the image quality. Many formerly unreadable sections have been enhanced and the background information (found on the database search pages for England, Wales, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, and Scotland) lists the sections that have been enhanced.
Bonuses of Online Resources
The England and Wales returns for 1841 have an every-name index, and the images of the enumeration registers are available for viewing. The Scotland returns are indexed, and a full transcript is available. From the main UK census page, it is possible to search at one time across all of mainland Britain, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. Alternatively you can search England, Wales, Scotland, Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man one at a time.
I use the county-level search to look for people living close to the borders between England and Scotland, and England and Wales. With a map handy I can choose the counties that should be searched. Scots connections, for example, are among my Westmorland ancestors. I have searched Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, Dumfries, and Roxburghshire for them. Being able to do this in one place, going back and forth between adjacent counties, is an advantage.
Other bonuses are the features of the search tool. In Scotland some surnames are very common--compared to other locations where the number of surnames within the population is low--and it is a help to be able to search by given name only. I use both the ranked search and the exact search because they behave differently. By the way, exact search may be a slightly misleading term; remember your search can be made somewhat less precise through the use of wild card symbols. It really helps to read the instructions, found in the Ancestry.co.uk Help Center.
Conclusion-It Was a Good Year
As far as genealogists are concerned, the timing of this enumeration was good. 1841 is four years after the start of civil registration records (1 July 1837), nine years after the first reform bill began to expand those records in lists of voters, and it was a period when trade and local directories are appearing in print in ever increasing numbers. In other words, there are several resources that can be checked, one against the other, before research moves beyond the informative resources of the 1800s. Make the most of the 1841 census.
About the Author
Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998) and Researching Scottish Ancestry (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study-tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two- year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.
The 1841 Census for England was taken on the night of 30 March 1841. The following information was requested:
- Name of street, place, road, etc.
- House number or name
- Name of each person that had spent the night in that household
- Relationship of person enumerated to the head of the family
- Person's marital status
- Age at last birthday (sex is indicated by which column the age is recorded in)
- Person's rank, profession, or occupation
- Person's place of birth (if outside of England or Wales, only the country may be given)
- Whether blind, deaf, or idiot
Enumeration forms were distributed to all households a couple of days before census night and the complete forms were collected the next day. All responses were to reflect the individual's status as of 30 March 1841 for all individuals who had spent the night in the house. People who were traveling or living abroad were enumerated at the location where they spent the night on census night. All of the details from the individual forms were later sorted and copied into enumerators' books, which are the records we can view images of today. The original householders schedules from 1841 to 1901 were destroyed.
The clerks who compiled and reviewed the census data made a variety of marks on the returns. Unfortunately, many of these tally marks were written over personal information and some fields, such as ages, can be difficult to read as a result. More useful marks include a single slash between households within a building and a double slash separating households in separate buildings.
How the census forms are organized:
Census returns were collected according to registration district. These returns were divided into sub-districts and assigned consecutive piece numbers for reference purposes. The piece numbers begin in London with number one and work roughly south to north, followed by the Welsh districts and then the Isle of Man and Channel Islands. You will find the piece number on a paper strip at the bottom of every image, following the PRO class number. There may be hundreds of pieces within a county.
In addition to the piece number, each page of the returns includes a folio number and/or a page number. The folio number was stamped onto every other page before microfilming and is located in the upper right hand corner of the image. Folio numbering usually starts over at the beginning of each piece. The page number is part of the printed form and is found on every page in the upper right hand corner. The page numbers start over at the beginning of every enumeration district. A full reference number for a record in the 1841 census includes the PRO class number (HO 107), the piece number, the folio number, and the page number. Keep in mind that you may have to look at several enumeration districts to find the page you want within a given folio since the page numbers start over with every ED.
Known problems with the 1841 Census:
- The following parishes and hamlets are missing from these piece numbers. Some of these parishes and hamlets represent the entirety of the piece, while others are just portions of a piece.
||Parishes and Hamlets
||Cambridgeshire and Suffolk
||Cambridgeshire and Suffolk
Hatfield-Broad-Oak or Hatfield Regis
Hinton St Mary
Shillingstone or Shilling-Okeford
- In addition, the census returns of the following localities have been damaged by water during storage. Most of the damaged pieces are in the area of Manchester.
||Parishes and Hamlets
Cudworth with High & Low Cudworth
Darton Lane Head
|Darton with Blacker
Staincross & Swallow Hill
Birth in Rusholme
Newton with Culcheth & Kirkmanshulme
Knott Lanes with Lees
Knott Lanes & Wood Park
Oldham (St Mary's, St Peter's, Wernet, and Westwood Wards)
Connecting piece numbers and localities:
To identify which parishes or townships are included in a piece, please use The National Archives online catalogue. Search the catalogue by entering the series code and the piece number, e.g. HO 107/217, in the box in the upper left that says "Type reference here."
Alternatively, you can search the catalogue vice-versa (identify which piece number a particular parish or township is part of) by putting a place name in the "Word or phrase" field and "HO 107" in the "Department or Series code" field.
Some of the above information was taken from "Chapter 6: Census Returns," Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History by Mark D. Herber (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1998) and Using Census Returns, Pocket Guides to Family History by David Annal (Richmond, Surrey: Public Record Office, 2002).
Ancestry.co.uk. 1841 England Census [database online]. Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com, Inc., 2005. Indexed by MyFamily.com, Inc. from microfilmed schedules of the 1841 England Census. Data imaged from the National Archives, London, England. The National Archives gives no warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or fitness for the purpose of the information provided. Images may be used only for purposes of research, private study or education. Applications for any other use should be made to the National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. Infringement of the above condition may result in legal action.