What is a census?
A census is a count of the inhabitants of a country. Details are recorded for every member of the population, including their age, sex and occupation. In the UK a census is usually taken every 10 years, though since 1861 the census for Scotland has been taken separately to that for England and Wales.
Why take a census?
The census is an essential tool in the administration of a country. The details collected are used to track such factors as population growth and movement (which have implications for matters such as food supply and the armed forces) so that governments can plan and correctly allocate resources.
The census taken in 1801 is regarded as the first national census. This census was no more than a basic headcount, and recorded no names. With each subsequent census the information collection became more sophisticated, with more information noted and a more detailed breakdown of the information, which allowed it to be interpreted in a specific way - which is invaluable to the family historian.
To find out more about the information contained in the 1911 census, see The 1911 Census
What can a family historian learn from the census?
Governments use the census to study society as a whole, but for the family historian the census is an invaluable snapshot into the lives of their ancestors. Used individually, each census can tell us what a person‘s occupation was, where they lived, who they were married to and how many children they had, while successive censuses can be used to track the fortunes of an individual across the decades.
The census can also be used to learn about the area that a person lived in. By looking at the enumerators’ summary pages, you can learn about the standard of living in an area (from the number of rooms in each house, the occupations of the people living in the street, whether the households had servants) and get an idea of what daily life must have been like for your ancestors.
The 1911 census is especially useful for family historians because of the additional information it contains compared to previous censuses and because of the way this information is presented and categorised.
How is information collected?
- Since 1841, information collection has been the responsibility of the General Register Office (GRO). The country is divided into districts and sub-districts, which are based on those used to register information for births, deaths and marriages. Each sub-district is then divided into enumeration districts in which an enumerator is appointed to visit and collect information from every household.
- Forms are distributed with instructions to be completed on a specified date (usually a Sunday) and then collected. Enumerators also helped fill in the forms if no one in the household was literate, and corrected any mistakes.
- Enumerators then copied the information into books, which were sent to the census office in London, where they were used to generate statistical information on the country.
When you view a transcript, you will see that a long sequence of letters and numbers appears underneath the name. This is the Census Reference and is, in effect, a very complicated page number that identifies the location of the paper record at The National Archives.
An example Census Reference:
Before the records were digitised, this number was the only way of finding the original paper document within the millions that are stored in the repositories at The National Archives. For the purposes of searching on the internet, this reference is no longer necessary. But it should still be cited when you compile your family tree, and in case you want to compare records with someone else, and be sure that you have the same person and household.
Key to references
RG78 RG refers to the series of records that were the responsibility of the Registrar General (which also covers Births, Marriages and Deaths), and 78 is the code given to the enumerators’ summary books.
RG14 14 is the number that identifies the records as household schedules
PN Stands for Piece Number, which is an individual volume of records
RD Is the Registration District
SD Is the Registration Sub District
ED Is the Enumeration District
SN Is the Schedule Number within the Household Schedules (RG14)
The census documents online