The Census for Historical Research

Stephanie Brown, a second year student of History and Medieval Studies, writes about the extent to which censuses are of use in historical research.

Forbes magazine cited the Family History industry as being worth two billion dollars and predict it will increase to three billion by 2018. Consequently, companies such as Ancestry and FindMyPast are frantically digitizing primary source records, both from local and national archives, and many other places you may not usually have access to or be aware of. These websites are aimed at the genealogy market for financial reasons but they should not be overlooked by historians. There are thousands of scanned primary sources from churches, courts, schools, prisons, immigration, the Home Office and the military.

Hence, we should not neglect the census as it is of great use to historians. The census was founded in 1801 largely as a means to assess manpower for the Napoleonic Wars. Until 1831 the census remained purely statistical, used mainly as a headcount. The early censuses will be of use to many historians, but for a social historian the census really becomes useful from 1841, as this is the transition from statistical to personal information. Subsequent censuses were utilised for each household, as well as in prisons, workhouses and hospitals.

From the 1851 and 1861 censuses a historian can find basic information such as the name, age, address, marital status, occupation and birthplace of an individual. It was even included whether said person was blind, deaf or dumb and in 1871 and 1881 it was noted if the person was considered as an ‘imbecile, idiot or lunatic’. The provided information became increasingly personal and detailed as time progressed. For instance, from 1891 one can learn the number of rooms the family inhabited and the 1911 census gives details of women’s ‘fertility in marriage,’ including the length of the marriage and the number of children born. In Ireland the language each person spoke was recorded, which is now also the case in Scotland and Wales.

The 1911 Census of England and Wales

The 1911 Census of England and Wales

As with any source, the census is not perfect. Firstly, we immediately face an issue with coverage. Depending on your research, the census started in 1801 or 1841 and although it has lasted until the present day, there is a one hundred year lock on it. Therefore the latest census currently available is 1911. Additionally, despite these being official documents, there are errors either through assumptions, mistakes or purposefully given false information. It can also be very difficult to trace people, for instance women, even with the extent of information that is provided. This can be due to the change of women’s surnames after marriage and how the Women’s Freedom League boycotted the 1911 census while campaigning for female suffrage. Men are also proven hard to find if they travelled for work, often lodging with another family, or during wartime.

Despite these issues, the census is still a valuable source. I am currently using the census to research the men who were executed at Swansea prison. It has allowed me to gain an insight into their social backgrounds which is not present in other documentation. Therefore, the census is a window into the lives of people who may have otherwise escaped history.


Written by Stephanie Brown