Counting the population, 1811-1831

Since 1841 the decennial census has been an increasingly invaluable resource for genealogists and family historians, providing us with a ten-yearly check-in on our ancestors that we can compare with parish registers, civil BMD certificates, and other documents recording events in their lives. 

But did you know that the census did not begin in 1841?  There were four earlier censuses, in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831. 

There had been calls for a better knowledge and understanding of the state of the population since the middle of the 17th century.  How many people were there?  How many paupers?  How many men were available to fight, and what would be the impact on their communities if they were required to do so?  These, and other important questions were behind the call, and it was felt increasingly that existing parish records were not up to the job. However, it was not until the turn of the 19th century that the issue finally found its way to the statute book.  The Population Act of 1800 provided for ‘an enumeration’ of the population on 10 March 1801, or as soon as possible thereafter, with two objectives:

  1. to ascertain the number of persons, families and houses and a broad indication of the occupations in which the people were engaged;
  2. to gather information to provide a better understanding of whether the population was increasing or decreasing.

Information relating to the first objective was to be collected by the Overseers of the Poor or ‘other Substantial Householders’, via house to house enquiry.  The second objective was to be addressed by selective scrutiny of parish registers during the previous hundred years, and was to be carried out by the Clergy in England and Wales, and by the Schoolmaster ‘or other fit person or persons’ in Scotland.

This pattern of specific Act of Parliament followed by a census the next year occurred every decade up to and including the 1910 Act / 1911 census.  (The Census Act of 1920 provided for future enumerations as well as for that due to be taken in 1921.)  As with the censuses since 1841, the questions asked were amended in 1811, 1821 and 1831.  You can read the exact questions asked, together with more about the history of the earlier censuses at the Vision of Britain website

Sadly for us as genealogists and family historians, what distinguishes these early censuses from those since 1841, is that they were simply enumerations of the population: there was no requirement to record names.  Of course the information recorded was and remains of use to various professionals including planners, population analysts and historians, and we can access digitised images of the original reports via online search at histpop: online historical and population reports.  An abstract for Leeds Town for the 1801 enumeration, for example, shows that the East division, where I know some of my ancestors lived at that time, had 1,156 inhabited houses, occupied by a total of 1,339 families.  58 additional houses were uninhabited.  I also see that in this division there were 2,387 males and 2,737 females, and I can see the breakdown of occupations of these people.  Similar information is available for 1811, 1821 and 1831 – and of course for every other parish in the country.

If by now you’re thinking this is all very nice, but you would far prefer to see records with the names of your ancestors and to learn a little more about them specifically and their lives… you may be in luck.

When the overseers, schoolmasters, clergy or other fit and substantial persons carried out their enquiries, they did of course make their own records. Generally this would have included a list of actual named householders, together with the required information for that household. They were, as we know, not required to submit this information; rather they extracted the numerical data from it. Having done that they may have destroyed their original paperwork. On the other hand, they may have retained it, often amongst the papers in the parish chest.

In fact quite a few name-rich lists from the early censuses are known to have survived and more come to light from time to time. As they do, their existence and whereabouts are recorded by a team at the University of Essex Department of History, who have published a booklet listing their findings: Census schedules and listings, 1801-1831: an introduction and guide, available online [here]. Documents are listed by county, alphabetically, and within that by parish. Known locations of the documents are included. They may, for example, be at the local record office; copies may be at the main library; and local history or family history societies may have transcribed them. The authors at Essex University acknowledge that theirs is a work in progress, so it’s possible that there may still be more to be found amongst parish records and papers at your local Record Office.

To return to my Leeds Town example, notes have been found for almost the whole township for 1801, and these do include the East division. I haven’t yet been able to view it, but it will certainly add another piece to the developing jigsaw puzzle of known information about my ancestors in this area.

I hope you find something of interest about your parishes too.

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