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A Date Guide to English Genealogy

Part III

This third and final installment of A Date Guide to English Genealogy examines the time period from the 1840s to the present. This covers census records, school records, hospital records and other records that are useful in tracing your English ancestry.

A Date Guide to English Genealogy Part I covers the introduction and English genealogy records to the end of the 1600s.

A Date Guide to English Genealogy Part II covers the period from 1700 to 1837, which is the beginning of civil registration of birth, marriage and death records.


1841 (7 June) – This was the first national census to provide personal information.

What You Need to Know:

• Census returns are organized by location. Therefore, to find your ancestors in the census you need to know where they lived. To narrow the search down, it helps to know the registration district. Fortunately, the registration districts (and sub-districts) used in the census are the same ones used on civil registration certificates. Therefore, a simple approach to locating your ancestors on census returns is to consult a birth, marriage or death certificate of your ancestor from around the time of the census. These certificates list the registration district, which you can then use for searching for your ancestors on census returns.

• The following information was collected in this census: name, age (usually rounded down to the nearest five years), sex, occupation and parish. Unfortunately, the 1841 census did not list place of birth, but it does list whether the person is living in their county of birth (note: county of birth, not country of birth). Often this column lists NK for not known as many people were not sure exactly where they were born. For anyone born outside of England, it identifies if they were born in Scotland (S), Ireland (I) of foreign parts (F).

• Enumerators were only allowed to list one forename for every person in the house. Therefore, do not assume the name you see for an ancestor on a census is their full name. You are not likely to be able to find someone by their middle name. As well, many people on the census gave their everyday name or nickname instead of the name listed in parish records or birth records.

• Anyone not home on the night of the census was not supposed to be enumerated. In practise, this often meant that not all family members were enumerated. It did not necessarily mean the person had died or emigrated. For example, soldiers, sailors and anyone who travelled, or worked at night, would not be counted in the census.

bargemen operating a barge
Bargemen such as these may have been away on the night of the census.

• Also do not assume that a census lists every child of a household. Boys often left home to work as farm servants and girls often left to work nearby as domestic servants. By the mid- 1800s it is estimated that one in eight women worked as domestic servants.

• A family member may have been institutionalized in a prison, hospital, boarding school or workhouse. One estimate suggests that about 3% of the population of England and Wales was not at home in the 1841 census because they were institutionalized, with about 1/2 of institutionalized people in workhouses.

• Be aware that people often exaggerated or outright lied about their occupation to enhance their social standing (something that incidentally still goes on today).

• The relationship of each person to the head of the household was not listed in the 1841 census. Thus, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between family members, servants and other people who lived at the same address. In particular, do not assume that a man and woman with the same surname are husband and wife. They could have been brother and sister.

• The listed age of any adult over the age of 15 was usually rounded down to the nearest multiple of five. Thus, a person who was 29 at the time of the census would be shown on the census as being 25. Given a discrepancy between the age listed on the 1841 census and the age listed on a baptism record, the baptism record is more likely to be correct.

• For children under the age of 15, the exact age was normally listed.

• Be particularly careful when looking up census returns in rural areas. Specific addresses were not in general use in 1800s rural England. Thus, it can be easy to overlook your ancestors if you are trying to find them by a specific address. Instead, consider scanning all the census entries in a region when looking for your rural ancestors. This is not as challenging as it sounds since a rural census for a given region is not likely to contain much more than a thousand names.

• Also be aware that Victorian cities grew very rapidly during the time of the 1841-1861 censuses. Streets often changed their name, two houses could have the same number and long streets might fall in more than one enumeration district.

• It is possible than an enumerator can miss households or even an entire street. Grosvenor Square in London was apparently missed in the 1851 census. Another possibility is that the record was never microfilmed. It has been estimated that perhaps 1 page in 1,000 was missed this way in the 1841 to 1861 censuses.

• The 1841 census was taken on 6 June. This was the beginning of the summer season and many people were on holidays. Thus, they would not be listed at their home address. To compound the problem, 6 June 1841 was a Sunday night and many people in early June would have been visiting friends and family and thus would also not be listed at their normal home address. This is a surprisingly common reason why people cannot find their ancestors in the 1841 census.

• There was a widespread belief in many households that young infants who had not been baptized should not be listed on census returns. As well, some households deliberately did not list their youngest children to avoid accusations of overcrowding by local authorities. Statisticians in the UK estimate even as late as the 1911 English census that roughly 6 percent of children were not listed on census returns.

• The website Vision of Britain provides an excellent list of occupations from the 1841 census. You can tell the popularity of certain occupations by consulting this list. It can also help you decipher old trade names (most people know what a blacksmith does, but do you know what an anchorsmith does?). As well, there were some common abbreviations listed in the census for some occupations. Some of the most common were FS for female servant, MS for male servant, Dom for domestic servant, App for apprentice, Ag. Lab for agricultural labourer, FWK for framework knitter, Ind for independent means and J for journeyman. [Vision of Britain]

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