Making the most of the 1911 census

The 1911 census records the whereabouts of all persons on the night of 2nd April of that year.  It’s currently the most recent census available to us. although this will change within the next couple of years when the 1921 census is published.  (We do also have the 1939 Register, and that’s very useful but it’s not actually classed as a census.)

The really special thing about the 1911 census is that for the first time, what we see is the original household form, as completed by our ancestor.  For previous censuses these original forms were destroyed; all we see is an official’s listing of information as extracted from the originals.  So in 1911 we see our ancestors’ handwriting, and although some of their entries may have been struck through by the enumerator, we can still see what they intended to write.  Sometimes this is very enlightening.  See, for example, these five census forms returned by suffragists.  Sometimes it’s fun and quite sweet, such as these entries about household petsOther times our ancestors simply made a mistake, but somehow this still tells us something important about their lives.  (See several examples below.)

What information was collected?

As with the previous census (1901) the following information is requested:

  • Address
  • Name of each household member
  • Relationship to head of household (or ‘Head’)
  • Their age (recorded in the male or the female column)
  • Marital status
  • Occupation, and whether employed or self-employed
  • Place of birth (see note below)
  • Any infirmities.  (As with 1901, the categories of deaf and dumb; blind; lunatic; inbecile/feeble minded are offered – definitely not terminology acceptable to us today, and often probably a  poor description of the facts.  In an earlier census my 3G grandfather, formerly a tailor and innkeeper, was described as an imbecile.  I wonder if he had had a stroke.)

In addition, new for 1911:
Married women are asked:

  • how many years the marriage has lasted
  • how many children of that marriage were born alive; how many are still alive and how many have since died.

How does this help us?
This can be very enlightening.
My GG grandmother, although widowed for 19 years, responded to the question ‘How long has this marriage lasted’.  Her response led me to their marriage in Leeds and not, as I had previously assumed it would be, in Ireland.  This, in turn, placed their migrations to England to within the difficult years following the Potato Blight. and suggested they were probably not from the same town in Ireland.  In other examples, this response can help us to narrow down the year if there is more than one potential marriage for this couple. 

Regarding children, we must remember that children who are born and die between any two censuses will never appear on a census.  Therefore when we know the names, birthyears and birthplaces of all children who do make it on to a census we can check the General Register Office index and baptism records to see if the couple had any other children.  This new question about numbers of live births and subsequent deaths can therefore be used as a reference to ensure we find the right number of children using these other record sets.  However, in my research I’ve noticed at least two women who, despite exhaustive searches, state they gave birth to more children than records indicate.  I’ve come to the conclusion that these women may have included stillborn babies – and this tells us something about them, after all.  A fully grown baby who didn’t survive the birth is still a fully grown baby for the mother, perhaps with a name, even if only in her private thoughts.

Employment:

  • In addition to a statement of occupation of ‘all persons aged ten years and upwards’, information is now requested regarding the industry or service with which the employment is connected.
  • You will also see numbers written in blue, red or green ink alongside the occupation and industry entries.  These are occupation codes and industry codes, added by an official.  FindMyPast published a list of occupation codes as used in this census.  There is also a more in-depth list at histpop, which includes the industry codes.

How does this help us?
The first point to make is that of course the use of this information/ these codes was never intended to help us as descendants!  As with every census, the motivation is always to enable the government to plan for a changing population and society.  In this case, at this time of great change in industry and technology, the government needed to understand which industries were growing and which were in decline.

Having said that, if you’re having trouble reading or understanding an occupation or industry, checking the code might help.  The named industry may also provide a little extra information about the specific nature of the work your ancestor did.  For example, I can see that my great grandfather was a cooper (765) working for a brewer (938).  This differs from his employment in 1930 when I can place him as a cooper but working for a firm whose business was manufacture and supply of barrels.

This is another of those questions where people often provided more information than was needed.  It wouldn’t help the government in this instance to know your ancestor worked at Harding’s Mill… but it helps us!

Place of birth:

  • Place of birth has been included on the census since 1851.  However, now we also have birthplace codes.  You’ll find a list here.

How does this help us?
Again, we can imagine that recording of birthplace and comparison of this against current residence would have helped the government to understand migration patterns, particularly in light of the growth of major industrial towns and cities.  Again, the code may help if the handwritten entry is difficult to read.  In any case, birthplace is an issue worth approaching with the aid of a map (and a flexible approach to spelling).  Someone I’ve recently been researching has birthplaces variously described as Conethorp, Cowthorpe, Coneythorpe, Ouseburn, York and Hopperton.  They are all correct, except York.  In the 1911 census he is simply given the code 030, which stands for Yorkshire – East, North and West Ridings and seems to be a catch-all for any place too small to have its own code.

Birthplace too, has potential for over-provision of information.  My great grandmother gives the actual street address for each family member’s birth (but not necessarily the town!).  However she got her husband’s place of birth wildly wrong, locating him at a precise street in Leeds.  In fact he was born in Cheshire.

Nationality:

  • A statement of nationality is required for each person born in a foreign country
  • Again, there are codes.  They are listed at the bottom of the birthplace codes.

How does this help us?
The inclusion of nationality is a great bonus for us.  Right up to the 1901 census the birthplace of a person not born in the UK was simply recorded as a country, or even in earlier censuses as ‘Foreign parts’.  Now, countries, provinces and counties may be recorded.  The inclusion of my GG grandmother’s birthplace as Mayo and with the code 642 – Mayo Resident, was the only information I had leading me to her birth record.

Number of rooms in dwelling:

  • The householder is asked to provide number of rooms, including kitchen but excluding non-habitable spaces such as bathroom, scullery, closet, etc.

How does this help us?
It provides additional insight into the standard of living of our ancestors.  Again, I have my great grandmother’s attention to detail to thank for the information that their home consisted of 2 bedrooms, 1 ‘house’ and a coal place.  (This was crossed out by the enumerator and replaced with the number 3.)

British Army Personnel:

  • For the first time, the 1911 census includes British Army personnel stationed overseas.

How does this help us?
The census return gives a broad location.  For example, I can see my Granddad with a full listing of his batallion, but the location given is only ‘Egypt, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Sudan’.  Thanks to his Christmas card dated 1910 I can place him at Cairo.  But more than this, I have a list of all the people my Granddad lived with as his ‘family’ of sorts for many years.

Any other little clues?
Have a good look at all the information provided by your ancestor.  What can you deduce by reading between the lines? Here’s a couple of my finds:

  • My great grandmother (not the one mentioned above) was eleven years older than her second husband, but she reduced the difference by adding six years to his age.  She also assigned herself as head of household (and I suspect that in reality, this was probably the case) but this was changed by the enumerator.
  • My Irish GG grandmother’s census form was completed in two hands.  One is plainly the enumerator’s, who looked it over, made additions and signed to witness her mark.  But the rest is completed in a less flowery hand, probably her oldest son who, now widowed, was living with her.  Clearly, then, my GG grandmother was illiterate (- at least in English.  I wonder if her first language was Gaelic.)

Why not go back to the 1911 census for each of your ancestors living at that time and see if there is just a little more information you can wring out of it? 🙂

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