What You Need to Know:
• Illegitimate children often had no father listed on birth certificates. However, the 1844 amendment to the Poor Law legislation allowed the mother to apply for maintenance payments from the father of such children. Thus, if there is no father listed on a birth certificate, always check Poor Law records to see if the mother made an application for child support payments. These applications are known as affiliation orders. Initially, the applications had to be made within one year of the birth of the child, but this was later increased to within three years of the birth of the child.
• Foundlings were newborns that were abandoned and often left at a safe location, such as a church. The mother and father were unknown. Foundlings are listed in birth registers after the letter Z. Tip: foundlings were sometimes given a Christian name plus a surname that was sometimes named after the day of the week that they were found.
What You Need to Know:
• In addition to listing the names of all persons in the household, age, sex, marital status, occupation and the location of the house, the 1851 census listed the relationship of everyone to the head of the household. For the first time, it is possible to distinguish between husband, wife, son, daughter, aunts, uncles, servants and visitors.
• It is important to recognize that in 1851 the government had no way to cross verify the information given to them in a census. People would usually tell the truth, but they would also make things up if they genuinely did not know or if they had a reason to lie. This is very important to remember when you are cross checking census information against other sources of information, such as vital records. In general, birth certificates are the most accurate sources of information because they gave people the least amount of scope to lie or fudge the truth.
• It can be difficult to trace ancestors who lived in large cities such as London because street names changed often and people moved frequently.
• The 1851 census was the first census to list the place of birth. However, for anyone born before 1837 (when the government started birth certificates), many people genuinely did not know how old they were or where they were born. Often, they guessed at their age and gave their birthplace as the first place they could remember. As well, even for people who did know where they were born often listed the largest town or city near their birthplace instead of the actual hamlet of their birth.
• A study of English census records suggests that approximately 10% of census returns list an age that is incorrect by more than 1 year. Some parents (particularly in rural areas) exaggerated the age of male children because they had told the farmer who employed their son that he was older so that he could earn a larger wage. In general, though, adults under the age of 30 usually gave the correct age. People over the age of 30 are more likely to underreport their age, with women being five times more likely to do so than men. Older women who were married to younger men tended to be the worst offenders in understating their real age. This trend changes at the age of 50, when people tend to overstate their age. As people get older, this tendency to overstate their age increases. Oddly enough, studies have shown that when people misstate their age, they usually give their age as an even number, not an odd number.
• Illegitimate children of the daughter in a household were often attributed as children of the grandparents in a census to hide the fact it was their daughter’s child.
• Occupations listed as ‘scholar’ for children usually meant they were attending school.
• In addition to a national census, an ecclesiastical census and an educational census were also conducted in 1851.