What is a Census?

by JoHarrington

When exploring your family tree, censuses can act like a fast-track through the 19th century. Understanding them is vital for your genealogy.

A census is a government survey, which aims to keep track of the individuals who make up their nation's population.

Typically, a census is held every ten years. It will record the names of everyone present in the country on one specific night. It will also determine where they were and from where they came.

Additional information might include a person's age, occupation and relationship to the head of the house/establishment. There could be questions regarding health, religion or education.

Example of a British Census from 1841

Example of an 1841 British Census
Example of an 1841 British Census
Jo Harrington

What is the Purpose of a Census?

Governments use the survey to inform their planning. 100 years later, it's a primary source for historians and those researching their family tree.

Every census serves as a snapshot of the country at that moment in time. For the government which orders it, the data is mostly important as general statistics.

Politicians and civil servants are far more interested in patterns and trends, rather than the nitty-gritty of what is happening in any particular home.

For example, the census may demonstrate that a higher percentage of people are living longer. This might prompt changes to the pension provision, or would tell those running for office to focus on election promises that benefit the elderly.  Or the data could show that a significant number of people have, say, Polish as their first language. This would result in an option to read future documents in Polish.

By updating the figures, the National Statistics Office will be able to predict population growth in the future, and what kind of individuals will be around. That allows long-term projects and planning to be enacted in the right places.

Those working in the civil services would also be finding a wealth of vital information drawn from censuses.  For example, say there's an unduly high proportion of deaf babies congregated in a certain area.  An environmental health officer would be dispatched to investigate if there was a reason behind this.

Academics could also request current statistics in order to inform their research. For example, those in the social sciences might be looking at the shifting demographics of the population, in comparison to earlier censuses. That might help predict which towns are booming or set to boom, thus alerting the government about where to direct utilities funding.

In theory, the census is taken in order to make life better for everyone in the country. It focuses high-level planning and legislation to better fit the reality on the ground.

Books about Population and Demographics

Buy these studies to learn about the concepts and issues, which make us want to know how many people are in the world.

Wikipedia: The Census

A census is the procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of a given population. It is a regularly occurring and official count of a particular population. The term is used mostly in connection with ...

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The Value of a Census for your Family Tree

An official once visited your ancestors and asked all of the questions that you need for your family history. Hurrah!

While officials and academics are worrying about the overall picture, genealogists want a glimpse right into the living rooms of our ancestor's homes. 

The actual census forms are kept under lock and key for 100 years. This is all part of personal privacy. Once a century has passed, it is assumed that those mentioned within have passed away.

We start our family history research by sitting down with relatives and asking them about their lives. This is precisely what we would like to do with our deceased great-grandparents too. Until physicists finally invent a time machine for our use, the next best thing is to send a representative to speak to them in the past. The census clerk is just that person.

Once a decade, a clerk visited the people on our family tree and, after taking a note of their address, asked them their names, ages, marital status, what they did for a living and where they were born. Different censuses required more information, so a simple one line entry has grown into the veritable booklets of today, but those fundamental questions have remained as standard.

Reading between the lines, there is a wealth of data there, which can provide an even bigger insight. For example, if the census taker is struggling with spelling a name, in an age of common illiteracy, then you can almost hear your ancestor's accent in the telling.

In order to demonstrate how much can be gleaned from the census records, we'll look at the story of an ordinary couple in 19th century Frome, in Somerset, Great Britain.

Census Records by Constance Potter

This lecture is given by an archivist from the US National Archives. Dates and laws aside, the information she provides is good for censuses across the globe.

Resources for the United States Census

Buy these indexes to help you trace your family tree in the USA.

Case Study: Eliza Pike in Victorian Britain

The census can give us 10 year glimpses into real lives. Let's follow one ordinary mother through the second half of the 19th century.

On Christmas Day 1853, Eliza Davies walked down the aisle with Elisha Pike. She was just 20 years old and ready to start her new life as a Victorian wife. 

There was nothing particularly special about this couple. Neither of them became famous nor did they change the world. They were just two working class people, in Frome, Somerset, who existed and then died.

Of course, no life is that bland. We can gain an idea of how married life worked out for them by following their progress through the 19th century census.

The first that was taken, during their marriage, was on April 7th 1861.

Eliza Pike's Family, Frome, 1861
Eliza Pike's Family, Frome, 1861
1861 British Census

Photo: Frome Union WorkhouseThe couple have been together for nearly eight and a half years, but things have obviously gone wrong. The first indication is the address. Eliza Pike is in the Union Workhouse and Elisha has disappeared.

As a genealogist, my first note is to look for Elisha Pike to see why he isn't with his family. I did find him.  On March 19th 1861, he'd been up against the judge at the Taunton Assizes, charged with 'larceny by servant'. He'd been found guilty and sentenced to four months imprisonment. On the bright side, the court noted that he wasn't whipped.

This was probably no consolation to his wife. She'd lost her own job, as her occupation in the 1861 census was given as 'formerly a servant'. Had she been fired because of Elisha's thieving? The record doesn't say.

With no income in their home, Eliza had been forced to suffer the degradation of taking her four young children into the workhouse. This was the greatest dread of her class, in Victorian England, so she must have been in a desperate situation to do that.

Moreover, she must have been exhausted. She was not surrounded by her family and friends, but she had given birth just ten weeks before. We can tell by the age given beside her baby Sarah A's entry into the census.

In addition, Eliza was coping with her other children - Charles aged six, Emily J aged three and little Alice aged two. They would surely have been upset and terrified about their Daddy going missing, their home lost and their entrance into the workhouse.

Elisha and Eliza Pike's Family, Frome, 1871
Elisha and Eliza Pike's Family, Frome, 1871
1871 British Census

We next catch up with the Pike family on the night of April 2nd 1871, when the census clerk came knocking on the door of 131 Broad Street, Frome.

Things are much better now. For a start, Elisha isn't in prison and none of the family are in the workhouse.

Elisha is working as a wheelwright, which must be paying well. They are occupying a whole house, unlike many of their time, who rented just one or two rooms in which to raise their entire family. 

His income is supplemented by the fact that two of their children are now working too. Charles, who is now a strapping seventeen year old, is out in the fields as an agricultural laborer. His sister, Emily Jane, has also left school.  She's found work as a wool picker.

There's some discrepancy here in both of their ages. Ten years previously, they were 6 and 3 respectively. They're now 17 and 15. Either Eliza is no good at remembering numbers, or she found some reason to lie to either the census clerk in 1861 or his successor in 1871.

Double-checking with birth registers, we find that the 'error' was in the previous census. Herein lies those little hidden gems, which give insight into the mentality and intelligence of those long dead ancestors.

Eliza Pike lied about her eldest children's ages in 1861, but she was in the workhouse at the time. There was method here. Children under the age of two were automatically left with their mothers. She didn't have to worry about Alice and Sarah Ann, because they were so young. Hence their ages scale correctly in this census.

Children under the age of seven could only remain with their mothers by the grace of the warden. Emily Jane was five, which placed her smack in the middle of this two to seven years age range. Her mother knocked a couple of years off her daughter's age, possibly to sway his decision.

Charles was seven. There is no way he shouldn't have been separated into a ward for boys aged 7-14. They would have received some schooling, but they would also have been worked hard in actual labor. In some cases, children were sold as indentured workers to large factories or farms. If that occurred, then their parents could not recover them, even if their own circumstances changed.

By telling the warden that Charles was only six, Eliza bought time.  She knew that Elisha would be out of prison in four months and that would possibly signal her own release from the workhouse. She just had to keep her family together long enough for that to happen.

This is all pure conjecture, but a little knowledge of the Victorian workhouse and its rules, linked with census information, suddenly shows us the caliber of Eliza Pike's mind. It worked too! Because she did get to take all of her children home again, as the 1871 census proves.

The data also prompts us to assume that Elisha was forgiven for the whole larceny incident. Two more children have been born to the couple during the past ten years. Fanny Maria is six years old and her toddler brother, Walter, is just one.

Eliza Pike's Family, Frome, 1881
Eliza Pike's Family, Frome, 1881
1881 British Census

It's now April 3rd 1881. The Pike family have moved house during the past decade. They're now much further up the hill, living at 21 The Mint, in Frome.

Elisha has widened his wheelwright trade into carpentry. The family appear to be doing alright. Once again, they're occupying a whole house. But all might not be as it  seems.

The first clue is that Eliza is working again. She's a housekeeper, though it doesn't state where. It's unlikely to be her own home, as it was just taken for granted that a wife and mother looked after her house. Her occupation would have been left blank. Therefore, we can deduce that she's back to the employment of her early marriage. She's a glorified servant.

The second clue is in their address.  While 'The Mint' might sound grand, no money had been pressed there since the 17th century. All around them, houses are lying empty. They have no immediate neighbors at number 20.

A flick through Michael McGarvie's The Book of Frome tells us that this area was viewed as the poor part of the town during this period. The roads were ankle deep in mud from the passage of trade carts. Many of its residents were starving and emigrating to Canada in the hope of a better life. Some of them at the expense of the state.

Elisha and Eliza were keeping their heads above water, but only just and only with both of them working.

All of their older children have married and moved out. Sarah Ann, whom we first met as a ten week old baby, is now the eldest child there. She's twenty now, the same age as her mother was when she married her father. Sarah Ann is more independent. She's bringing in income as a silk-worker.

Walter is growing up too. He's still at school though, along with his little brother Frederic.

Eliza Pike's Family, Frome, 1891
Eliza Pike's Family, Frome, 1891
1891 British Census

For the last 19th century census, we have to skip ten years to April 5th 1891.

The first thing that strikes us is that Elisha has gone missing again.  But before we resignedly search the Taunton Assizes court records again, look at Eliza's marital status. He's died, leaving her to tell the census clerk that she's a widow.

Nevertheless, the family seem to be coping well enough. Now nearly 60, Eliza is no longer working. She has her three youngest children still at home, all adults, all working. Sarah Ann never married. She's a silk factory weaver, which signals a slight promotion from her earlier 'silk worker'. Walter is a mason's laborer, while Frederic became a carter. He'd probably be delivering the silk and construction materials that his siblings were using in their jobs!

The whole family have moved house to another street with half of the houses unoccupied. But 10 Paul Street is in a better area of town. It's easy to spot that by looking at the employment of everyone else along the road. There are shopkeepers, school mistresses and someone living off her own means (enough money in the bank not to have to work).

We will leave the Pikes there, at the brink of the 20th century, with their story laid bare in those decade snapshots from the censuses.

Books on Writing Your Family History

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Have you ever followed a single family through a series of censuses?

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Where to Search Censuses On-line

US Census - Ancestry.com
American genealogists should be getting excited. The 1940 census will be available in less than two months time.

UK Census
The 1911 census became available last year. We won't see another until 2021, when we'll get the 1921.

This is the UK census only, transcribed by volunteers.

Closing Remarks About the Census

Remember to check the historical context before you trust any government survey.

Photo: SuffragettesWhenever any authority figure attempts to collect personal information, there will be omissions. Last year, in Britain, over 7 million people burned their census form rather than hand it in. It was in protest at the collection contract for it being awarded to a mass arms dealer. They preferred to incur the £1000 fine for not completing it.

In 2111, their descendants will finally get access to the data and wonder where their great-grandparents went.

Censuses have often been used in activism.  The 1911 census came out last year full of unusual entries. In some households, the whole section simply reads, 'only women here'.

It was the Suffragists protesting their lack of visibility in Parliament. As far as they were concerned, if the government didn't want their vote, then they couldn't have their data.

In 2101, a whole new genealogist generation is going to find themselves researching 'Jedi' as an early 21st century religion. An internet campaign caused hundreds of thousands of people to put that as their denomination, in the mistaken belief that it would force their governments to designate Jedi as a real religion. Unfortunately, even politicians have watched Star Wars.

Whenever you read a census, it's always best to check the historical context for it being taken. It will help make sense of the information that your ancestor felt safe in imparting.

The Jedi census phenomenon is a grassroots movement that was initiated in 2001 for residents of a number of English-speaking countries, urging them to record their religion as "Jedi" or "Jedi Knight" on the national census. It is ...

Books about Censuses and What they can Teach Us

Discover a world of statistics and real life human insights.

Other Wizzley Articles in my Genealogy Series

These pages are designed to guide you every step of the way through researching your own family history.
The International Genealogical Index is a great, free resource for exploring your family history. LDS records go back to the 16th century.
Thousands of websites exist to help you trace your family history on-line. Soon your family tree will be bursting with new leaves.
A century ago the majority of people could not read or write. Your surname changed often, as clerks wrote phonetically what they thought they heard.
You don't have to be a professional to begin adding leaves to your family tree. You begin very close to home.
Updated: 05/04/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 07/15/2012

On behalf of genealogists everywhere, I say, 'Yes! You should!'

Thank you for reading and commenting.

Paul on 07/15/2012

I'll bear all this information in mind when the next one comes around!

JoHarrington on 02/04/2012

Hi Ember - Yes, they come out every ten years in the USA as well.

For orphans, there's a bit of a head-start, insofar as they are likely to have retained both their birth name and birth certificate. It's going to be slightly harder, but not impossible, to get back 100 years.

For adopted people, who didn't keep their birth details, then there are more steps to take. I can only speak for Britain here, but at 18 years old, an adopted person can apply to receive their original birth certificate and access to any related court documents. These are kept for 75-100 years, depending up on the authority.

However, that's only the case for people born after 1975. Before that, it might still be so, but it's more hit and miss. This is because there were a wide range of societies arranging adoptions, which each had their own internal policies.

Ember on 02/03/2012

I filled out my first census a year or two ago (so I assume since they happen every ten years, that my parents filled out a couple for me already.)

Anyways, today while I was at work I was thinking about your articles on genealogy and I was wondering about someone who was orphaned, or essentially raised in various homes being shuffled about in the foster care system. I know for the most part the majority of those cases would still likely have their actual last name, even if they didn't know where they were born or their parents names. I know each would be different and unique, especially with available information, in those circumstances but would those cases be extremely different in working out genealogy from what you've been outlining here and in your other articles?

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