Five census clues to help you avoid getting into a tangle


01 September 2022
Discover crucial clues from the 1881 UK Census that will help you avoid going down the wrong track with your research and getting into a muddle.

When it comes to exploring what life was like for your ancestor, the census is unparalleled in the information it can provide, giving you a snapshot of life every ten years.

However, it’s easy to get into a muddle as the information you see on the census form isn’t always as clear-cut as it might look. Read on to discover the 

1. Name and surname

Forenames are sometime abbreviated and middle names are only infrequently recorded. Middle initials are quite commonly used. Occasionally, the surname and forename(s) are reversed and in the case of institutions (particularly mental asylums) it’s not uncommon to find just initials recorded.

Content continues after advertisements

2. Relation to head of household

In the heavily patriarchal world of 19th century Britain, it’s perhaps not surprising that relationships are given to the ‘Head’ of the household. This was usually the oldest adult male, although older parents are often shown as the father or mother of the ‘Head’ and widows often retain their ‘Head’ status after their husband’s death, even with an adult son in the house. Watch out for the terms ‘Son-’ and ‘Daughter-in-Law’ which were frequently used where today we would say ‘Stepson’ or ‘Stepdaughter’. Also, don’t ignore the possibility that children who are described as the son or daughter of the male ‘Head’ may actually be the children of the mother from a previous relationship.

3. Rank/occupation

By the time of the 1881 Census, the various census officials had got the process of categorising our ancestors’ occupations down to a fine art. The occupations given by the householder would have been standardised to a degree by the enumerator but it’s the work of the clerks at the census office that has the biggest impact on what we see in the summary books. As they attempted to categorise each occupation they underlined certain words or added additional details to clarify the category.

When it came to some of the more obscure occupations they referred to their guide, known as the ‘Instructions to the Clerks’ and entered the relevant code. These codes (usually two numbers) appear most often in the 1891 and 1901 Censuses but can crop up from 1861 onwards. All of this activity can make it quite difficult to read what’s been written here.

4. That left hand column…

This column records the number of the census schedule given to, and completed by, the householder. It is NOT the house number.

5. Address

The detail recorded here can vary from just the name of the village or hamlet to a precise address, complete with the house number. House numbers became more important following the introduction of the ‘Uniform Penny Post’ in 1840 but we need to be careful as, particularly in the mid-19th century, house numbers were often subject to change.

The house that appears as 35 High Street in 1851 isn’t necessarily the same as the house recorded as 35 High Street 10 years later. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the family historian here is that we often find either a partial address recorded or no address at all and we need to go back a page or two to find the missing details.

Explore lots more family history clues every issue of Family Tree magazine.

These clues were part of David Annal’s Family Tree Academy challenge in the June 2020 issue of Family Tree magazine.

Originally published May 2020. Reviewed September 2022.