The Census from
household return to modern transcription
© Phil Wood 2002
(to join in send me an email -)
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
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.
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
"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
"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!
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 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.
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:
as to the birthplace - where the county is not uncommonly questioned
- 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.
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
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!
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:
it's wrong - ALWAYS CHECK THE FILM
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!
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.
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.
not place too much trust in ages, male ages in particular were a
favourite for the statisticians obscuring pencil.
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