A census story – 1 – introduction

This blog is the first in an occasional series looking at the census. This time we take a brief look at the history of the census. In the future we’ll look at how the census was organised ‘on-the-ground’ in Brimington. Amongst other topics we’ll also relate how there appears to have been a bit of a ‘turf war’ over just which parish the cottage on the canal wharf at Newbridge Lane fell into.

2021’s census is the latest in a long-line of similar surveys.

Hopefully most people found that filling-in the 2021 census was relatively straight-forward. The data used will help inform service provision and other important issues. But in 100 years years time, when the personal data in the census is released, it should become an important tool for local and family historians, just as the past census is today.

Most people who have researched family histories will have spent some time searching for family members in the UK census summaries that are available on genealogy websites. Local historians will often have done the same for people who were living at any time between 1841 and 1911, the first and last years for which personal details are present in the published data.

The most popular of the genealogy websites is Ancestry, which is free to use in Derbyshire libraries. Some researchers also take out personal subscriptions so that their research can be carried out from the convenience of home. An alternative website that also holds UK census data is FindMyPast – also free to use in Derbyshire libraries.

The United Kingdom census has been carried out every ten years starting in 1841, except for 1941 when no census was taken because of the second world war. The 1939 Register taken on 29 September 1939 is a good substitute for the 1941 census and it is already available.

Censuses are released for public access after 100 years, making the 1911 census the most recent one to have been made available. It’s anticipated that the 1921 census will be released online in January 1922. For England and Wales, this will be the last census to be released for a further 30 years, as the England and Wales 1931 census was completely lost in 1942 in a fire in Hayes, Middlesex, where it was being stored.

For further information on how the census was taken The National Archives has produced a useful guide. But, briefly, in every census year an enumerator delivered a form to each household in the country for them to be completed by the heads of household. Everyone who slept in that dwelling on census night (always a Sunday) had to be recorded. A few days later the enumerator would collect the completed forms (known as schedules).

From 1841 to 1901 the information from the schedules was then copied into enumeration books. Once the enumeration books had been completed, most household schedules were destroyed, although there are some rare survivals. It is the enumeration books that we consult today online or on microfilm.

In 1911 all the household schedules were kept, for the first time, and were not copied into enumeration books.

Today the majority of households will have entered their information on-line. It remains to be seen how that information will be presented in a hundred years’ time, when the personal details are released. Not that we will be about to see!

Future blogs will look at how the census was organised ‘on-the-ground’ in Brimington and will relate how there appears to have been a bit of a ‘turf war’ over just which parish the cottage on the canal wharf at Newbridge Lane fell into. Was it in Brimington or Whittington and who should ensure the data was collected correctly?

(This series of blogs on the census will form a much longer illustrated article in the 2022 Brimington and Tapton Miscellany 14, by Paul Freeman.)

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