E is for… Enumeration (The Census) #AtoZChallenge

I wrote yesterday of the basic building blocks of family history, birth, marriage and death certificates and today – allowing a little poetic license to fit the A-Z theme – I want to give a brief explanation of another important, and increasingly useful, resource – the census.

If you’re in the UK, you might remember taking the census in 2011. It is a legal requirement to do so, as the Government uses the data, collected every ten years, to get an accurate picture of the state of the population and, to some extent, to determine allocation of resources. The 2011 could, potentially, be the last census in its current form, as it is a huge and expensive undertaking and with the current technology available it may be preferential to collect the same data in different ways – maybe good for making a saving, but a bit of a worry for future family historians!

Formal census taking in the UK began in 1801, but until 1831 this was mainly a statistical report, or a headcount with little or no personal information. This first census of use to family historians is the 1841 census, but even this contains a small amount of detail. After this point, census records exist for each decade, apart from a 1941 census, as it was suspended due to the war.

The census that I am going to provide examples of is the 1911 census, which was released for public use in 2009. Any further censuses are covered under a ‘100 year’ rule established by the 1920 census act, meaning that they have to remain closed for 100 years. The next release will therefore be the 1921 census, released in 2021 – I dread thinking about how old I’ll be then!!

So, the 1911 census. This page shows my Great Grandmother, Florence Clarke:


The 1911 census was the first in which the householder filled out their own return, meaning that when you view a census entry, you could be seeing the actual handwriting and signature of your relative. Aside from this, it also asks a lot of questions about how they are living, the size of their home and any disabilities that they may have. It also asks for the first time for detailed information about a marriage and resultant children, which you will see from the second image, may reveal some very sad details.

The entry above then shows Florence Clarke as a domestic servant to Alice Truby (Trewby – I’m finding the handwriting hard!), a woman of independent means. You can also see that they are boarding at an address in Westbourne and both women are single. In itself, it’s not a very illuminating find, but it does confirm a trail I was following for Florence Clarke, as I was attempting to confirm that she was born in Dorset and her birthplace of Sturminster Newton confirms that she’s the correct relative!

You can also see that the final column of this entry is redacted. This column shows infirmity and illness and has been removed to protect anybody featured on this census who might potentially still be alive today. This is an interesting column in itself even without the information, as it clearly shows the differing attitudes to mental health and disability, using words like ‘imbecile’ and ‘lunatic’ as perfectly acceptable terms.

The final image I’d like to show you is the return for Jesse Stratton and family, my 2x Great Grandfather.


As I said before, 1911 was the first census to include information about children resulting from a marriage and, until I had this census entry I had no idea that one of Elizabeth and Jesse Stratton’s children had died (column 9). I spoke to my Nan about this too as she had no idea that her father had had another sibling who had died and, using this information, I was able to seek out the birth of Elizabeth Stratton and find that she had died in infancy. A sad end to my use of this census entry, but in a way I’m glad that this baby girl who had been forgotten within the family has been discovered again.


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6 Responses to E is for… Enumeration (The Census) #AtoZChallenge

  1. Fortunately for us in the US it is every 72 years. We’re able to look as far as the 1940 census. I know a lot of older folks who get a kick out of seeing themselves on it. Loads of get info for us historians too!

    • Stacey says:

      That does seem better, yes. I can see where privacy might be a concern, but having the 1931 census would help me out quite a bit right now!!

  2. Click says:

    I find it really interesting to look from one census to another and see how people’s lives have changed.

    I remember looking at one for (I think) my 3x great grandmother and seeing the children who were listed as ‘scholar’ suddenly become carpenters and labourers just at the click of a button!

    • Stacey says:

      Yeah I like it when that happens – most of my relatives are agricultural labourers, so not much change decade to decade!!

  3. Ohhh that is so neat! I remember when I was a census worker up here in AK for the last one, it was frightening to go to some of those scary hill dwellers! I had to take on the militia in the hills one afternoon and had an armed escort! THIS is a MUCH better view of a census, the history! (#atozchallenge visitor)

    • Stacey says:

      Thank goodness you didn’t meet Hannibal Lecter, I heard what he did to a census taker ;0) Thanks for stopping by…

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