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 Berkshire 1871 Census Progress

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Berkshire 1871 Census Project

The Census from household return to modern transcription

© Phil Wood 2002

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The 1871 Census

By Act of Parliament a Census of Population was taken in 1871.  In form this Census followed the pattern of the previous Censuses in 1851 and 1861.

By 1871 Censuses were becoming a familiar event and warranted less press coverage than in the early days (or now).  The impact of the very recent Franco-Prussian War dominated the news, even local papers were carrying stories of Prussian troops looting Paris and debates on the possible futures of France.  However, the census did warrant some basic coverage - Newbury Weekly News.

The Census returns were to capture the presence of every person resident in the country on the night of Sunday the 2nd of April 1871. People were to be reported in their place of residence on that night, not their permanent place of residence if that should be different.

The taking of the census was organised to use local government structures, notably the Poor Law Unions.  These Unions were created following the Poor Law Act of 1834 that mandated Parishes to group together into Unions in order to administer a common standard of poor relief - and the notorious workhouses. Then in 1837 the Births and Deaths Registration Act and the Marriage Act, of 1836 came into effect and the Poor Law Unions became Registration Districts as well. Censuses from 1851 used the Registration District as the basis for their organisation.

It should be noted that these Registration District often crossed County borders, the need to provide statistics on a County by County basis led to a certain amount of manipulation of the returns after they reached the Registrars (more later).

Enumerators, Enumeration Districts and Books

Each Registration District was divided first into Sub Districts which in turn were divided  into Enumeration Districts (EDs). The Superintendent Registrar  appointed Enumerators and selected an Enumeration Book for the Enumerator to complete.  On the first page (page i) the definition of the ED was entered.  The books were of several sizes, the larger the number of persons expected in the ED the more pages there were in the book used for the purpose. Enumeration Books in Berkshire 1871 use from 6 to 74 data pages.  If the payment to the enumerators was by the book then I know which district I would want to do!  This may be an explanation for three small districts being enumerated by the same man while only totaling 24 data pages between them.

Householders Schedule

The Enumerators first task would be to deliver forms to all households in his patch, a few of these Household Returns survive within the Berkshire returns so we can see the form they took.  They were single sheets of paper with instructions and a place to fill in address etc. on one side and a table to fill in on the other.  The table takes essentially the same form as that in the Enumeration Books, viz: name, relationship to head, condition, sex, age, occupation, birthplace, infirmity.  The most noticeable point here is the column indicating sex, which is not transferred directly into the Enumeration Book rather the ages are put into separate columns according to sex.

Householders were expected to have these forms filled in (they were allowed to delegate this task) and ready for collection:

 "This paper will be CALLED FOR on MONDAY, APRIL 3rd, by the appointed Enumerator and it is desirable that you should have the answers written in by the  morning of that day, in order that his progress may not be delayed. It will be his duty, under the Act, to complete the return if it be defective, and to correct it if erroneus. Any person authorised by you may write in the particulars if you are yourself unable to do so."

Furthermore there were severe penalties for not doing so:

"Persons who refuse to give CORRECT INFORMATION, are liable to a Penalty of Five Pounds; besides the inconvenience and annoyance of appearing before two Justices of the Peace, and being convicted of having made a willful mis-statement of age, or of any of the other particulars"

I suspect that even this was insufficient to prevent some from shaving a few years of their age!

And much is made of the 100 year rule applied by the PRO to the release of census material - perhaps the following statement from the householder's forms is pertinent:

"The facts will be published in General Abstracts only, and strict care will be taken that the returns are not used for the gratification of curiosity."

Fortunately for we, the curious, that statement was deemed to apply for only 100 years! 

Enumeration Books

Having collected the forms from each householder, no doubt having to fill in more than a few for illiterate residents, the Enumerator's final task was to transfer the data from the forms into his Enumeration Book. It is these books that are preserved at the Public Record Office and that have been filmed thus allowing us all to access the information in record offices, libraries and family history centres world-wide.  The PRO will also sell copies of these images on film or microfiche to anyone interested.

The Enumerator had to copy the information from the forms into the data pages of the book (numbered from 1).  Each page held space to insert the totals for number of households, males, females, uninhabited buildings and buildings under construction.  The Enumerator filled these in, often getting them wrong and scribbling over a correction. These totals were then copied into a tally sheet at the beginning of the book (page v), the entries on this page were then totalled to give a complete summary of the Enumeration District and the results were transferred to Page iv.  Finally the Enumerator signs on Page vi to indicate he has completed his task and passes the book to the Registrar.

The alert amongst you may have noticed that pages ii and iii have not been mentioned - page ii is instructions to the Enumerator on how to fill in the book and page iii is an example data page to show him how its done.  The instructions are worth noting - they were followed to some extent!


Special cases were made for Institutions, these would be the large Workhouses, prisons, asylums, military establishments etc., these have a different format of book which combines the function of the Household Return and the Enumeration Book.  In Berkshire we see a range of these, most Unions have a Workhouse book, others found are the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Royal Military College Sandhurst, Windsor Cavalry Barracks etc. Perhaps the most unusual is Windsor Castle - head of household is not correctly enumerated - Her Majesty the Queen fails to give any of her many names,  I wonder if she was fined £5 and forced to appear before the JPs to explain why she and her children were not enumerated correctly?

For each such institution a Principal Resident Officer was identified who took on the role of both householder and enumerator.  So, in the case of institution returns, we are seeing the original source data for the census.

The Registrars

When they received the Enumeration books it was the Registrars duty to check that they had been filled in correctly, certain scribblings and modifications would, no doubt have ensued.  However, the main role would have been to ensue that a reasonable standard of return was being met - rare is the book that fully meets the instructions!

Corrections and notes most common are:

  • queries as to the birthplace - where the county is not uncommonly questioned

  • totals - its remarkable how often they incorrectly tallied a count of the number of males and females with a maximum of 25 names on the page.

  • Ecclesiastical districts - it seems almost irrelevant to us today but great store seems to have been placed in ensuring that each address was identified correctly as to the ecclesiastical district it was in.  As 1871 was in the middle of a time of great expansion in the number of parishes in Berkshire the adjustments are quite messy in a few books.

A second examination was carried out by the Superintendent Registrar, though a more cursory check can be guessed at here.

The Statisticians

The whole point of the census is to gather information to help make decisions as to the governance of the people, to get the information into a useable form on which to base decision making some analysis was required.  This was done by folk who I have called Statisticians all armed with coloured pencils.  These chaps are the bane of the transcriber's life, they make marks all over the book to check off someone already counted, to jot down a sub-total, or to question an entry (usually geographically). These marks are in coloured pencils in order to leave it plain to see which are their marks and which the enumerators. Sadly we work from black and white images where a blue or red pencil mark obscures a black figure just as well as a black one would. 


At some point in this process the returns were organised into distinct County groups.  And a number of Enumeration Books were gathered into "Pieces". Unused leaves of the books were discarded.  

Where a Registration Sub-District covered parishes from two counties the Enumeration Books were gathered into County groupings and the "foreign" entries - those not from the County of the town on which the District was centred - where placed first in the Piece, the remainder following. So, for instance, if Enumeration District 5 was in Wiltshire and EDs 1-4 and 6 were in Berks (the home county of the District town), then the Piece would comprise of ED5 followed by EDs 1-4 and 6 in that order.

Where an individual ED contains entries from two Counties they are separated - by tearing out the leaves containing the minority County.  If necessary (where a leaf contains entries from both Counties) some entries were copied onto a blank page to ensure that a complete record of each County was preserved.  Torn out leaves were then added to a nearby Enumeration Book for an ED in the appropriate County, or just placed at the front of the Piece.

Pieces were numbered from 1 starting in London.  By the time the count gets to Berkshire in 1871 it has reached 1247 so this is the number allocated to the first Berkshire Piece (Newbury : Thatcham, EDs 1 to 6). The final Berkshire Piece is 1256 (Windsor : Windsor).  


The Shorter Oxford Dictionary failed me completely when I consulted it as to the definition of folio as it happily gave definitions that cover both the possible options! So a Folio is either a leaf of the Enumerators Book, or it is the two pages that can be viewed side by side in the open Enumerator's Book. I have favoured the latter definition - but others are close to persuading me to change to the leaf definition. Unfortunately I can point at examples that have adopted either approach! I will attempt to get a clear definition from the PRO and follow their guidance in referencing the Berkshire 1871 data.  

Each Folio has been numbered by stamping an index number at the top right hand corner of all odd-numbered pages (the right hand page when viewed as an open book). Occasionally pages have not been stamped, in these cases handwritten number, often of the form 123a, have been added.

One should always remember when one searches a film to check the pages on either side of the stamped page identifying the folio, that way you avoid any confusion!

Census References

When you need to identify the position of an entry in the Census the PRO Reference begins with RG10 (1861 is RG9, 1881 RG11).  Then comes the Piece number - so RG11/1247 is the Piece noted above. Then comes the folio number.  A really helpful reference (like a census index from Berks FHS) will also include the Page Number and Schedule Number.

Faults, Errors, Mistakes and Inaccuracies

We are all tempted at some time to believe an index, its so much easier than having to check the original!  But anyone deciding to take a census index or transcript at face value is in great danger of fooling themselves.

The process from Householder to Transcript is so prone to error that inaccuracies are inevitable, no matter how much care and effort is put into the transcription process.  Indeed I sometimes question the value of multiple checking of transcripts.  A single check to ensure that nothing is missed and to remove typos is vital but, the number of inaccuracies removed drops off with every stage of checking, such that months can be spent to very little effect. Indeed the interpretation of the handwriting may even mean that inaccuracies are introduced during the checking stages.

The first place that inaccuracy could arise was the Householder Schedule, spelling was personal in those days, especially of birthplaces that one left as a child. And then there was the quality of handwriting! Remember that many could still not write, education for all had only been introduced quite recently.  It may well be that the 10 year old son (or the lad next door) was the only one who could write - so he could well fill in the form - and geography was not commonly taught in those days!

The Enumerator then had to take this form, interpret it and enter the information into the Enumeration Book, these books are transcriptions of the Householder Schedules. I wonder how often an enumerator would modify the County of birth (because he knew better) or modified the spelling of a name to "make it right".  Remember he was mandated to "correct" inaccuracies!

Then the statisticians make marks all over the pages while extracting the data that the census was designed to provide. Finally they get dumped in some cellar for a few decades before anyone realised they were really worth keeping.  However, once they realise the wealth of information available in these records they become too valuable to allow the thousands wishing to consult them to have direct access.  So they film the lot, in black and white, with very inconsistent results.

Then along come the modern day transcribers who struggle at times to read an over exposed image in poor handwriting covered with corrections and tally marks.  Everyone does their best - but errors do arise!  

Then the checkers get involved - when they disagree with the enumerator one of them may well be correct, but which one?  Its then up to the validator to make a judgment of which is the best interpretation of the entry.

Advice to Researchers

There are a few points the researcher should consider when making use of an index or transcription:

  1. Assume it's wrong - ALWAYS CHECK THE FILM

  2. If your ancestor is missing - be creative with your searches, consider how his name could be misheard, misspelled, badly handwritten, smudged, obscured and then misread. All of these could happen to a single name!

  3. Mistrust initial letters - capital letters can be virtually interchangeable in some examples of handwriting.  S and L are perhaps the best example but many others are almost as bad.

  4. Don't assume that a household is the complete family. Of course children of working age may well have left home to find work but a child may often be found at a nearby addresses, where he or she may be boarding with a neighbour who has a bit of space to spare. Similarly an infant may be found nearby as a Nurse-child.  Perhaps mum was too ill from the birth to cope with the newborn.

  5. Do not place too much trust in ages, male ages in particular were a favourite for the statisticians obscuring pencil.

  6. Beware of place names - many a hamlet can be moved by a well meaning enumerator making assumptions - I wonder how many of those born in the little hamlet of Bagshot, Berks. have been shown as Surrey born! Geography was not a subject taught to many of the enumerators, even local places can be misspelled.  Many migrated from the Hampshire village of Ecchinswell, a few miles south of Newbury, to Berkshire towns and villages.  Rare indeed is the enumerator who spells it correctly (Itchingwell is my favourite).

See progress on the Berkshire 1871 Index & Transcription project

© Phil Wood 2002

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© Phil Wood, 2002

updated 28th August 2002
last edited 21st August 2002